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GENIUS LOCI: Turkish delights

Although architects obsess over individual buildings, all of us quietly concede that no one project makes a civic space. We understand that the spaces between and the accretion of small infill projects, additions, and activities make the urban community coalesce. However, buildings do play certain roles, as edifice or infrastructure. For me, an important aspect has long been how they talk to one another.

In Boston we have several interesting architectural conver­sations taking place. The gentlemanly John Hancock tower suavely stands at Copley, waiting while Trinity Church sits demurely at the table. Our somewhat overbearing and bureau­cratic Boston City Hall looms ponderously across Congress Street, attempting to intimidate the very democratic Faneuil Hall. Along the high spine, the Prudential Center and 111 Huntington politely tip their architectural hats to the Mother Church. Elsewhere across Back Bay, the flocks of smaller Victorian brownstones all speak with one another in the special language of siblings. That family is our city, and the conversation continues.

It’s always been something of a cliché for an architect to say he or she was inspired to the profession through a building, but it does happen. For me, it was high school in Turkey, after General Electric sent my family to live in Istanbul. My art instructor, on hearing about my interest in mathematics or physics, decided to introduce me to architecture. Special teachers sometimes take that extra step. He accompanied me on a visit to the dean at the Technical University. The dean in turn insisted I visit Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) and Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque), architectural masterpieces facing

What a conversation! For the architect who tends to the heroic, they provide two iconic structures, each the epitome of an architectural era. From a cultural perspective, they expose the complexities of great religions and of decorative styles. Through a political lens, they illustrate the clash of empires between Europe and Asia. These two have a lot to say.

Ayasofya started this very diverse dialogue. From its construction in 537, it was an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. After the Fourth Crusade in 1204, it became a Catholic cathedral for 57 years and then went back to being the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. With the Ottoman conquest by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453, it became a mosque. Originally, Roman Emperor Justinian I had this solid edifice designed by a Greek mathematician and a physicist (!), and for nearly a thousand years, it was the largest dome of any cathedral in the world.

Across the park, the elegant Sultan Ahmed Mosque joined the discourse 150 years after Ayasofya became a mosque. It is pure Ottoman and considered the last great mosque of the Classical period. It is unique in proudly displaying six minarets and enjoys its own landscaped internal courtyard; and its enormous interior volume is covered in rich blue Iznik tiles, giving the Blue Mosque its popular name.

However, the surprise that captured my teenage attention was Topkapi. Just behind the bold banter between these two religious giants is this sprawling palace, home for 400 years to captivating Ottoman sultans. Topkapi was established first, appearing well before the current more flamboyant and monumental buildings. Much of the 600-year Ottoman empire (from the mid-400s to the mid-1800s) was spent adding and aggregating to this complex.

Unlike my Western palace preconceptions, Topkapi was chaotic and full of the sense of life. I loved that it was such a mash-up of styles and impossible to see all of it together. Through the asymmet-rical courtyards, unrolling into the harem, hospital, mint, dormitories, counsel chambers, and all the everyday “stuff” needed for a population of nearly 4,000, Topkapi was a delight to explore. This sense of surprise and discovery turned out to be the very public conversation I wanted to get in on.

Illustration: Peter Kuttner.