The old saw that Istanbul is the bridge between Europe and Asia is technically true—the Bosporus Strait parts Istanbul into a European side and an Asian side—but doesn’t go far into explaining its uniquely Turkish nature. Ever since people began building in the area around 5,500 BC, it has been a place of constant tumult. With each new empire—it was the capital for the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans—palaces and churches were razed and rebuilt to honor the latest despot. Civilizations came and went. It was named and renamed.
So it makes sense that what exactly constitutes the Turkish nature is very much up for grabs. The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who saw that in order for Turkey to avoid being divided up by and parceled out to various European forces after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I, it had to become a modern nation. He abolished the caliphate, changed the script from Arabic to Latin, gave women greater rights, and helped write a democratic constitution. He moved the capital from old Stamboul, formerly Constantinople, to the central city of Ankara.
But modernization—or to put it slightly more pejoratively, Westernization—couldn’t be done by government mandate alone. The price for abandoning tradition was a loss of certain freedoms; to distance the new state from Islamic rule, Atatürk made it illegal for men to wear the fez and women to don head scarves. Those laws have since been relaxed, but the current political situation is an uneasy mix of military rule and democratic process.
Culturally, though, Istanbul benefits from the tension between tradition and modernity; it’s a lovely mess. As has been widely noted, the person with the most lasting impact on Istanbul may not be any sultan or ruler, but the 16th-century architect Sinan, who designed the approximately 100 mosques that define the skyline. Sinan is a hard act to follow—his designs are beautiful in their simplicity and elegant geometry—but not all modern architecture makes one long for the Ottomans. In the Levent district, malls have been constructed on a grand scale. Kanyon, the flashiest, does indeed seem like a canyon; its semicircular design makes the promenade around the shopping center, movie house, and apartment complex seem like a geological expedition. The Nisantasi district, famously described by longtime resident and Nobel Prize–winning author Orhan Pamuk, is filled with chic boutiques and Art Nouveau architecture. The Istanbul of Agatha Christie’s Orient Express-era writing, a European trade center of the city formerly called Pera and now named Beyoglu, has the highest concentrations of hipsters. They beeline for the cafés, bars, and music venues; at night, the streets jump with outdoor cafés and a mix of traditional fasil and pounding club music around every cobble-stoned corner.
To get perspective on today’s Istanbul, I spoke to Efe Buluc, 32, who is one-third of the To22 design team. He, along with the New York–based Mark Goetz and the London-based Todd Bracher, takes a philosophical approach. They have won notice with their clever designs—a martini glass, for instance, that uses the olive as a stopper. Born in Ankara, Buluc moved to the United States when he was 15 and was educated at Pratt Institute in New York; as a result, Buluc says that even after four years in the city, he can still feel "like a tourist in my own country." He chose to move back to Turkey because he wanted to work from somewhere besides an established (and, in his view, complacent) design spot such as Milan, and he wants to help raise the profile of his home country. We spent a few hours at the very pleasant House Café in his neighborhood of Nisantasi, drinking lemonade and discussing the limits and possibilities within the city of Istanbul.
What were some of your first impressions of Istanbul?
Initial impression? I thought it was old and chaotic. New York is chaotic too, but New York seems more like a place of work. Istanbul is more like a biblical city.
What do you think of the design scene?
Turkey is very influenced by the design in other countries, and I think that it hasn’t fully found its character....But I don’t think groundbreaking design has a country. I wouldn’t worry about making a design Turkish, or American or English or what have you. To me, it’s like math. Once you get it right, there’s only one way of doing it.
But do you ever get inspiration from the history in Istanbul?
The city is crawling with historical sites. I don’t look at the older stuff; I don’t like to live in the past.
But if you had to go...
Oh, of course, there are the things that one has to see. I have friends who visit and I take them around. There’s a train station in Haydarpasa that’s absolutely gorgeous. The mosques by Sinan have to be seen, as well as the Hagia Sophia. There’s a lot of power in that building, I mean maybe the pyramids in Egypt get close to it, but nothing else.
Where are the modern places you like?
Have you been to Kanyon, the shopping mall? It was designed by an American architect [John Simones], with a Turkish partner. That building shows the potential of modern architecture in Istanbul that doesn’t ruin the city. Some people seem to think Istanbul is precious, that you can’t make new things, but that’s not true. Something doesn’t have to have Turkish decoration to be Turkish. The city is changing its face; there’s no need to make things that look Turkish. The thing is, people don’t have a clear idea of what "looking Turkish" would look like. They can’t. Turkey combines cultures and religions—Istanbul is a huge melting pot, so much more so than New York. People outside Turkey don’t really know about it, and Turkey doesn’t advertise itself so well.
Who are your favorite Turkish designers?
Ayse Birsel, she’s an industrial designer. I like my dad, too. Seriously, he’s a great architect. Ragip Buluc.
Any based in Istanbul?
Hmmm...no... [Buluc smiles apologetically]. You know, Istanbul is very old, full of beauty and magic, but it creates problems. You can’t pull rabbits out of hats. It’s like, you couldn’t make a movie like Jaws here because that’s not about being Turkish, and things have to be about being Turkish, not just about a big shark. In L.A. or Australia, you can make whatever and become successful on those terms, but it’s different here. But that’s changing too. It’s interesting to have Kanyon in Istanbul. You can’t compare Sinan to Kanyon—Sinan worked on a fantastic human scale—but Kanyon is very important because young Westernized Turks such as myself need a place to go and feel that there’s a modern environment.
So where else do you like to go in Istanbul?
I like being at the seaside. There’s a nice area called Bebek that has a lot of green. You take a boat to go to the Princes’ Islands. It’s a rough ride, but it’s nice to get away from the hectic city. I like to go to the Asian side—that’s where the train station is. A lot of people put it down, and say that nothing really happens there—but it’s fun to take the boat; you can see Istanbul’s magical side.
Do you spend a lot of time in the Nisantasi neighborhood, where you work? Drive around? Take walks?
I don’t walk around so much. In New York, walking around gives [one] confidence and energy. In Istanbul, it’s exhausting.