AYRANCI SOKAK NO 16-18: REVIVING A TWIN-HOUSE IN AN INNER-CITY NEGLECTED AREA
Ayrancı Sokak is a lane running parallel with Istanbul University’s botanical garden. The houses in Ayrancı Sokak are overlooking what used to be the private gardens of Sheikh ul-Islam the head of the ulama or the educated class of Muslim legal scholars. This may explain why the houses in Ayrancı Sokak have such ostentatious façades although they are built on minute lots of land.
All six houses in the street are late Ottoman timber buildings, apart from one which has been replicated in concrete. On one of the bricks in the foundations the production year 1901 can be read. This gives a reliable indication of the approximate year of construction. In Istanbul, which used to be a wooden city, it is indeed rare to find such an assembly of authentic timber houses from late Ottoman times in one street.
One of the differences between the houses in Ayrancı Sokak and the historic houses on the Princes’ Islands is the shahnish Every house in Ayrancı Sokak has a bay which continues along the upper floor and leaves no room for a balcony on top. Perhaps the Muslim families would have considered it unseemly for the hanımlar to sport their legs through the banisters on a balcony.
Sequestering the womenfolk was also the prime aim for the wooden meshes (kafes) which were fit into the outer sash of the window frames in Ayrancı Sokak (on the islands window frames have two, not three sashes, and shutters).
As can still be seen, the twin-house in Ayrancı Sokak is rather crooked. The wooden members had begun to sag even before the construction period was over. The mouldings on the top floor ceilings do namely not follow the same deflected lines as do the joists. This means that the mouldings have been fit in after the green oak framing has started to subside. Additional weight and humidity as modern bathrooms have been installed on the rear jetty have probably caused the rear façade to deteriorate further.
There are usually traces of wood worm in the beech and the oak. However, no fresh frass (bore dust from woodworm) has been observed in Ayrancı Sokak and there is no reason to fear further damage by wood worm in these houses. The wood worm can enter hardwood when 'green' but seldom feeds on seasoned timber.
Like on the Princes’ Island these houses are clad with boards made of pine. There is no insulation inside the walls. On the interior side of the wall there is plaster on laths. Thin pine laths were either sawn before they were nailed onto the common studs or they were nailed on top, then the lath would be split by hand and pulled down an inch where they would be nailed again. This action would be repeated until the whole lath was nailed to the frame. This would make an uneven surface for the mortar to stick on as small nibs on the rear side of the laths would hold the plaster to the wall.
PERMISSION FROM THE ANTIQUARIAN AUTHORITIES: AN ONEROUS ORDEAL
Having been abandoned for years, the two buildings above were in an appalling state of repair, as were most of the surrounding houses, when I bought them in 2005. A comprehensive architectural survey was carried out shortly after the purchase and a local architect was engaged in order to obtain permission from the local conservation authorities for urgent repairs. The High Commission for Monuments (Anıtlar Yüksek Kurulu) was processing my application for fourteen months. Rain was pouring down through the broken roof tiles and the deterioration of the wood was already advanced. In addition there were bricks and debris from a partly collapsed firewall which made up excess load on the floor joists.
When I began clearing out the debris from the top floor I got to learn the meaning of civil disobedience in Turkey: three uniformed officials came from the municipality to halt the unauthorised work. They knew the permission had not come through yet.
During that winter, still waiting for my permission for restoration to come through, the upper floor of Ayrancı Sokak no. 18 collapsed and destroyed the ornamented ceiling underneath.
Frequent calls at the High Commission for Monuments did not bring the necessary results. In the end the file was transferred to another board without the much sought-after stamps and signatures needed to initiate actual works.
At that time, however, I was contacted by a professor from the Istanbul University who had bought Ayrancı Sokak no. 14 and wanted to restore that house. Turgay Kurultay, the professor, and his son Ali Kurultay, at the time still a student of architecture, informed me about a new municipal body entitled to issue permissions for simple repairs of listed buildings, the Conservation, Implementation and Control Bureau (Koruma, Uygulama ve Denetim Bürosu (KUDEB)). This was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration.
In the summer of 2007 my future neighbours got permission to restore Ayrancı Sokak no. 14. Permission for my own houses followed shortly. No bribe or fee was ever requested by the KUDEB. Their focus was clearly on what could be done to halt the deterioration and salvage this important part of Ottoman cultural heritage.
APPROVAL FROM UNESCO
The actual works on Ayrancı Sokak nos. 14, 16 and 18 were then commenced and carried out according to international conservation principles under the guidance of the cultural heritage expert, David Michelmore, who had experience in repairing similar buildings in Zeyrek.
Ali Kurultay, by then a graduated architect, inspired me with his in-depth knowledge of Istanbul and understanding of timber structures, but he also proved to be a much-needed diplomat for the various issues with authorities, craftsmen and neighbours which we encountered during the restoration works.
The architect Ahmet Demirel supplied the wood and his team of joiners carried out the structural repairs of Ayrancı Sokak 16-18 during the winter and spring 2007. Ahmet Demirel has later also been involved in the interior works as well and has made essential contribution to the implementation of the whole project.
Unlike most restoration projects in Istanbul, doors were always kept open during our work and a constant flow of visitors have followed the progress of the project. Groups of architects or academicians with or without their students, local and international, have also been guided through the houses and working methods have been exchanged.
Our prime concern has always been to keep the authenticity of the fabric and design of the original buildings. As such the project in Ayrancı Sokak differentiates from other projects in Istanbul where the owners sadly demolish their properties and build replicas of their buildings in steel or concrete.
Shortly after the Kurultays and I had obtained permission for the so-called ‘minimal repair’ and KUDEB saw that our project was feasible, they undertook the task to implement work on the front façades of the three remaining houses in the street. The result of our efforts can be seen in the 2009 report of the joint ICOMOS/UNESCO Expert Review Mission of the Historic Areas of Istanbul World Heritage Site where the restoration works in Ayrancı Sokak was commended:
The 2006 and 2008 missions both saw the in-situ conservation of existing historic structures as a priority and the Committee has expressed concern in successive sessions on the continuing demolition of historic timber houses in the core areas. The attitude of the authorities, professionals and the general public is demonstrating a real change with regard to the conservation of timber buildings, for which previously demolition and replacement by concrete structures with façades of replica design was previously seen as the only option. The mission was able to inspect Ayrancı Sokak in the Süleymaniye core area, where the KUDEB has augmented private initiatives for three houses, so that the façade of an entire street has now been conserved. The initial efforts since 1995 of ICOMOS Turkey and the Turkish Timber Association are therefore finally bearing fruit. (From pp. 48f)
THE SOCIAL ASPECT OF INTERVENING INTO A POOR NEIGHBOURHOOD
For the modern Istanbulite, neighbourhoods with such houses as in Ayrancı Sokak often represent poverty and social degradation. Migrants have left their villages in the south-east of Turkey, or lately from war-ridden areas of Syria, and have come to Istanbul in search for work and a better life. Many of them have found neither. Although they might not have the slightest awareness of the value of heritage, they have nonetheless played a crucial role in the conservation of historic houses: They have inhabited them, either as legal tenants or squatters, and thus they have contributed in preventing these neighbourhoods from being depopulated and the houses from falling down.
I do believe that modest gentrification in areas like the Süleymaniye will make the streets flourish, but I am also aware of the social responsibilities one has as ‘developer’ intruding into an area where people have their homes. Full scale expropriation and resettlement in areas designated for conservation would in most cases not work.
In Ayrancı Sokak one of the local residents, İzzettin Aydar, has been employed to take part in the restoration works and to provide security on site during the construction period. He has also been receiving social insurance (Bağkur) during this period. In addition to being a hard and skilled worker, İzzettin amca has proved to be our most versatile project collaborator with a humour and generosity which probably characterize the people of Diyarbakır.
When the external works in Ayrancı Sokak 16 and 18 were done there was no money left to continue the interior work. I had scrutinized the Internet for possible sponsors and I had got in touch with many institutions, but with no avail. The project, however, in order to be successful had to be finalised.
One day in the Princes’ Islands the young philosopher-carpenter Tomasz Segiet came to see me. Tomasz had set up a workshop in Warsaw (www.tomaszsegiet.pl) and introduced me to the concept of bespoke furniture. He took interest in the restoration works and offered to help me with what remained both on the island and in Ayrancı Sokak. He returned many times to Istanbul, alone or together with other skilled carpenters who had decided to indulge themselves in the fine art of woodwork.
During the autumn 2013 half of the twin-house in Ayrancı Sokak was finalised. The walls have been rendered with lime based mortar (Tyr. horasan) and white-washed with a product mixed on site. Paint for the wooden parts has also been mixed on site until the desired colours were obtained and the product was applied on the interior with carefully chosen natural products.
With the number of refugees from Syria in desperate need for help, my wife and I would like the twin-house in Ayrancı Sokak to be utilised for the benefit of refugees. It could become a place where young Arabic speaking people with poor material resources could attend educational programs or courses, perhaps focusing on the theme Ottoman architecture, a language that bound the area together for centuries before the creation of nationalism.
Eventually, the shahnish can become something wider than my own perspective and the historic twin-house in Ayrancı Sokak can continue to serve people from within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire.