Three years ago I went on a family cultural trip to Lahore (a city in my hometown- Pakistan). We mostly made the journey to interview an artist I had to meet for a school project. A student of A’ Level Art, I had a great time- visiting museums, art galleries, old forts and castles. My sister on the other hand could not understand the purpose of making the effort to wander around these ancient preserves. I remember giving her the over-used reasoning of how it reflects the traditions of a bygone era, but she was not convinced. My sister is stubborn :’)
I remembered this incident once again this summer when I ended up exploring Istanbul on my own. I went to almost all the places recommended on every travel blog, however having no one to make conversation with, I was forced to wonder why I and the hundred other people around me, were there in front of these buildings taking endless pictures and claiming it the most beautiful structure they had come across. How many of us truly found them beautiful and how many said they were, simply because it’s what you are supposed to say when you visit such touristic sites, is something worth debating. At this point I will take the risk of being pretentious and make a sweeping statement that most of the people present in these places including myself, have a very vague idea about their context and amongst many other reasons are however mostly there to take pictures to post on social media. It is indeed the trendy thing to do now days. Being too much of a coward and unnecessarily self-conscious to take selfies on my own, I was forced to find another activity to do as I strolled through ancient buildings, streets and structures. After all how long can one gaze, not knowing WHAT exactly at and WHY exactly they are gazing. Hence I made the extra effort to read the descriptions displayed throughout these touristic spots and tried to understand why I paid for a 5$ ticket to be there. Though time consuming this burdensome task does indeed put things into a better perspective. As a prospective architect it makes one question and ponder over the decisions that were made the very many years ago, when the building was first established. One stops blindly claiming it aesthetically pleasing and start thinking about what it is that makes it attractive to the eye. One also pushes to think about what a designer would do differently to enhance its spatial and visual quality. At the same time one also empathizes with the actual creator because they try to apprehend the reasons why she/he chose to do something a certain way, when today one would probably rarely make such decisions.
Istanbul as many of us are already familiar with, has a unique combination of the past and the present, which in some places blend harmoniously while in others stand out as two stark individuals. This fusion makes one wonder about the growth of a city as time elapses and new discoveries are made. As demands for new spaces and different functions arise, it becomes difficult to hold on to obsolete building and designing techniques. At the same time however there is the issue of preserving the individuality of the city, which comes best by conserving at least visually, the ancient style it was following before; basically repeating the often ornamented but always grand façade. One can witness something of this sort as one walks down Istiklal Caddesi where such façades envelope a building that house a shopping mall, restaurants, hotels etc. During Associated Eclecticism it was common to create for example a government building reminiscent of a Greek temple in order to put forward ideas such as integrity and purity that one would think about when remembering a temple. Hence perhaps this would help create similar views about the state and its government. However this justification becomes insufficient when we try to support the very many commercial/retail activities that are enclosed behind the four ‘ancient’ external walls along this street.
An individual who explains in a fascinating manner, the problem with this practice of replicating without reason is Howard Roark, a character from a must read book- THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand. If you haven’t already it is a fiction novel worth picking up. Roark stands alone but determined in an America where modernism is an alien concept and the common practice is to reproduce from the past anything that was once popular and successful. It makes one rethink the phrase form follows function not by prioritizing the aesthetic characteristics but by explaining how maybe a beautiful building is perhaps one that best allows the function it is meant to be performing. The Fountainhead has been an enjoyable companion for me as I explored Istanbul solo, pushing me to reconsider how I should perceive a historic building.
One should not have to justify taking photos and having a good time when site seeing. It is definitely not what I am challenging, instead I am simply questioning why we must go through the trouble of visiting these places and admire them blindly without consciously understanding their significance and background. Let’s recall the statement Marcel Duchamp made with his Fountain inquiring what makes art, ‘ART’. Is it the frame it is mounted on or is it the concept being proposed? Let us not become slaves to the conventional and strive to ponder about the ‘why’ of things. Let us not become Peter Keating- (you will know the reference once you read The Fountainhead.
A tip for those who find it difficult to read displayed content in touristic places quickly: It’s a good idea to photograph the text and skim through it later- a habit I recently started this summer and found very effective.
Stranizewski, Mary Anne, Believing is Seeing, Penguin Books, Print.
Rand, Ayn. The fountainhead . New York, Signet, 2016.