An Ottoman architect returns to Istanbul

The Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation Istanbul Research Institute is honoring the Ottoman architectural monuments of Italian architect Raimondo D’Aronco.

İstiklal Caddesi, the Cadde-i Kebir or Grande Rue de Pera... Back in the days when Beyoğlu was Pera, there was a gleaming apartment building that fashionably attired ladies passed by with great frequency. A Dutchman, Jean Botter, lived with his family in this apartment, built for him by Sultan Abdülhamid. Botter was a palace tailor and one of a handful of sought-after fashion designers of the day, who displayed in his lower floor boutique ‘haute couture’ creations inspired by the latest fashions of Paris and London. It was this that drew the fashion-conscious ladies and gentlemen of Istanbul to his establishment.
This intriguing building that graced the avenue with its wrought iron floral motifs exhibited an architectural style hitherto unseen. The stained glass windows and floral-patterned lamps on the interior and stone and curvaceous wrought iron flourishes on the facade made the Botter House the first example of art nouveau in the Ottoman capital, and Italian Raimondo Tomaroso D’Aronco an architect whose touch changed Istanbul.

The new social classes that emerged following the Industrial Revolution were after a different kind of aesthetic satisfaction. Eyes seeking something new at the 1878 World Exposition in Vienna turned to the flowery ornamentation and rectilinear arrangements of Japanese graphic art. This interest was the harbinger of a new architectural style to be known in America as ‘modern’, in Germany as ‘Jugendstil’ and in France as ‘art nouveau’. It was an era of large, imposing, highly ornate and costly buildings. The movement soon began to make its influence felt in the apartment buildings, summer houses, office buildings and mansions of Istanbul. D’Aronco, who came to the city around this time on a mission for the Italian government and stayed sixteen years, would become the chief architect both of the new movement and of the palace and, for a while at least, would leave his imprint on all the capital’s monuments. He himself puts it quite well in a letter to the Italian ambassador: “I was appointed general inspector of all the mosques and historic walls in the city and of the old pavilions in the palace.”
The Hagia Sophia, which dominated the city’s skyline but had been damaged in the great earthquake of 1894, the Grand Bazaar and the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque would all be restored in projects designed by the chief palace architect, and fountains, stately mansions and waterfront homes in which eastern motifs were integrated with western style would add a new aspect to the city’s appearance.

As I toured the exhibition of Raimondo D’Aronco’s Istanbul projects at the Suna and Inan Kıraç Foundation Istanbul Research Institute, it was impossible not to be transported back to the city of a hundred years ago. When I looked at the original drawings, sketches, watercolors and pencil studies made with the meticulousness of a painter, I recognized again the signature of the architect whose works continue to inspire awe even today. We find elements of eastern and western art blended in an approach unique to him in the Ottoman motifs and contours, for example, of the Ottoman School of Medicine at Haydarpaşa (now the Faculty of Law), the Ottoman Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Minerals on Sultanahmet Square, the New Tophane Fountain at the entrance to Maçka Park, and the Şeyh Zafir Mosque Complex in Beşiktaş.
Those seeking to discover how the chief palace architect resolved all these contradictions in perfect harmony will grasp this secret in his rich library. The original source that acquainted him with the architecture that preceded him was a book called ‘The New Story of an Istanbul Journey’, consisting of detailed engravings by Guillaume Joseph Grelot, which D’Aronco constantly carried with him when he first arrived in the city. His passion for books is obvious from these words: “When an architect is developing a new project, he is interested first of all in the floor plan; but when it’s a matter of a monumental project, he makes use of the full powers of observation granted him by nature and of everything he has learned either from books or from travel.” These words also express D’Aronco’s other source of inspiration and a fundamental element in his works: nature.

Notes kept by 18th and 19th travelers and texts on Islam and on Ottoman and Eastern art and architecture in his library held up a light to D’Aronco for the mosques he was appointed to restore. Before long he had assimilated all the interactive influences in the Istanbul skyline in which Ottoman followed Byzantine, which in turn followed Roman preceded by Greek. Without effacing in his new designs the traces of those earlier influences, indeed by reinterpreting and adding new forms to them, he was inspired by the Central European, Mediterranean, at times even Mughal Indian styles. What made D’Aronco a creator of masterpieces, and what makes this exhibition so priceless, is the language of local taste that he developed. For through modern interpretations that did not lose sight of the past he brought a new style of architecture to a society that was loth to break with its past. The Karaköy Masjid, which was lost in a single day in 1959, the Nazime Sultan Yalı at Kuruçeşme, which was razed in 1923, the Flora Han at Sirkeci, the Italian Embassy at Tarabya, and the Huber Mansion used as the Summer Residence of the President of Turkey are just a few of his masterworks. He used an undulating motif reflecting the waves on the Bosphorus in the twin gable windows of the Cemil Bey House at Kireçburnu and joined the Ottoman men’s and women’s quarters in the form of American-style cottages, combining two traditions in a single space. And a pavilion of his on the Bosphorus could be transformed into a miniature Italian palace.
As Diana Barillari, curator of the exhibition, says: “Istanbul was a wonderland that became D’Aronco’s primary and basic source of inspiration.” For D’Aronco approached Istanbul with the eye of an artist. The imagination of this chief architect, who designed the city like a sculpture and spent the most productive years of his life here, is on display at the Istanbul Research Institute until 15 November. You will find here in D’Aronco’s Istanbul projects both a compelling true story and the works that bear witness to that story.