Sinan Genim

Known more for his architectural and restoration projects, Sinan Genim recently published an important book on Istanbul as well.

Sinan Genim is familiar to us as an architect who also writes about restoration and other architectural topics, and as the Chairman of the TAÇ Foundation, established to safeguard Turkey’s archaeological, natural and touristic monuments. Last year on his sixtieth birthday he was honored by his friends with a two-tome jubilee volume. Now he is in the news again with a magnificent new book: ‘From Konstantiniyye to Istanbul: Photographs of the Rumeli Shore of the Bosphorus from the Mid-XIXth to the Mid-XXth Century’. Published by the Suna-İnan Kıraç Foundation, this two-volume book is actually the first in a series. Consisting of the first-ever photographs of Istanbul, the series will continue, probably again in the two-volume format, with works on the Anatolian Shore of the Bosphorus, Istanbul Within the City Walls (the Old City), Outside the City Walls, and the Golden Horn. Not content with merely identifying the photographs, Sinan Genim has also written paragraph-length explanations for each one. I talked with Genim about his book and his childhood in Istanbul.
You have produced a magnificent book. How did it come about?
The Suna-Inan Kıraç Foundation has a large photograph collection. You’re already familiar with the albums published on Izmir and Bursa. When it came time for Istanbul, I asked to write the book. I contributed a few photographs to the collection that was put together by Mr. Ahmet Abut. I tried to ‘read’ the existing photographs with an architect’s eye. Everyone, whether historian, art historian or just a person interested in the subject, sees different things and makes different readings. Rather than saying you’re going to do something perfect and then doing nothing, I think it’s better to actually get things done. In the years ahead, of course, there will be new readings, new assessments. I regard this project as a fulfillment of my debt to Istanbul and I tried to do it with that in mind. If I have succeeded, then I am very happy.

When did you realize or conceive that the city you lived in was Istanbul?
I don't know to what extent it's possible to conceive such a city. I'm over sixty years old, and every day I continue to learn new things. Mehmed the Conqueror has an inscription at the entrance to the Fatih Mosque Foundation: “True art produces a magnificent city and fills people's hearts with happiness.” It was in this awareness that magnificent 16th century Istanbul was created and left the whole world in awe within a century. This is also the Istanbul that prompted Petrus Gyllius to say, “While other cities are mortal, this one will endure as long as there are men on Earth.” Most of us, for example, are familiar with Nedim's poem about Istanbul. But during my research for the series, I learned Latifi's 16th century lines: “Oh hodja, don't praise to us India, China, and Tartary / Goodness and nobility are right here, and they call it Istanbul.” In other words, there's no end to learning.

Where and when did your own Istanbul adventure begin?
I was born and grew up in Kuzguncuk. I have roots there going back centuries. Almost all my ancestors were born and grew up at Nakkaştepe and were buried there, without ever having left the place they were born in. In my childhood and youth, there would be a flurry about the house every now and then: We were going to go to the city! Either to Fatih or Aksaray where my aunts lived, or to Piyalepaşa where my paternal grandparents lived. But above all to the city! It was only fifteen, at most twenty, minutes by ferry from Kuzguncuk down to the Galata Bridge. But that was the city; where we lived was just a village.
The city was there, a little distant from us. But we observed it from the opposite shore of the Bosphorus. And the more I watched, the more
I fell in love with it. Oh, and when a person falls in love, he wants to know and understand what he loves. So I too tried to get to know, to understand, to ‘read’ Istanbul. I must have started doing that when I was seven or eight years old.

What have you done for Istanbul up to now? And what more are you thinking of doing?
A long time ago, from 1967 to 1969, I worked on the Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi Palaces. I was in charge of the restoration of the Küçüksu Pavilion. Then I entered the university as an assistant and contributed to some restorations at Topkapı Palace. I learned a lot during that time. My contributions to Istanbul have taken the form mainly of restorations. After the fire on Büyükada in the 1980s
I worked to make a new future for a lot of buildings whose names I have difficulty even recalling now, like the Anadolu Kulübü on the island, the Abdülmecid Efendi Pavilion at Bağlarbaşı, the Sadullah Paşa Yalı, and the Sevgi-Erdoğan Gönül and Hatçe-Faruk Süren homes. Some of the buildings I worked on more recently include the Pera Museum at Tepebaşı and the Istanbul Research Institute. Right now I’m trying to turn the old Galatasaray Post Office into a museum. But my greatest dream is to implement the project that I put together for revitalizing the Eminönü Fruit Market, which at one time suffered such severe destruction. Another current project of mine is to rebuild the Okçular Lodge at Okmeydanı.
All the while, whenever I have the chance I write articles, give lectures and speak on television about this magnificent city which we live in but which
we unfortunately take little notice of.

Turning back again to your book, what else is coming up in the series?
I’m working on some new sections these days. I’m busy writing up the Anatolian shore from Anadolufeneri to Haydarpaşa. This section is also going to be in two volumes. I’m thinking of including about 400 photographs as well. After that I plan to continue with photographs of Kadıköy-Pendik, the Islands, Beyoğlu and Istanbul inside the city walls. Time and my health permitting, of course.
There is still so much to be done. Rather than complaining or criticizing, if everybody who lives in this city just did his part, life would be a lot more vibrant and happy.

We are grateful to Sinan Genim and the Pera Museum for the photographs used here.