Doğan Kuban

‘Ottoman Architecture', a new book by architect and art historian Doğan Kuban, fills another important gap.

He has crammed a raft of books, studies and articles, written in various languages on topics in architecture and art history, into a fifty-year professional career. Every work he has produced has won the acclaim and attracted the attention of both the experts and of laymen simply interested in the subject. His books are indispensable reference works for students. He is one of a handful of authorities in Turkey on the subject of art history and restoration. An urban and cultural historian. We visited Doğan Kuban in his home on the occasion of the publication of his new book by YEM Yayınları, and asked him some questions.

You’ve been publishing books on architecture and art history for years. At the same time you are an expert on restoration. How did you get interested in architecture?
I got interested in architecture after I became an architect. In fact I wanted to be an engineer. During my student years, Istanbul Technical University was Turkey’s most famous school and the only one you had to take an exam to enter. At the time I decided to go there, Emin Onat, the architect of Ataturk’s Mausoleum in Ankara and later rector of the university, asked me what I wanted to be. “A naval architect and marine engineer”, I replied. “How will you do that?” he asked. “They don’t build ships in Turkey.” “What shall I be then?” I asked. “Be an architect”, he said. And so I did.

You were trained as an architect, but you’ve specialized more in the history of art and architecture. What is it that impelled you to write the history of old buildings rather than building new ones?
I was interested in history from an early age and was always reading history and philosophy books. One day I told Emin Onat that I wanted to be a university assistant in the history of architecture. Around that time a professor from Italy came to the school: Paulo Verzone. I became his assistant since I spoke French.
I became an architect but I preferred to be an historian of it. I needed to be something other than an architect, so I became an historian. I carried out restorations, I taught, I entered competitions and won prizes; I never gave up architecture but it was more of a hobby for me.

You’ve worked on Renaissance architecture in Italy, taught Islamic art at the University of Michigan, and studied the Byzantine architecture of Anatolia in Washington, D.C. Anatolian Turkish architecture is another specialty of yours. How have you combined these different areas of expertise?
To understand the ‘dome', you  have to look at all the domes built all over the world. You have to examine the ways in which they are alike and the ways in which they are different. You have to know the Renaissance, and the Byzantine period. You have to look at the Islamic tradition and understand very well what was done and why. That is why I chose all my life to specialize in the comparative history of art and architecture.

Your new book, ‘Ottoman Architecture', was published recently. Can you tell us something about the scope of this book and why it is important?
The importance of this study lies in the fact that it is a written account of our cultural history, which up to now has never been written in all its detail. Architecture constitutes the Ottoman Empire’s most significant area of creativity. It’s an extremely interesting phenomenon to boot. Because the ‘chief’ –the sultan or bey – needs a palace. He is compelled to build a palace under all conditions. But he builds not Versailles but the Topkapı Palace, and, when conditions change, the Dolmabahçe. If a dwelling is needed he builds a caravanserai, for education a medrese, and so on. Architecture is always compelled to follow the organization of society. An empire that lasts hundreds of years develops its own architects and architecture and forges its own culture. This book takes up Ottoman history in terms of its buildings. Up to now many books and articles have been written on Ottoman political history and the organization of the Ottoman state. Quite frankly however I can say I was indignant that no comprehensive history of Ottoman art had ever been written. I had always felt a gap in this area but kept putting it off. ‘Ottoman Architecture’ is the product of a much more comprehensive and meticulous study. A work in which the visual materials are particularly noteworthy.

What significance does Ottoman architecture have in terms of the world as a whole?
Ottoman architecture is a very crisp, geometric, and structural architecture. That is what distinguishes it from all the other Islamic buildings in the Islamic world. And from the domed buildings of Europe. It isn’t like any of them. When you place Michelangelo’s Saint Peter’s and Mimar Sinan’s Selimiye Mosque side by side, you see that both have a single dome but that otherwise they are quite different both in their dimensions and in their design. The Ottomans created a unique style of their own. A unique world view, cultural outlook and concept of space, and a style that tends towards the ornate. Wherever you see an Ottoman building, you can immediately recognize it.

A lot of students use your works as references. What would you advise them?
The world does not consist only of Turkey. There isn’t just Turkish history. Any history written without reference to the rest of the world, without comparison, is of no benefit to scholarship. They should come out of their shells and open up to the world.