Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 12, 2015
Esra Akcan Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey, and the Modern House Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. 408 pp.; 143 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (9780822353089)

Esra Akcan’s new book on architecture, housing, and the exchange of ideas between Germany and Turkey after the foundation in 1923 of the Turkish Republic is an important addition to the growing body of literature on modern architecture in the late Ottoman and early Turkish states. With the groundbreaking work of Zeynep Çelik followed by significant newer studies by Sibel Bozdoğan, among others, the analysis of Turkish architecture has taken a more prominent role in the literature on the modern Mediterranean cultural world. Scholars have shown how the built environment reveals the tensions between varied colonial or postcolonial interests and regional interactions. Using theories of translation, Akcan argues that the exchange of architects and ideas between the two countries does not fit into given categories of center/periphery, hybridity, appropriation, cross-cultural exchange, globalization, and more. Rather, “translation, as it is conceptualized in this book, takes place under any condition where there is a cultural flow from one place to another. It is the process of transformation during the act of transportation” (4). By putting the emphasis on these architectural transformations, Akcan successfully argues that one of the chestnuts of modernist studies—the housing estate or Siedlung of Weimar Germany—was fundamentally reinterpreted and repurposed in its translation in the Republic of Turkey. Akcan’s text is a satisfying revelation of this much understudied “cultural flow” involving a fascinating range of architects from both Germany and Turkey.

Akcan organizes her account thematically rather than chronologically. Given the differing political and social timelines of each state, this approach suits her study well. The German side is marked by the radical split between the Weimar Republic with its concomitant support of modernist housing by specific local governments and the rise of National Socialist Germany in 1933, a point when many Weimar-era architects were driven out of their jobs and/or into exile because they were Jewish, socialist, or associated too strongly with the earlier regime. In Turkey, the chronology is somewhat different. Mustafa Kemal—later called Atatürk─the leader of the struggle for independence and the first president of the Republic, came into power in 1923 with a thoroughly modernizing agenda, wanting to bring Turkey in line with the most advanced international technological and industrial knowledge as well as standards of living. His seemingly egalitarian vision was combined with thoroughly nationalist policies that also resulted in reactionary moves affecting the multiple minorities within the collapsed Ottoman Empire. Such a dynamic led, on the one hand, to an openness of architects and engineers to radical developments internationally and, on the other, to an assertion of a new and essential Turkishness in cultural and other spheres. Hence, the first decades of Kemal’s regime saw a surprising number of young Turkish architects studying in the major architectural schools in Germany and returning to institutionalize these results—transformed—in their practice and in their positions as professors in the reorganized Turkish schools. This process went well beyond the 1930s into the postwar years of housing development. In the midst of this, a surge in the presence of German architects (some exiles, some not) working in Turkey—including Clemens Holzmeister, Martin Wagner, Paul Bonatz and, most famously, Bruno Taut—meant that any discussion of modern or modernist housing was an exciting but highly debated and somewhat chaotic affair. Akcan wants to emphasize the instability of static definitions of “modern,” “Western,” “German,” “Turkish,” etc., in her compelling accounts of these debates within the Turkish Republic. In addition, the clash between the different political chronologies of Germany and Turkey also emphasizes Akcan’s critical point in challenging the Western European-American parameters of what constitutes modern architectural history.

Akcan opens the book with a theoretical discussion and justification of her use of the concept of translation. From here she moves to chapters that analyze the various innovations in housing in Turkey, including examples that are both public and private, large-scale apartment blocks and single mansions, vernacular and architect-designed. Following the introduction, her longest chapter rests on a discussion of “modernism from above,” essentially the importation of German architects and ideas to give the new state an immediate modern identity. Two German-speaking personalities are prominent here: Hermann Jansen, co-winner of the 1909 competition for a Berlin master plan as well as a professor at the Technical University in Berlin and editor of the important journal Baumeister; and Holzmeister, a professor at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts. The former was responsible for the Garden City-influenced plan for the new capital, Ankara, while the latter received multiple state institutional commissions, including the design of Atatürk’s own official residence. Clearly, there was a much deeper alignment of the new regime and its interest in German innovations than most art historians have previously assumed.

If chapter 1 centers on capital identity in Ankara, chapter 2 focuses on the world seemingly left behind in Istanbul. Here Akcan concentrates on the “melancholy” of architectural critics and others concerning the old Turkish house, an apparently accepted vernacular type that, to these writers, was threatened by the emphasis on modernity emanating from Ankara. Akcan has a fascinating analysis in particular of Sedad Eldem, who did more than anyone in documenting and promoting these houses. Eldem was from a wealthy Ottoman family, and spent much of his youth in Europe because his father was a representative of the state. He went to Gymnasium in Munich, for example. Intriguingly, Akcan reveals how Eldem experimented with the typologies of the vernacular Turkish house and tried to reconcile these forms with Erich Mendelsohn and his emphasis on horizontality. Eldem’s “appropriating translations” (140) are particularly well explicated in Akcan’s analysis of the Ağaoğlu House (Istanbul, 1936). Such analyses unequivocally show that these buildings are not mere regional variations but need to be understood as part and parcel of a broader and more complex art-historical picture.

The remainder of the book further complicates the usual geographically narrow understanding of German modernism and housing as well as addresses previous dismissals of non-Western European or American developments. Chapter 3 focuses on big housing estates both in Germany and those produced by German and Turkish architects in the Republic. Chapter 4 discusses resistance to the transformation of architecture in the new nation and its wholesale acceptance of German exemplars by emphasizing the “convictions about untranslatability” (216) held by Turkish architects. Chapter 5 is both a theoretical and historical analysis of what Akcan calls a cosmopolitan ethics of architecture, a position that resists the top-down approach of colonialism as well as the bottom-up reaction of nationalism. Using Taut and his Turkish translator, Adnan Kolatan, as an example, she asserts that there is a third way between this seemingly universal dynamic. Overall, Architecture in Translation provides a rich example of familiar German architects in unfamiliar contexts as well as relatively little-studied Turkish architects at the center of international debates concerning German innovations in the modern and modernist house.

As this summary implies, Akcan’s emphasis is on the issues and rhetoric around architecture. Her project goes deep into the writings of architects and is rich in archival sources drawn from architect estates (Nachlass). But, as with many analyses that remain at the level of discourse, there are some difficulties here. In particular, many of the buildings and architects she mentions were a product of political and institutional contexts. While Akcan provides a clear sense of what a particular architect thought in, say, an article in a professional journal, it is frustrating that no broader context is given to frame the critique. As a result, structural conditions and a wider range of connections or meanings are missing. For example, readers learn about Ernst Egli’s and Eldem’s biographies and assertions of the “untranslatable” in Turkish architecture when they founded in 1933 the National Architecture Seminar at the Academy in Istanbul (223). And yet, while their respective understandings of architecture are thoroughly presented, not much information is given on the academy itself and its role as a state-sponsored institution. Politics here rests at the level of rhetoric or identity, not in policy or political economy. This is coupled with a somewhat overworked emphasis on the theoretical concept of translation. On the whole, this serves the author well; but there are myriad times when it seems too often merely a metaphor or, as in the chapter on housing estates, drops out of the central argument for significant portions of the text.

These points aside, Akcan’s book is an important corrective to the standard account of modern and modernist housing in Germany as well as an addition to a deeper analysis of the rich Turkish built environment. Thus, by extension, the book is a fundamental critique of the canonical histories of modern architecture. She joins others like Kathleen James-Chakraborty, whose recent longue durée survey of early modern and modern architecture starts and ends with China as a challenge to the usual chronological and geographic focus (Kathleen James-Chakraborty, Architecture since 1400, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). These are necessary correctives and critiques that engage in the ongoing problems and difficulties humanities scholars are having adjusting to a world of global capital that, in turn, is building pressure for a thoroughly globalized curriculum. Architecture plays a clear and central cultural role in this process, and the dialogue between Germany and Turkey in these crucial years of the twentieth century is a historical factor long overdue for serious analysis. Akcan’s engaging project makes this point all the more clear.

Paul B. Jaskot
Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, DePaul University

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