A Tale of Two Buildings in Istanbul

A story concerning two buildings, two presidents, and one architect. I recount my first trip to Istanbul and what brought me there.

My first visit to Istanbul was in the spring of 2008, a moment in time that now seems like centuries ago.

At the time I was the Director of Design at Costas Kondylis and Partners (CKP), a now defunct New York City based architecture firm. CKP had worked for more than ten years on projects overseen by one of the city’s most publicized real estate magnates, a man who would go on to be the president of the United States. So when he decided to license a Trump Tower in Istanbul, the Trump Organization turned to CKP. Our job was to oversee the local developer and his team, a group that included the architect in Istanbul who was the project’s main designer, and insure that the Trump brand and design standards would be adhered to.

It was a given that I would make the trip. In addition to my role as director of design, I had become the firm’s de facto director of international business, primarily because I could design quickly, enjoyed travel and had a knack for languages, not to mention a keen interest in history and geopolitics. It also helped that I was at ease in settings that mixed business and socializing. Countless dinners, from Seoul to Panama City, ended at the hotel bar, with the drinks flowing as I sat at the piano, leading clients and whoever else had joined us in cheerfully ragged renditions of Beatles classics.

This particular business trip was going to be special. I was going to the magnificent, almost mythic, city I’d only read about in history books or heard about from my grandparents.

Overall, I hated working for developers, particularly in the world of New York City real estate. With few exceptions they were gruff, disrespectful, and seemed to constantly need to reassert their authority and position to everyone in the room. A toxic and unproductive culture that was borrowed from Wall Street in typical Manhattan style – alpha male boiler room bullshit – except with cheaper suits. Nevertheless, I also understood the relationship between money and design. Commerce and art. “There would be no Michelangelo, without a Medici” I used to think to myself in meetings, and then I’d wonder who the bigger asshole might be – Lorenzo, Cosimo, or the blowhard middle manager complaining about the exorbitant price of a floor finish or a construction detail we had chosen in some project or other.

So I viewed work in this particular realm of Architecture as a necessary evil. But trips like the one to Istanbul were the one saving grace. The one thing that made it all worth it. I couldn’t wait to go. The prospect of having to make repeated trips there seemed almost too good to be true. In my mind, I was already putting an itinerary of places together that I’d read about in Norwich’s Three Volume History of Byzantium.

Being of Greek descent and having been immersed in my Hellenic ancestry since childhood, Istanbul (or Constantinople as every Greek still calls it), loomed very large. I remember hearing bedtime stories as a child of the Marble Emperor and how he would come back to life when the city was once again liberated. My father’s branch of my family were Greeks that came from Eastern Thrace, so they were born in and lived in, the Ottoman Empire. My grandparents spoke Turkish as a necessity, but they, like many Greeks from that region, despite four centuries of the Ottoman yoke, never capitulated to changing their faith, nor did they forget their language and history. My father used to boast to me that because of those reasons, we were descended from the “Byzantines”. The term Byzantine itself was first coined by western historians in the 16th century long after the city had fallen to the Ottomans. To be technically accurate, yes our culture was Greek, but my ancestors from this area would have called themselves “Romaioi” (Romans). Few people today realize that while Rome (and what constituted the Western Roman Empire) may have fallen in the 5th Century, Constantinople and the “Eastern Roman Empire” founded by Constantine the Great (the Emperor under which Christianity became the state religion), lasted another thousand years. The legacy of the Caesars and the empire they ruled over was as much a part of my ancestry, as the Greek historians like Plutarch and Procopius who documented them.

When I arrived in Istanbul, I was awestruck by the sheer majesty and size of the ancient world capital. Like Rome, its predecessor (where I had spent a year studying in architecture school), it is an immense city of layers, culture upon culture, civilization upon civilization. While I longed to go and walk the city on foot, I had to stay focused on business – poring over an endless array of residential apartment plans that needed adjusting, reviewing finishes and materials that needed approval, and other project related issues that all revolved around the idea of keeping this building “on brand”. Given the combination of jetlag and raki from the prior evening’s meal as was typical, my eyes would inevitably glaze over whenever Turkish market analysts and salesmen started rattling off data of the latest statistics of the city’s residential sales. Time was of the essence they would say.

This was a moment when Istanbul seemed to be re-emerging from a deep slumber onto the world stage and re-inventing itself as a vibrant and exotic first world destination for both commerce and pleasure. As I had driven in from Ataturk airport, I saw cranes all over the city, and cordoned off construction sites whose excavations went so deep into the ground, they almost looked like science fiction film sets.  The Trump Towers (as they are called because they are a pair of buildings sitting on a shared base), were located in an area called Sisli, which was rapidly becoming the high rise district of the city. The pair of towers, which were 90-percent designed by the time CKP was brought into the project and already under construction, resembled many of the recently constructed buildings nearby. Simplistic, angular geometric masses, coopting an international design trend (that I denigratingly called “deconstructivist lite” at the time), they were shaped primarily by the views they afforded from the site and the market data that drove their unit sizes and types. They were basically what every high rise residential real estate developer sought – glass and steel machines with a “look” that insured a distinct brand identity on the rapidly changing skyline, and that printed money. And like mechanics who understood what a Trump building should be, CKP were there to make sure these machines would be finely tuned.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a former mayor of Istanbul, was prime minister at the time. But as I quickly learned he was already the dominant player in Turkish politics and the only politician anyone seemed to mention. While Istanbul was clearly booming, my Turkish colleagues, who quickly became friends and nightly dinner companions, would quietly express their concerns after hours. As the raki flowed, they said he was driven by self-interest, an opportunist with autocratic tendencies. A demagogue. He was not very tolerant. Some even mumbled that he was a fundamentalist and wanted to take Turkey backwards rather than forwards, and away from what I understood as the sacrosanct vision of Ataturk and his Turkish Republic. But it made no deep impression on me at the time, as I saw a city that was rapidly growing, expanding and drawing more and more business and tourism. I figured the Turks must be doing something right, that people will always complain about whatever politician is in power, and after all, all politicians to one degree or another were self-serving. Suffice it to say, I never expected much from them. At the time, when one still considered working on a Trump project to be prestigious (how times have changed), because it then represented a top international real estate brand, it seemed to make perfect sense that a Trump Tower project should go up in this thriving city that was in the process of reinventing itself yet again. A win-win as they liked to say in New York.

I think back and smile now, of how my eyes first drifted towards the windows of whatever conference room we were in, and out over the cityscape seeing the dense urban fabric of modern Istanbul unrolled like a giant carpet over the gentle hills and punctuated by hundreds of needle-like minarets as it terminated at the shore of the Bosporus. In the far distance washed out of its color and three dimensional form by the sun, and the hazy purple-grey mist of an early spring morning which felt more like summer, I saw for the first time, the still dominant silhouette of Hagia Sophia’s dome perched up on the promontory that separates the Bosporus from the Golden Horn. The oldest part of the city inhabited since the Neolithic period. It felt as if this place was indeed the ancient bridge between the West and the East and Hagia Sophia was the lighthouse marking the transition point for both worlds to see.

After a few days of meetings, the afternoon finally arrived when I could steal away the time to go and visit the great edifice. That first time, that first moment of entering this building of such deep significance was nothing short of overwhelming. Being a Greek, being a descendant of the Byzantines, and an Architect, I was overcome with many emotions. I stepped into the building and was at once struck by the cool and damp atmosphere, so different and such a relief from the noise of the traffic and heat from sweltering city outside. The space was immense and seemed boundless. Another world. The heavenly sky of that world was the massive floating dome and subsidiary half domes that tumbled away from the center of the building where my eyes were drawn. That miraculous dome. I saw the vibrant geometry of Anthemius and Isodorus frozen in time still defying gravity and suspending disbelief after one and a half millennia. A representation of an ancient and divine cosmology in built form and a testament of the human mind’s capabilities in late antiquity. I saw the carved capitals and their densely swirling motifs revealing their Hellenistic legacy, columns made from porphyry and other precious stones and materials that had been gathered from every corner of the empire like all imperial Roman structures. I saw disconcerting fragments of mosaics, and once holy images – Christs, Virgin Marys, Saints, Emperors, Angels, some half covered – some half erased, at once triggering incredibly personal and vivid memories of my own childhood being in Greek Orthodox churches and gazing from image to image hypnotized by fragrant incense and the modal chanting of prayers. I saw the giant disks suspended at the bottom of the pendentives of the great dome, each inscribed with a verse from the Koran. It was a collision of cultures and history. “My God”, I thought to myself, “what this building has witnessed and endured! And yet here it is, still standing!”.

As I quietly walked the space, I would pause and look back down to my eye level and listen – all around me there were people from all over the world. Asian families with children, local Turkish university students, elderly Greeks from Greece obviously moved and weeping openly as they made the sign of the cross. A smattering of languages in hushed tones – Greek, German, Italian, Mandarin, Hungarian, Russian. I went to the upper gallery and looked out of a row of open windows into the blinding sunlight towards the Blue Mosque to the south and heard the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer. As I stood there listening to the notes echo and decay across the ancient hippodrome and between the buildings, I realized that Hagia Sophia is one of those very rare and unique structures, that is truly transcendent. It is a testament to what humanity is capable of when it has the best intentions. It is timeless and it is sublime. I will never forget that first visit.

I’ve had the good fortune to visit Istanbul and Hagia Sophia as well as many other Byzantine landmarks since that first trip. In fact I returned to Istanbul many times. Over the course of the decade that followed, I opened my own firm a few years after that first visit, and reconnected with some of those friends who would eventually invite me to participate in some other architectural projects in Turkey.

But I don’t see myself returning again. Istanbul has changed, Turkey has changed, and the world has changed. Recently Erdogan, now the President of Turkey, realized his political goal of re-converting Hagia Sophia from a museum (which it had been since 1935), back to a Mosque. Nearly 600 years ago, Mehmed II, the Ottoman Sultan who captured Constantinople on May 29, 1453 had also converted the same structure to a Mosque. Prior to that, Hagia Sophia was the Patriarchical Cathedral for the State Seat of the Roman Empire, since its dedication by the Emperor Justinian in 537. And for many Orthodox Christians worldwide, it remains the symbolic mother church, the center of their faith and world, the aptly named church of “Holy Wisdom”.

The reaction the world over to this decision has been predictably negative. Most can see it for what it is – a cheap and cynically transparent political maneuver designed to provoke and outrage, by a president who is viewed as extreme by many, and who is also continuing to consolidate power by appealing to his growing base. I see now that the concerns of my Turkish friends, spoken at those dinners over a decade ago, were, in fact, justified. I have watched as Erdogan’s regime has become progressively more autocratic and oppressive as it now openly engages in foreign meddling and military adventures across the Mediterranean, and censors and jails journalists and Turkish citizens who question any of its actions and that of its party at home. And the nationalism that Erdogan uses as a tool to foment his base, is rooted in a very old narrative – espousing Ottoman glory and conquest. In this context, the “re-capture” of Hagia Sophia is low hanging fruit, a no-brainer to seasoned propagandists like Erdogan.

While the protests to this decision have come from all corners of the globe, there is a peculiar and noticeable silence on the subject from Washington DC. One can only surmise that the United States now also seems to have a president who is weighing his own interests against those of civilized society everywhere, and putting them ahead of principle.

The Trump Towers project in Istanbul was eventually finished and opened, and I am sure it met its financial goals and probably continues to do so. It is a real estate asset with real value. It stands there, for the most part, as yet another nondescript building among the many that were designed and built in that part of Istanbul to serve one purpose – to make money for their owners. Having pored over the architectural plans of that project for a few months in 2008, it has no intrinsic architectural quality that I can see. Its “style” for lack of a better word, now already dated, insures that there is absolutely nothing “transcendent” or “timeless” about it. And yet, as this silence from Washington attests, this particular building seems to be imbued with an almost supernatural type of mute power that other buildings in Istanbul lack. Because, no doubt, like Hagia Sophia, Erdogan also uses it as a blunt political tool. In this case, and I can only speculate, to insure that the support of the President of the United States will remain unwavering.

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that the existence of one building in Istanbul that I became extremely familiar with over a decade ago, could potentially impact the status of another building, arguably the most famous building in Istanbul, revered and known the world over as a unique architectural treasure which now, many feel, belongs to all of humanity. But 2020 seems to be a year in which the impossible is not only possible, but probable.

While Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan may have in many ways transformed to become mirror images of each other since that first trip I took to Istanbul in 2008, it’s clear – to me at least – that the Trump Towers Istanbul and Hagia Sophia couldn’t be more different.