Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey, & the Modern House | AMCA | Association for Modern + Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran + Turkey

Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey, & the Modern House

Esra Akcan
Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey, & the Modern House
Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2012
(xiii + 392 pages, bibliography, index, illustrations) $24.95 (softcover)

Columbia University

Architecture is a locus of conflict in Turkey today: the protests over the redevelopment of Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square in 2013 were not just about the destruction of green space, but also about the political connotations of the neo-Ottoman barracks and mosque planned for the area, an architectural aesthetic inspiring many highly-visible projects around the city. In this context, Esra Akcan’s innovative study of architectural translations between Germany and Turkey is a timely one: although the book focuses on the early decades of the Turkish Republic, it provides critical historical background on the cultural politics of architecture and urban planning in Turkey that continue to animate contemporary debates. Architecture in Translation is both a detailed historical account of the migration of people, plans, and ideas during the interwar period, and an innovative application of theories of translation to the medium of architecture. The book extends and enriches the terrain explored by works such as Sibel Bozdoğan’s Modernism and Nation Building: Turkish Architectural Culture in the Early Republic (2001) and Carel Bertram’s Imagining the Turkish House: Collective Visions of Home (2008), and will be of interest both to scholars of modern Turkey, and to those interested in architecture, art, and urban planning. Akcan is strikingly attentive to the differences between translating words and translating buildings, and develops her use of the theoretical framework of translation in a subtle manner—as she writes, she does not “intend to use language as an analogue for architecture, but rather to use linguistic translation as a conceptual metaphor, and to think through linguistic theories in order to construct a terminology for architectural translation” (9). Akcan makes a strong case for the applicability of this extended metaphor, for example in her contrast of “appropriating” translations and “foreignizing” ones, which is anchored in both post-structuralist literary theory and interwar Turkish debates about translation of foreign texts (15). While this approach at times obscures attention to materiality—a facet of the built environment that surfaces only occasionally in Akcan’s narrative—the extraordinary importance of language to Turkish nationalist ideology in this period makes translation a particularly compelling lens for Akcan’s exploration of the varying assumptions about culture, identity, and modernity that infused architectural theory and practice during those decades.

The book opens with a discussion of the relationship between translation, location, and modernity, drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Lawrence Venuti, among others, to think about what translation might mean for a visual and physical medium like architecture. The first chapter, one of the strongest, delves into the role of German and Austrian architects and planners in the construction of Ankara, the new capital of the Turkish Republic founded in 1923, as a national showcase for modernity in the form of the built environment. As Akcan observes, “the Kemalist modernization process relied on the premise that modernity was smoothly translatable to Turkey, even if it had to be inserted from above,” (51) an approach that inspired an Ankara built on the garden city model, with prominent modernist public buildings. The second chapter turns to Istanbul, exploring the former imperial capital’s wooden houses as the site of a “resistant melancholy” that questioned the changes represented in Ankara. The trope of melancholy has become something of a cliché in writing on Istanbul, but Akcan manages to bring something new to this well-troddenterritory through her extended reading of Turkish architect Sedad Hakkı Eldem’s attempts to develop a “modern Turkish house style”that fusedlocal materials with the modernist architecture he encountered in Europe (119). A third chapter examines the wave of German architects and planners who sought refuge from National Socialism in Turkey after 1933, and the impact of the Weimar-era mass housing models they and their Turkish students sought to adapt for Turkey. In her discussion of mass housing, Akcan explores the limits of “subaltern participation” in urban design. The fourth chapter examines the “convictions about untranslatability” (215) that arose from more essentialist conceptions of local or national architecture, which spurred a turn to the anonymous residential architecture of Anatolia in order to develop typologies of “the Turkish house.” Here, Akcan argues, “the struggle for individual difference in generic housing in Germany resonated in Turkey as the search for cultural difference” (246). In the final chapter, Akcan seeks avenues that transcend the “paternalistic” convictions of translatability and the “chauvinistic” ones of untranslatability to imagine a cosmopolitan alternative, finding inspiration in the work of Bruno Taut, a German architect who engaged deeply with Turkish and Japanese architectural traditions. The brief epilogue traces the subsequent careers of the architects featured in Akcan’s study and the fate of some of their buildings, structures, and plans, ending with a suggestive evocation of the lives of the Turkish migrants who since came to inhabit interwar mass housing in Germany.

Akcan’s prose is lucid and engaging.The book is beautifully designed, illustrated with architectural photographs and drawings, and the author provides a clever diagram mapping the architects’ and planners’ migrations. In the margins, running notations indicate the temporal and geographical locations (for example, “Ankara 1935-38”), a helpful resource for the reader, since as Akcan notes in her epilogue, “in unfolding the plot, I preferred intertwined histories over chronological linearity and fixed geographical separations” (284). The book draws on a rich selection of sources, including archival documents, personal diaries and correspondence, architectural curricula and periodicals, and literary texts, including the novels of Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu and the poems of the modernist innovator Nazım Hikmet. Akcan enriches her analysis of visual translation with close attention to the dynamics of linguistic translation in educational and planning contexts—for example, the translation of classes taught by German professors at Istanbul University, the bureaucratic (mis)translations of a planner’s correspondence with Ankara, and most notably, in a detailed discussion of the translation of Taut’s architectural treatise into Turkish in the 1930s (263-271). An odd exception to this sensitivity is the second chapter’s conflation of the different words for used for melancholy (melankoli, hüzün) in the Turkish source material, which might have been fascinating grounds for further discussion.

Akcan’s command of both her source material and literary theory (particularly its postcolonial strains) make for strong arguments, especiallyin her reading of architectural reflections of the clash of universalist (if Eurocentric) modernity and nationalist particularity that lay at the heart of Kemalist ideology. However, her invocation of a cosmopolitan alternative is more suggestive than conclusive. She argues for a distinction between hybridity and cosmopolitanism, suggesting that “the hybrid escapes its potential risk of maintaining separatist ideologies only when it is coupled with a cosmopolitan ethics” (277)—for many hybrid artifacts, such as the Turkish house, have been subsequently “claimed to symbolize pure nationalism” (247). The reading of Taut’s work as an expression of hybridity animated by a cosmopolitan ethics is an intriguing but limited example. Nonetheless, like the rest of this compelling book, it offers a promising avenue for future explorations of the relationship between architecture, politics, and culture.

Bibliographic note: Elizabeth Angell is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University.