Istanbul's first public library meets the 21st century

Istanbul's first public library meets the 21st century

Joshua Bruce Allen
December 27, 2016

Remains of a Byzantine church, photo by Emre DörterLocated between Istanbul University and the Grand Bazaar, the Beyazıt neighborhood is packed with historic buildings that are still in use today. Istanbul University itself used to be the Ottoman Ministry of War, while on the other side of the square is the recently restored II Bayezid Hamamı. In the center is of course Bayezid Mosque, whose eastern wall leads into the Sahaflar Books Market. And Beyazıt is also home to one of this year’s most successful restoration efforts, Tabanlıoğlu Architects’ work on the Beyazıt State Library. The stunning outcome of this restoration was awarded with the 2016 World Architecture Festival's "New and Old" prize.

This was in fact the first state library in Turkey, founded in 1884 under the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II. The building had formerly been a soup kitchen and caravansaray, forming part of the külliye (social complex) around Beyazid Mosque. On its opening as a library it contained around 1 million documents, including almost 11,120 hand-written books of historical importance.

However, these rare works had not been conserved in the proper conditions until now. Melkan Gürsel Tabanlıoğlu of Tabanlıoğlu Architects told The Guide Istanbul, “Due to the damage caused by the 1999 Istanbul earthquake, I remember valuable books being left in a state of disorder. The historic building did not have the necessary physical conditions to protect these rare works.” Rather than taking a comprehensive and systematic approach to the library facilities, modern structures had been added in a piecemeal fashion. “There were architectural additions from recent years. When we entered we found an old building with interventions made to save the day in a way that was almost indifferent (to the historic structure). For example, there was a coarse column supporting a concrete roof over the courtyard, and in the back courtyard there was a collapsing shack,” she explains.

Considering Tabanlıoğlu Architects’ roster of past projects – including Istanbul Atatürk Airport, Istanbul Modern, Kanyon Shopping Center, and Taksim’s Atatürk Cultural Center – there were great expectations surrounding a contemporary approach to such a historic structure.

Bookshelves, photo by Emre Dörter

“After removing the concrete support and roof of the earlier restoration, we covered the courtyard with light and transparent ETFE (a durable plastic membrane) to maintain a controlled atmosphere and allow sunlight to filter in. Thanks to this material we achieved harmony with the building’s domed structure and also visual continuity with the courtyard’s surroundings,” says Tabanlıoğlu. This transparent aesthetic was also applied to the floor of a courtyard beneath which are the remains of a Byzantine church. “As for the features of the inner courtyard, we took the original fountain that had been removed later on and replaced it back in the center where it belonged. That courtyard has become a place of tranquility that will be able to host various kinds of meetings. It has also become a spacious interior-exterior venue that can host exhibitions in all weather conditions.”

Reading room, photo by Emre Dörter

Through exhibitions, conferences, and other cultural events, the library will experience a revived relationship with the literary heritage of the neighborhood, Tabanlıoğlu says. The library shares a wall with the historic Sahaflar Book Market, where Orhan Pamuk spent many days of his youth perusing the antique and modern volumes. Another oblique connection to Pamuk is the lighting firm Studio Dinnebier, which designed the lighting for both the library and Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence.

Courtyard, photo by Emre Dörter

Summarising the work’s meaning for the library and future restorations in Istanbul, Tabanlıoğlu says, “With its modern substructure added to the historic fabric, this exemplary restoration manages to increase the building’s services and events while taking an approach of minimal intervention, and it can be taken as a model for many other restorations.”