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Renovation of Turkey’s oldest library

Renovation of Turkey's oldest library

September 2016

Tabanlıoğlu Architects’ restoration of Turkey’s oldest library not only preserves historic architecture and literary legacy but aims to revive the meaning of the century old concept of the public square in Turkey.


Turkish firm Tabanlıoğlu Architects is mainly known for their contemporary and integrated mixed-use projects, having also a few high-profile projects under their belt including Istanbul Atatürk Airport and Turkey’s tallest building, Istanbul Sapphire.

However recently, the team has completed the challenge of restoring Istanbul’s oldest and largest library, the Beyazıt Public Library, a process which has been nearly ten years in the making.

“Negotiations already began in 2006,” says Melkan Gürsel, Partner, Tabanlıoğlu Architects. Back then, the firm got approached by the Aydın Doğan Foundation to renovate the library, which Tabanlıoğlu accepted, on a pro bono basis.

“We always do cultural and art projects pro bono,” says Melkan, “like Istanbul Modern, Turkey’s first modern museum, which we delivered in 2004. It’s about doing something good for the people.”

Reviving the public square

First founded in 1884, the State Library building was originally the soup kitchen and Caravanserai (a traditional rest area for travellers) of a complex that included a kitchen, a primary school, a hospital, and a hammam. The library – built by Sultan Beyazıt II and completed in 1506 – is a section of the Beyazıt Mosque complex, the oldest surviving imperial mosque in the city. The complex spatially surrounds and defines the historic Beyazıt Square.

When it comes to renovation of the library, Tabanlıoğlu’s goal was not only to preserve the historic architecture and the knowledge within it, but to serve as a starting point for a process which would have a chain effect on the area around the library.

“The library is only 3,000 square metres in size but it’s very valuable because of its location within the city. The area around the library bears huge historic significance, dating back to the 16th century,” Melkan explains.

“The most important part of this is the public square, Beyazıt. In Ottoman times, huge public squares were part of the city and these were very important to city life, be it politically or for social reasons.”

Made famous by the ancient Greek, throughout history, public squares have served as important focal points at the heart of a city, a place where politicians, philosophers, tradespeople and poets came together, and where the community gathered and events were held. With the progress of civilization however, the importance of the concept of the public square began to wane and urban planning decisions have often disregarded the preservation of these historic sites.

“Unfortunately today, in Istanbul we don’t have any public squares left,” laments Melkan. “Beyazıt is now an open air carpark with pop-up shops. It’s not used as a public square, it’s just an extension of urban texture,” she says.

And because “the function of the public square in Turkey has been lost”, the idea with the library was “to create a chain effect for the city to get back to what it used to be – to provide a place where people can once again get together.”

According to Melkan, “a library is a good starting point for this.”

Renovation works

Renovation of the State Library involved the sensitive re-organisation of the interior and careful restoration of the building fabric with its prominent multi-domed roof, the architects say.

“Working on such an old building is tricky,” confesses Melkan. “You cannot touch it too much, it needs to be preserved according to the rules of the preservation committee but at the same time its functions have to be upgraded.”

In place of the former concrete roof, Tabanlıoğlu Architects installed a light and transparent inflatable membrane structure that would not harm the existing walls. It covers the courtyard, filtering the daylight and providing a controlled atmosphere.

With what Melkan describes as a “minimal touch,” the architects wanted to open the courtyard so that events could take place there while people would still be protected against the climate conditions. “You can still experience day and night – it feels like an open air space in terms of vision but at the same time it’s protected,” she says.

Taking old values in

In the renovated shell of the building, modern glass boxes are devoted to showcasing old manuscripts and “stand as a monolithic object of awe that are of a stark contrast to their surroundings.”

But more than simply being appealing to the eye, the air conditioned glass boxes preserve the books – publications from the Ottoman era and other Ottoman, Arabic and Persian manuscripts – while providing a certain air quality that’s necessary to prevent the degradation of the century old material.

“The idea about the glass was to take the old values in,” Melkan says. “At the same time, it’s very aesthetic, in other words, it works well because it looks good,” she adds with a smile.

Lighting Design was provided by German studio Dinnebier, and “echoes the spatial and historical qualities of the complex, introducing geometries in harmony with its surroundings, while the soft lighting at the edges of the raised floor, that follows the wall contours introduce another layer of depth to the spaces.”

The flow through the building was also modified in order to best serve its modern function with the main entrance now through the courtyard.

Contemporary Turkish publications sit on the second floor and periodicals on the first, while the ground level houses the rare book collection in the transparent cabins.

Minimal intervention approach

During the restoration period, the remains of a Byzantine church were discovered which Tabanlıoğlu have covered with a glass roof, so “the historic element from the library’s surroundings can be enjoyed.”

“The amazing thing about discovering another layer of the city is that it goes to show how incredibly rich Istanbul is in terms of its urban quality – there’s not just the Ottoman heritage but much older eras such as the Byzantine come to surface.”

“Istanbul is full of such coincidences,” she says. “Here, we are used to this kind of surrounding and of course it’s amazing to work on a historic project such as Beyazıt Library as it provides a great opportunity for us to put our 21st century signature on it for the next generation.”

The architects describe their approach as one of “minimal intervention” which ensures “the spirit of the place survives while modern facilities are grafted onto the historic fabric.”

While the architects’ approach to the restoration may be one of minimal intervention, the implication it has is much larger. It aims to support urban regeneration of the public realm by reviving its old traces and capacities, principally those of the Beyazıt Public Square, in order to aid the city to regain some of its lost values.

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