by Asli Altinisik
For nearly sixteen centuries, Istanbul served as an imperial capital for the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. First as Byzantium, later as Constantinople, and finally as Istanbul, the city has witnessed civilizations pass, leaving remnants of art, architecture, and music that comprise the tapestry of diversity the city houses today. This history has created an exotic fascination with the city, to which many ascribe its own personality, almost sentience.
For my part, I like Istanbul. It’s where I was born and raised, and I like the city for what it is. This is my relationship with the city in a nutshell, and in this article, I wish to share some of the addresses that give me nourishment, joy, serenity, and inspiration. They are listed in alphabetical order.
Arthere is a place for art in Kadikoy. It is the quintessential open urban space; the ground floor borders the street and there are no windows or doors to separate the street from the interior (except in cold weather, when they keep the glass door closed). The ground floor resembles a messy living room full of humans, animals, and all sorts of inanimate objects. The ever-fluctuating number of cats dictates what can and cannot happen in the space. They roam around authoritatively, and unattended bags are their favorite spot to crawl and take a nap in. When they are awake, they enjoy scratching their toys and sometimes even the canvases. Paintings that have survived the cat signatures cover the walls; the canvases are organized based on personal impulse rather than art gallery management rules. In the living room on the ground floor, there are six wooden tables that can be used for working, eating or anything else, and, if you are still searching for something to do, the stacks of various readable materials and games propped on the tables are guaranteed to keep you entertained. If you are more of an adrenaline junkie, there are two indoor swings that will get your juices flowing. Omar, the owner of the place, does not mind if you eat something that you bought from outside, but he also cooks delicious nibbles for visitors in Arthere’s tiny kitchen. Everything is self-service, so you are expected to pour your own cup of tea and leave the money in a drawer. In an ideal world, everybody even washes their own dishes. No pressure.
The ground floor is the largest of the three floors, but it is the other two where creative things happen. Upstairs is a low-ceiling studio and on the corner is a small archive room. The basement has a dark room and, for reasons unexplained, a bunk bed. The mini garden on the lower floor is a great spot if only because it is away from the traffic noise (at least for Istanbul standards). These three floors host all kinds of artistic events, from concerts to film screenings, discussions, and workshops. Arthere also sells the artwork displayed on the walls, but it is not a gallery. The space is founded and run by artists from Syria and is frequented by students, art professionals, and expats. The visitors increased significantly over the summer of 2017, as Arthere received extensive media coverage from various local and international newspapers and TV channels. These include a front-page feature in Hurriyet, one of the biggest Turkish newspapers, and a live-streamed BBC interview.
HAH is a group of six artwork-producing friends (not all of them define themselves as artists) who regularly convene in Levent--Istanbul’s oldest business district, where plazas dominate the skies and business professionals in their crisp suits fill cafes and restaurants during lunch hours. Amid this fast-paced business orientation of the neighborhood, HAH held its first exhibition during the month of July 2017. The collective does not advertise, institutionalize, or sell their artwork, nor do they have firm plans for the future. For the time being, they enjoy discussing the process of producing art and cherishing their time spent together. What holds the collective together is not paychecks or funds, but their passion for what they do and their belief in grey zones—in art as well as daily life. Carpe diem.
HAH occupies flat number four in Ozturk Palas, an apartment building made up of eighteen units. It is a spacious flat for central Istanbul standards; it even has a small garden, which is a luxury in Istanbul. Irrespective of its size, the flat is an essential part of the collective’s work. It was first used as an office space and then as a private tutoring center, and the marks left on walls over time are actually the inspiration for one of the in situ works. On another spatial note, the building is expected to be demolished sometime in the near future as part of the ongoing and poorly planned gentrification projects in the city, but the residents of the apartment are left in the dark regarding the construction timeline. This is not a predicament unique to this apartment.
This is a restaurant/café in the same neighborhood as Arthere, which is a destination popular among the alternative communities in Istanbul. The cafe operates on the basis of collectivity; in their own words, there is “no boss, no chief, no specialist, and no hierarchy.” Addressing the need to meet, share, and discuss in Istanbul, the collective welcomes anyone and any idea--provided that they are non-authoritarian, non-discriminating and non-sexist. Komsu Kafe combines these principles with the universal peacemaker: food. The menu is neither fixed nor from a specific culinary tradition, but it is always satisfying for the mind and the soul.
While ‘pay what you think’ is not a novel idea, Komsu Kafe is one of the first places to introduce it to Istanbul. In line with this pricing policy is the decision to buy from local producers. Even though the establishment is not strong or stable in terms of finances, the cafe chooses to supply its materials from farming cooperatives, which means that they pay more for ingredients which they could purchase at lower prices from large supermarkets. Komsu Kafe practices what it preaches.
Created by a handful of people who focus on urban architecture, Kot Sifir is a café and work space in Sisli. The neighborhood is centrally located and well-connected to the chaotic public transportation system of Istanbul, but it is not really known for a vibrant social scene. Most shops operate during business hours and the few places open after 7pm are restaurants. Located in this rather unconventional neighborhood, Kot Sifir hosts events relating to urban design, and aims to bring together professionals working in the field with anyone who wishes to partake.
From afar, the venue is virtually invisible to the untrained eye. The interior design is minimalistic by Istanbul standards and the menu is hand-written. Conscious of architectural dynamics, Kot Sifir has a website which complements the discussions that take place in the cafe. The online space is a repository of articles and events related to the theory and practice of architecture, and aims to provoke discussions about spaces and their inhabitants. It might just seem like another hip café in a central but hidden corner of the city, but the co-founders hope to instigate discussions that are bound to be challenging, but simultaneously conducive to progress.
This bonus item of this compilation is not a specific address--though there is actually is a place called Lokanta, it is not the focus of this entry. Lokanta is anything but a new trend, and it can roughly be translated as a local restaurant or cafeteria-style eatery. More traditional ones serve only lunch, but the majority are open until late at night. The service is very fast because everything is already cooked, the prices are low, and the food is healthy and succulent. In these food-havens, interior décor is minimal and the tables generally seat ten people rather than two to four; so even if you are alone, you usually end up sharing a table with other customers.
Every day, there is a wide range of mezes, soups, main dishes, and desserts, but the selection is never the same. Cooks are guided by seasons and they prepare dishes based on the available seasonal produce. Lokantas do not have menus in the classic sense of the word. Like in a school cafeteria, they have huge displays in big metal trays stacked next to and sometimes on top of one another. The heat of boiling water under the trays keeps the food warm and ready to serve. Portions are not big, so people usually go for a combination of soup, main dish, and dessert. Steam coming from between the trays, combined with the different colors and textures of food is a visual feast, but this only intensifies the challenge that lies ahead: making a selection.
Food is an inclusive topic, one which everyone can appreciate and contribute to. Guided by my stomach and love towards Istanbul, this list is my observation, recognition and appreciation of some of the positive initiatives in the city. Arthere, HAH, Komsu Kafe, Kot Sifir and lokantas are home-grown responses to Istanbul’s need for workspaces, grocery shops, art spaces, performance halls, bookstores, restaurants, and cafes. Yes, the city is changing by all standards, but it is also big enough to accommodate all sorts of spatial experimentations.
* Every city in Turkey has a license plate number and 34 is Istanbul’s.