Orhan Pamuk: “Why didn’t I become an architect?”

(All photographs by Ara Güler)

As a sort of envoi  for our series “Struggles for space“, we share below a short but rich reflection on the impossibility of architecture, by the turkish writer Orhan Pamuk; an envoi which could just as easily be another beginning.  The virtue of this text, among others, is to radically criticise the pretensions of modern architecture, which through design and building, sought to strip human spaces of their density, thickness, in the name of a formal and/or functional truth (Louis I. Kahn: “Architecture is a reaching out for the truth”).  Such a heroic ambition would of course fail for numerous reasons, but in its wake, the rich social tapestry of many human communities would be destroyed.  But what Pamuk’s essay also brings to light is the silent resistance against and subversion of architectural intentions; the resilience of the imaginary, of something analogous to James C. Scott’s vernacular anarchism, that is far greater than any modernist fantasy.  

In the mid 1970s, before becoming a full-time writer, future Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk studied in the Architecture School at Istanbul’s Technical University. In this autobiographical piece (from “Other Colours”, Vintage Books, 2008) he describes his feelings about architecture and the trade he never took up.

I would stand in awe before the ninety-five-year-old building. Like so many from that era, it was unpainted and had lost plaster here and there, and its dark and dirty surface had the air of some sort of frightening skin disease. The signs of age, neglect, and fatigue were what struck me first. But when I began to notice its little friezes, its witty leaves and trees, and its asymmetrical Art Deco designs, I forgot its sickly appearance, thinking instead of the happy, easy life this building had once enjoyed. I saw many cracks and holes in its rainspouts, its weatherboard, its friezes, and its eaves. Inspecting the several stories, including the shop on the ground floor, I could see that, like most buildings built a hundred years ago, it had originally been a four-story construction, the top two stories having been added twenty years ago.

There were no friezes, no thick weatherboarding over the windows, and no fine handiwork on the facade. Sometimes these floors would not even be of the same height as those below, nor would their windows be aligned in the same way. Most of these floors had been added very hastily, profiting from home improvement drives, loopholes in the law, and corrupt mayors turning a blind eye. Perhaps at first sight they had looked modern and clean next to the building’s original century-old façade; twenty years later, their interiors seemed older and more dilapidated than those of the floors below.

When I would look up at the little bay windows, the traditional Istanbul architect’s signature, hanging out over the street by three feet – my eye would settle on a flowerpot or a child peering out at me. My mind would automatically calculate that this building sat on a plot of about eight hundred and fifty square feet, work out how much usable space there was, and try to figure out whether or not it suited my needs.

I was not looking for a building to turn into a home. I had begun to search Istanbul’s oldest neighbourhoods – streets going back two thousand years: the back streets of Galata, Beyoglu, and Cihangir, where Greeks and Armenians had once lived and, before them, the Genoese for a stranger purpose. I needed this house for a book and a museum.

As I was gazing at the building from across the street, the grocer from the shop behind me came outside to tell me about the building – what condition it was in, how old it was, and who owned it – making it clear to me that the owner had engaged him to act on his behalf, if only as his eyes and ears. “Would it be possible for me to go inside?” I asked, somewhat anxiously, not wishing to enter a strange house without the permission of those living in it.

“Go right in, brother, go right in and take a look, don’t worry!” bellowed the worldly grocer. Though it was a hot summer day, the entrance hall was spacious and extraordinarily cool (they don’t make these beautiful high-ceilinged entrance halls anymore, not even in apartment buildings in the wealthiest areas), and I could no longer hear the cries of the children in the shabby sheets outside or the noise from the plastics and machine shops opposite, only a few paces away, and all this reminded me that the houses in this area had been built with a very different sort of life in mind. I went up to the second floor, and then to the third, and with the encouragement of the curious grocer behind me, I entered whatever door, whatever apartment, I pleased. The people living here might not all be from the same family, but they came from the same Anatolian village and they kept their doors unlocked.

As I wandered through these apartments, I greedily registered everything I saw, like a “camera” making a silent film.

Outside an apartment that led out to the entrance hall, I saw a woman dozing in an old bed pushed next to the wall. Before she could come out of her daze to look at me closely, I had gone into the adjoining room (there was no corridor), where I found four children between the ages of five and eight squeezed together on a little divan in front of a colour television set. No one lifted a head to look at me; the little toes of their bare feet, which were dangling over the side of the high divan, were twitching to the rhythms of the adventure film they were watching. When I wandered into the next room in this crowded house that was as quiet as the midday heat, I met a woman who at once reminded me of the days when I’d had to supply my name, rank, and serial number: “Who are you?” asked this frowning mother, in her hand a huge teapot. As the grocer behind me explained the situation, I noticed that the room in which the woman was working was not a proper kitchen; the only access to this narrow space was through a room in which an elderly man was resting in his underpants, and of course I understood that the present configuration was not the original plan for this building. I tried to imagine what this floor had once looked like. I formed a sense that the underpants man’s room in its entirety, staring at the walls, which, like all the others I had seen (except in the grocery) were flaking paint and plaster and a severe embarrassment.

With the help of the neighbourhood gossip, with the eager guidance from the grocer, who had by now transformed from a helpful go-between into a real estate agent, as well as real agents working on commission, I spent the next month visiting hundreds of old apartments in that area – in a street where all the residents were Kurds from Tunceli, the Roma neighbourhood in Galata, where all the women and children sat on the stoop to watch the passers-by, or the alley where bored old ladies would shout down from their windows, “Why doesn’t he come up and look at this place too?” I saw half-collapsed kitchens, old sitting rooms haphazardly divided in two, staircases whose steps had been worn away; rooms with broken wooden floorboards concealed under carpets; storerooms, machine shops, restaurants, and old luxury apartments with fine plaster work on their walls and ceilings, now being used as chandelier shops; empty buildings rotting away with no owners, or else owners who had emigrated or were locked in a property dispute; rooms with little children crammed in as tightly as objects in a cupboard; cool ground floors whose damp walls smelled of mould; basements in which someone had carefully stowed wood, gathered from underneath trees and from rubbish bins and the city’s back streets, along with pieces of iron and all variety of rubbish; staircases in which no step was the same height as any other; leaky ceilings; buildings in which the lifts didn’t work and the lights didn’t work either; women in head scarves who watched through cracks in their doors as I walked past them on the stairs and past people sleeping in their beds; balconies where they’d hung their washing, walls that said NO LITTERING! and children playing in courtyards; and enormous wardrobes that all resembled one another and dwarfed everything else in the bedroom.

If I hadn’t visited so many houses one after the other, I would never have seen so clearly the two essential things that people did in their homes: (I) Stretch out in a chair or on a divan, a sofa, a cushioned bench, or a bed and doze, and (II) watch television all the hours of the day. Most of the time they did both at the same time, while also smoking and drinking tea. In areas of the city where property values were about the same, there was much too much space given over to stairs; I saw no houses that departed from this design. After seeing how much room was taken up by staircases in buildings with barely fifteen or twenty feet of frontage and no room in the back, I tried to forget the facades, buildings, and streets of the city and conjure up hundreds of thousands of staircases and stairwells; having done so, I came to see the divided properties of Istanbul as a forest of secret stairways.

At the end of my travels, what impressed me most was to see how these buildings, which despite their facades were small and humble dwellings made a hundred years ago for the city’s Greek and Levantine populations by Armenian architects and contractors, were being used in ways so amazingly different from the ways that their builders could have hoped for or conceived. I had learned one thing from my years studying architecture: buildings take the shape of their architects’ and buyers’ dreams. After the Greeks, Armenians, and Levantines who had dreamed up these buildings were forced to leave them in the early years of the last century, they came to reflect the imaginations of the succeeding occupants. I am not talking here about an active imagination shaping these buildings and streets to give the city a certain look. I am talking of the passive imagination of people who came from faraway places to streets and buildings already looking a certain way, who then changed their dreams to adapt to it.

I can liken this sort of imagination to that of a child who conjures up visions from the shadows on the walls before he goes to sleep in a dark room in the middle of the night. If he is sleeping in a strange and frightening room, he can make it bearable by imagining the familiar. If he is in a clean room he knows well, a room where he feels secure, he can build himself a dream world by likening the shadows to frightening creatures from legends. In both instances, his imagination is working with the fragmented and haphazard material at hand to create dreams that fit in with the place where the child happens to be. So the imagination in question is not in service to a person who is creating new worlds on a blank sheet of paper, it is in service to someone who is trying to fit in with a world already made. The waves of migration that Istanbul saw over the past century, the shifting of industries from one neighbourhood to another, the emergence of a new Turkish bourgeoisie, the dreams of Westernization that had prompted some people to abandon these buildings and dilapidated rooms, to be replaced by others from elsewhere – everywhere you looked in Istanbul, you saw signs of that second, accommodating, imagination. The people who had built these partitions, who had turned stairwells and bay windows into kitchens and entrance halls into storerooms or waiting rooms, who had created living space by putting beds and wardrobes in the most unexpected places, who had bricked up walls and windows or put new windows and doors into walls or knocked holes through them, who had equipped all the stoves in these buildings with pipes that snaked across every wall and ceiling – who had taken all these measure to turn these places into home – these people were utterly foreign to the intentions of the architects who had conceived these houses a century earlier.

It is not by chance that I speak of blank sheets of paper. I studied architecture at Istanbul Technical University for about three years, but I did not graduate to become an architect. I now think that this had to do with the ostentatious modernist dreams I set down on those blank sheets. All I knew at the time was that I did not want to become an architect – or a painter, as I had dreamed for many years. I abandoned the great empty architectural drawing sheets that thrilled and frightened me, making my head spin, and instead sat down to stare at the blank writing paper that thrilled and frightened me just as much. That’s where I’ve been sitting for twenty-five years now. As a book takes shape in my mind, I believe myself to be at the beginning of everything; I believe that the world will conform to my ideas – just as I did when I dreamed up buildings as an architectural student. The only difference is that those dreams informed my writing for twenty five years. So let’s ask the question that I heard quite a lot twenty-five years ago and that I still ask myself from time to time: Why didn’t I become an architect? Answer: because I thought the sheets of paper on which I was to pour my dreams were blank. But after twenty-five years of writing, I have come to understand that those pages are never blank.

I know very well now that when I sit down at my table, I am sitting with tradition and with those who refuse absolutely to bow to rules or to history. I am sitting with things born of coincidence and disorder, darkness, fear, and dirt, with the past and its ghosts, and all the things that officialdom and our language wish to forget. I am sitting with fear and with the dreams to which fear gives rise. To bring all these things to the page, I had to write novels that drew from the past, and all the things that the Westernizers and the modern Republic wished to forget, but that embraced the future and the imagination at the same time. Had I thought, at the age of twenty, that I could do the same with architecture, I might well have become an architect.

But in those days I was a resolute modernist who wished to escape from the burden, the filth, and the ghost-ridden twilight that was history – and what’s more, I was an optimistic Westerner, certain that all was going to plan. As for the peoples of the city in which I lived who conformed to no rules with their complex communities and their histories – they did not figure in my dreams: I saw them instead as obstacles, there to keep my dreams off from being realized. I understood at once that they would never let me make the sorts of buildings I wanted in those streets. But they would not object if I shut myself up in my own house and wrote about them. It took me eight years to publish my first book. Throughout this time, and especially at the points when I had lost hope that anyone would ever publish me, I had a recurring dream: I am an architecture student, and I am in an architectural design class, planning a building, but there is very little time left before I have to hand my design in. I am sitting at a table, putting everything I have into my work, surrounded by half-finished sketches and rolls of paper, and on all sides ink stains are opening up like poison flowers. As I labour on, ideas come to me that are even more brilliant than the ones I had before, but despite my feverish efforts the fearsome deadline is fast approaching, and I know full well that I have no more chance of realizing this great new idea than I have of finishing the building on my sheet of paper. It is my fault that I cannot finish my project in the time I have left, my fault entirely. As I conjure up visions of ever-greater intensity, I am so racked by guilt that the pain wakes me up.

The first thing to say about the fear that gave rise to this dream is that it is the fear of becoming a writer. Had I become an architect, I would at least have had a proper profession and would at least have been able to earn enough money to enjoy a middle-class life.

But when I began to say, somewhat obscurely, that I was going to be a writer and write novels, my family told me I would suffer financial hardship in the years ahead. So in the face of all that guilt and that fearful running out of time, this was a dream that assuaged the pain of my longings. Because when I was studying to be an architect, I was still part of “normal” life. To work this hard, against the clock, and to dream intensely – this would only characterise my life later on, when I was writing novels against no deadlines whatsoever.

In those days, when people asked me why I had not become an architect, I would give the same answer in different words: “Because I didn’t want to design apartments!” When I said apartments, I meant a way of life as well as a particular approach to architecture. It was during the I930s that Istanbul’s old historic neighbourhoods emptied out, as the moneyed classes began to tear down their two- and three – story houses with their spacious gardens, using these and other empty lots for apartment buildings that within sixty years had utterly destroyed the city’s old fabric. When I began school in the late 1950s, every child in my class lived in an apartment. In the beginning, the facades mixed a plain Bauhaus modernism with traditionally Turkish bay windows; later on they became poor, uninspired copies of the international style; and because the inheritance law ensured that many of the plots on which one built were very narrow, their interiors were all identical. Between them were stairwells and narrow ventilation shafts that some called “the darkness” and others “the light”; in the front was the sitting room and in the back, according to the size of the plot and the skill of the architect, were two or three bedrooms. There were long narrow corridors connecting the single front room with the several rooms at the back; these, along the windows looking out onto “the light” and the windows in the stairwell, made all these apartments look terrifyingly alike; and they all smelled of mould, cooking oil, bird droppings, and want. What frightened me most during my years of studying architecture was the prospect of having to design cost-effective apartments on these narrow little plots in accordance with current housing regulations and the tastes of the half-Westernized middle class. In those days, many relatives and acquaintances who complained about dishonourable architects told me that, once I was an architect, they would make sure I could build my own apartments on the empty lots owned by their parents.

By not becoming an architect, I was able to escape this fate. I became a writer, and I have written a great deal about apartments. What I have learned from everything I have written is this: a building’s homeliness issues from the dreams of those who live in it. These dreams, like all dreams, are nourished by that building’s old, dark, dirty and disintegrating corners.

Just as in some buildings we see facades become more beautiful with age, and interior walls take on a mysterious texture, so too can we see the traces of its journey from a building with no meaning into a home, a construction of dreams. This is how I understand the partitioned rooms, punctured walls, and broken staircases I described earlier. These are things for which an architect can find neither the traces nor the proof: the dreams with which the person who first occupies a new and ordinary building (conceived in a burst of modernizing, Westernising enthusiasm and made as if it were starting from the beginning) turns it into a home.

When I was walking among the ruins of the earthquake that killed 30,000 people, I felt the presence of this imagination again, and very powerfully – walking among all those fragments of walls, bricks, and concrete broken windows. Slippers, lamp bases, curtains, and carpets: every building, every shelter, new or old, that a person entered, it was his imagination that turned it into a home. Like Dostoyevsky’s heroes, who use their imaginations to cling to life even in the most hopeless circumstances, we too know how to turn our buildings into homes, even when life is very hard.

But when an earthquake destroys these homes, we are painfully reminded that they are also buildings. Just after that earthquake that killed 30,000 people, my father told me how he’d found his way out of one apartment house and groped his way through the pitch-dark street to take refuge in another apartment building two hundred yards away. When I asked why he had done so, he said, “Because that building’s safe. I made it myself.” He meant the family apartment house where I had spent my childhood, the building we once shared with my grandmother, my uncles, and my aunts, and that I have described so often – in so many novels – and if my father took refuge there, I would say it was not because it was a safe building but because it was a home.

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