Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Captured in a new book, they serve as a delightful snapshot into the city’s recent history.
Walking through an inner Istanbul neighborhood like Cihangir or Kurtuluş, a passer-by might not immediately pay attention to the hand painted signs on the entries to older apartment buildings. Look closely at the glass panels above the doors, however, and you’ll find a delightful variety of designs, often painted with some love and skill, that also provide a snapshot into the city’s recent history.
Now, these signs are the subject of a book by photographer and researcher C.M. Kösemen. The Disappearing City: Hand-Painted Apartment Signs and Architectural Details from 20th-Century Istanbul catalogs not just the signs themselves, but the often elegant 20thcentury vernacular architecture of which they formed a part. It’s an architecture, Kösemen notes, that, along with the signs themselves, is increasingly under threat as Istanbul redevelops and sweeps away the old.
The signs celebrated in the book come from a particular window in Istanbul’s history. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the city’s population skyrocketed. After a long period where development in the new capital of Ankara had been favored, large parts of Istanbul were freshly or redeveloped, including Taksim Square, one of the central hubs of the modern city. New apartment buildings mushroomed across the city—some well-built, while others were what Turks refer to as Gecekondu, rapidly constructed buildings often put up without due permissions or full attention to earthquake resilience.
Frequently, these new buildings were given proper names that in themselves are a pleasure for Turkish speakers. Many evoke natural images, such as deniz (the sea) or gül (rose), but others are more fanciful, with names such as the grand “divine voice” or direct “I like you.” The craftspeople who painted these signs were highly skilled, semi-specialized in the job and, in the 1950s, usually came from the city’s Greek, Armenian, or Jewish communities. As and outbreak of violence against the community in the 1950s saw much of the Greek population leave, these sign painters were replaced by skilled Turkish people, whose signs nonetheless retained much of their predecessors craftsmanship. From the 1960s onward, however, printed signs and brass plates became cheaper. Accordingly the level of skill employed in now less-fashionable painted signs started to fall.
Now the signs are increasingly disappearing, often because their host buildings themselves are facing the wrecking ball as Istanbul replaces twentieth century housing. This does mean that some relatively unstable buildings are being properly replaced with something more solid. It also means that some perfectly good, sound construction from the period is disappearing, because its redevelopment offers large revenues and even some opportunities for kickbacks, becoming what Kösemen calls “a fast moving gravy train.” Resistance to this has been somewhat halfhearted because it isn’t as yet seen as worth preserving.
“There is a move to preserve older buildings in the city” he told CityLab by phone, “but for most Turkish people currently ‘old’ means Ottoman, or made of wood, or something like that. People don’t the value in the Art Nouveau- and Art Deco-inspired concrete buildings from the 1930s, or later 1960s Brutalist apartment blocks. This means we are losing some valuable buildings of a type that are being preserved in, say, Tel Aviv.”
As the popularity of Instagram makes city photography more widespread, there is nonetheless a slowly growing appreciation of the charms of such signs. One local painter, for example, has made a specialism of recreating images in their style for coffee shops in what’s broadly recognized as the international hipster style. Until the book, however, celebration of this attractive part of Istanbul’s visual heritage has been piecemeal, and Kösemen says that many residents who discovered him photographing their signs said they’d never looked at them closely before. At times, some even suspected him of working for a landlord or developer intent on evicting them.
The best way to keep them alive, he says, is to pay attention to them. “I’d strongly recommend any visitor to Istanbul to make their own walking tour to discover this neglected aspect of the city.”