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The Urban Planning Lessons of Istanbul: A Photo Essay

Istanbul is a teeming city of striking contrasts. Its setting on the Bosphorusa natural strait connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmaraplaces it between continents, between histories, and between cultures. And this is exactly how I experienced the city: some neighborhoods felt like the heart of Cairo; other areas called to mind Paris, or even Rome. On Istiklal Street (shown above) you can feel the shape of the city as the open, slightly inclined pavement bends toward the sea. It’s thrilling, full of valuable lessons for urban designers and placemakers. 

This is a street just off Taksim Square. It’s quieter, but equally interesting. The concrete pavers go from building face to building face. This flattened surface created a welcome feeling for pedestrians. The odd car seemed quite comfortable as it slowed down, navigating groups trying to decide which restaurant to try. A mix of residential, office, and commercial buildings make the street active and vital throughout the day and evening.

Across the Golden Quarter waterway from Istiklal Street, a local friend took me to the Eminonu quarter, where we were engulfed by masses of people moving through tight passageways, shopping at every conceivable kind of store. Suddenly there’s a break in the enclosed street, and I am in front of the portal to the Egyptian Bazaar

As a kind of covered street, the L-shaped bazaar fits seamlessly into the network of markets and streets nearby. At this intersection, you can carry on forward through the arched space of the market street or head back into the city. I am drawn to this granite column anchoring a corner shop jammed with every spice imaginable. 

It was mid-December when I visited Istanbul. I came across a section of the market devoted to light decorations. In the slightly darkened street sat thousands of glowing objects for sale. The magical radiance transformed the space for a moment as I moved along to the next array of stalls and vendors.

One of the most remarkable places I saw was the Suleymaniye Mosque complex, built by the architect Mimar Sinan between 1550 and 1557. Located on a hill, the mosque comprises a number of institutions, including four madrasas, or schools. The domes of the learning places step down the hill, their chimneys forming a geometric construct that contrasts with the informal market streets nearby and the modern city beyond. 

The schools are organized around courtyards and stepped gardens. Taking advantage of the slope, each classroom has an outdoor terrace platform where people can meet, quietly read a book, or work on their laptop. The double arches and vaults provide a cloistered protection from the harsh sun and create a beautiful place to study in the glowing light.

One evening, I discovered a roof terrace with a remarkable view toward the Suleymaniye Mosque, with the Hagia Sophia in the distance. These centuries-old complexes are lit up each night and, in the gloaming, mark the horizon of a city where many worlds coexist: East and West, religious and secular, ancient and modern. 

All photographs by the author.

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