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Historic Galata to get facelift.

Istanbul's old Galata neighbourhood, once a semi-autonomous Genoese trading colony, is better known today for its run-down houses, its shabby back streets and general air of neglect, than for its rich and varied history. But its image could be about to change if the plans of the community architect, Nuri Mete Goktug, to revitalise this important area are successful.

Two years ago Goktug bought and renovated a former Maltese house, once used as a British prison during the occupation of Istanbul after the First World War, in the heart of the Galata district. Restored, the building now serves as Goktug's studio, an exhibition gallery, and centre for the "Revitalisation of Galata Initiative". "Our main task is to develop a sense of historic and cultural awareness among the people of the neighbourhood and of Istanbul," says Goktug.

Goktug has a difficult task ahead but his enthusiasm is infectious. As an architect he is understandably concerned about the area's old Turkish houses, remnants of its ancient wails, its neglected hans (caravanserai), its churches and historic texture, but he also warms to Galata's cosmopolitan past when Galata was a meeting point for dozens of different nationalities.

Dominating the whole neighbourhood is the huge Galata Tower with its commanding views of the Byzantine peninsula and the city's Asian shore. Built by the Genoese in 1348, it was originally known as the Tower of Christ and was the centrepiece of Galata's medieval fortifications. The encircling walls were badly damaged after the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453. But a few remaining segments, hidden behind more recent buildings, still miraculously survive.

Under the Ottomans Galata became the European quarter of the city where foreign merchants set up shop and European powers built their first embassies. Foreign churches also established themselves in the area. Opposite Goktug's studio stands the Dominican church and convent of Saints Peter and Paul founded on the site in the late fifteenth century, although the current church only dates from 1841. Nearby is a badly neglected han, built in 1771 by the French ambassador as a lodging and a bank. The French Cavafy of the eighteenth century, Andre Chenier, was born here and is honoured with a commemorative plaque.

Probably the most important Turkish building is the famous Galata Mevlevi Tekke, the oldest monastery of the mystic whirling dervishes to survive in the city. More curious, perhaps, is the equally renowned Tunel, or "Mouse's Hole", one of the oldest and shortest railways in the world. It was built in 1875 to save predominantly European traders and representatives from clambering up the steep Galata hill. In just over a minute it travels from sea level near the new Galata Bridge to the area's highest point.

Nuri Goktug is concerned that Galata's historic buildings, such as the French han, are protected and restored. But he also wants Galata's historic scale and texture to be respected. "The municipality has a 1970s mentality," he claims. "They only seek to preserve single buildings without considering the historic fabric of the area." If Galata's character is to survive new approaches, he believes, it needs to be adopted to encourage neighbourhood regeneration.

Goktug promotes himself as a "community architect" whose ideas parallel those of Rod Hackney, Prince Charles' favourite community-based designer. Two years ago Hackney was invited to Istanbul to lecture the Turkish Chamber of Architects and the Istanbul municipality on his piecemeal approach to "stitching up the city". Goktug hopes Hackney's ideas will be adapted to Galata and other historic districts where it is not already to late.

In Galata itself several draft plans have been drawn up within the framework of the revitalisation initiative and there are already signs of change. Along Galata Kulesi Street, running down from the tower to the banks of the Golden Horn, Goktug has planted saplings, protected by designer planters, and the municipality is installing badly needed street lights. One main proposal includes converting a British-built hospital, notable for its curious art nouveau tower, into a hotel in the hope of attracting visitors to this little known area.

Most proposals, however, are for small-scale changes with limited in-fill developments and a strict height limitation on new developments. Goktug is also keen to promote a Galata neighbourhood festival with street theatre, music events and exhibitions by artists as a means of involving local people in their own community. For Goktug, awareness of place is a first step towards improvement.

But it is still early days. The "Revitalisation of Galata Initiative" has a long way to go. The festival is little more than an idea at present to promote Galata's revival. Goktug is, nevertheless, guardedly optimistic about the area's future. "In a way this area is lucky since it hasn't been transformed like the Byzantine peninsula," he says. "The biggest problem now is of people demolishing buildings themselves."

And demolition is Goktug's biggest fear. In 1988 he was involved in a campaign to save Tarlabasi, an important area of nineteenth century Levantine houses, from demolition. But in the end the municipality's comprehensive road-building plans won the day. In Galata, where major road construction is not an immediate threat, Goktug hopes to succeed where his earlier efforts failed.
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Title Annotation:Mosaic; Galata in Istanbul
Author:Hellier, Chris
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:The Living Fire.
Next Article:It's time to let them go.

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