The recent restoration of one of Istanbul’s most iconic buildings has drawn criticism from experts and history lovers who claim that the work has destroyed the building’s unique character and turned it into an ugly, commercial eyesore.
Narmanlı Han (Narmanlı Inn), built in 1831, is located in the city’s central Istiklal Street, a road lined with colourful historic buildings, embassies, bookstores, shops and cafes.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the building hosted the Russian Embassy and the Armenian Consulate General, but it was only after it was sold to the Narmanlı siblings in 1933 – who turned it into an inn – that the building gained its name and fame.
Over the next four decades, many famous Turkish writers, poets and artists lived and worked in Narmanlı Han, including poet and painter Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, sculptors and artists Mari Gerekmezyan, Firsek Karol, and Aliye Berger, and a well-known author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar whose most famous book A Mind At Peace, was written there.
“In the late Ottoman era and in the early days of the Republic, this building played a huge role,” said journalist Murat Çelikkan, who co-authored a book about Istanbul’s cultural, historical and social memory.
“Narmanlı Han was once a home of arts, and the renovation erased all traces of its history,” he concluded.
In the renovation that was carried out between 2016 and 2018, Narmanli Han not only got a new, peach-coloured façade, but also a new purpose. The space in this historic building is now being rented out to coffee shops, beauty stores and restaurants, with a Starbucks cafe in the main, concrete-paved courtyard which was once a green space featuring purple hyacinths, benches and trees.
“This building is now an empty shell that only structurally resembles the old one. Its ‘restoration’ has erased everything that was relevant for the building’s history,” said Banu Pekol from the Association for Protection of Cultural Heritage. “As a person who lives in Istanbul, I feel completely alienated from Narmanlı Han which has been stripped of any historical and symbolic meanings.”
Handan İnci from the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul is an expert on Tanpınar’s life and works and is very disappointed that Narmanlı Han was not converted into a museum dedicated to the author. She also doesn’t like the new look of the former inn.
“Obviously, it’s not possible to revert it to how it was before the restoration, but its appearance could still be more tolerable,” İnci said. “Also, all that concrete should be removed from the courtyard and trees and purple hyacinth should be planted there instead.”
For restaurateur Hilal Kaplan, the new appearance of this building is a far cry from the place she often visited in his youth.
“Narmanlı Han was special to me. Fifteen years ago, my friends and I used to sit in the shade, admire purple hyacinths and drink tea. Seeing what has now become of this building feels like losing a friend. It bears no resemblance to the place it once was,” she said.
Other development projects in Istanbul have also angered locals concerned about the preservation of their cultural heritage.
The city’s Emek Cinema, a historic movie theatre in the Beyoglu district that opened its doors in 1924, was demolished to make way for a shopping and entertainment complex in 2013. Massive public protest over the redevelopment failed to save the once-prestigious art deco building.
The Haydarpaşa train station, an Ottoman-era neoclassical icon, is also under threat. Government plans to integrate it into İstanbul’s suburban Marmaray line have repeatedly stalled, and there have been allegations that the next step is to turn it into a commercial structure, such as a hotel.
Further controversy surrounds the latest tender to develop a 25,000 square metre warehouse and depot area by the station into a cultural events centre.
“The Governor’s Office – which should have a policy on protecting urban history but doesn’t, Istanbul municipality and Beyoğlu municipality are all responsible for protecting the city’s memories, culture and history,” Çelikkan said. He said that the local government should have intervened over Narmanlı Han.
“They should have expropriated Narmanlı Han and given it to the public,” he continued. “Not only did they fail to do this, but they also approved this restoration and a new, commercial use of this building.”
Not everyone dislikes the former inn’s new appearance. Hasan Gülhan, who worked as a shopkeeper in Narmanlı Han before it was restored, conceded that “the inn has lost its spirit, but it looks much better than the ruin it was before the restoration”.
“When I talk about this building with my friends, they usually criticise it and say that it lost its essence and has no soul anymore,” he continued. “But then I remind them that it was a ruin for years and nobody did anything about it. At least we can drink coffee there now.”
Pekol said that, with proper care and attention, a balance could be struck between preserving historical treasures and urban renewal.
But she argued that any restoration project that involves buildings like Narmanlı Han “that have such value in terms of social memory, must include meticulous research, protection plan, and a proper communication strategy”.
Pekol said that the local authorities should not approve such refurbishments project without first consulting with sociologists, historians and anthropologists.
“We can create designs that are considerate both of historical continuance and the need for change,” she continued. “But when profit comes first, we all lose.”