Where Europe meets Asia

Years ago I went to Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, to see Foster and Partner’s weird “Pyramid of Peace” commissioned by the nation’s president-for-life, Nursultan Nazarbayev (for those with filing systems, I wrote it up in the October 2006 issue of RIBAJ).

One thing I noticed was the strong presence of Turkish companies building the city - Turkish contractors, architects, project managers, materials suppliers. Clearly Turkey, which was and is keen to join the European Union, had plenty of interests looking east as well. The old Silk Road trading patterns had re-established themselves following the fall of the former Soviet Bloc.

This helps to explain the presence of large international industries in Turkey such as building ceramics. I went in a delegation to Istanbul recently at the invitation of the Turkish Ceramics Promotion Group, the member companies of which are building market share in the UK and around the world.  Bahadir Kayan, chairman of the group and head of the Kale company, was our host. They are proud of their history: one university academic gave us a lecture on the use of tiles in buildings ancient and modern, another on the development of architecture in the country. In Istanbul that history is right there, from the Byzantine mosaics of the Hagia Sofia via the later tile-lined “Blue Mosque” to the floors, splashbacks, sanitary ware and cladding systems of today.

The emphasis is mostly on clean-lined modernity and high-tech techniques - clearly these people can easily challenge their Italian and Spanish rivals - but it was also interesting to note, at one manufacturer, a ‘revival range’ of traditionally-patterned encaustic tiles, which attracted a gaggle of admiring architects in our party.

It wasn’t all tiles. We spent a morning in the offices of two of the larger architects’ practices in town, Emre Arolat Architects (EAA) and Tabanlioglu Architects. Turkey is undergoing a construction boom: the projects they showed us, from a small modern country mosque to enormous mixed-use city developments, were all being built.

A final surprise: it’s noticeable how many women take up architecture in Turkey, rising to senior roles and practice principals. We were told the proportion of female architects is up to 60%, compared to around 20% in the UK. Nobody could really say why architecture in Turkey, at this historic meeting-point between Europe and Asia, is seen as such a suitable job for a woman.  “We have trouble recruiting enough men,” said one (female) director to me. Truly Byzantium is a different world.

Turkish Ceramics:  www.turkishceramics.com