In a city littered with ancient remnants, upgrading and restoring a historic building can require a fine sense of balance
Founded in 1884, the Beyazit State Library is the oldest library in Istanbul. But it is actually made up of a far older grouping of buildings adjacent to the Beyazit Mosque, the oldest surviving imperial mosque in the city. Originally the building had been the caravanserai of a small complex that also housed a school, hospital, hammam and stable block, all set around the small square beside the mosque. Perhaps it was its proximity in the old quarter of Divan Yolu to the bazaar, Istanbul University and the booksellers district that saw it finally converted to the state library, its vaulted ceilings painted to register its newfound status.
Over 130 years later the sensitive restoration and upgrading of the library by Turkish firm Tabanlioglu Architects has made it winner of the 2016 World Architecture Festival's Retrofit Award. After restoration in the 1970s, the library fared badly in the 1999 earthquake, leaving it ill-placed to hold its collection of more than 30,000 precious manuscripts and books.
The challenge for the architect was to adapt the building to contemporary use while safeguarding the existing structure – a strategy manifested most palpably in the black glass climate controlled vitrines that now populate its domed interiors; modern interventions standing out in stark contrast to their surroundings.
‘Our idea was to bring the fabric back to its original condition and graft the new infrastructure on,’ explains Tabanlioglu Architects partner Melkan Gürsel. ‘This meant using the ground plane as much as we could for servicing and trying to leave the rest of the fabric untouched.’ It resulted in a raised poured resin floor to hide the servicing for the glass book vitrines. At its edges the detail remains pulled away from the restored walls, allowing a discreet slot for air feed and for recessed lighting to wash up their faces invisibly. The lighting is part of a light touch approach, which sees pendant luminaires hanging elegantly from the domes or incorporated into the reading room furniture.
In the earlier restoration, the old external courtyard had been covered over with a concrete dome, which was removed in the latest iteration. In its place the architect designed a light PTFE membrane roof subtending a shallow arch between the supporting walls, and allowing light to once again pour in while offering climatic control and low levels of solar gain. It now serves a dramatic new entrance to the library complex, counterpointing the relative darkness of the reading rooms.
The firm has also designed a modest extension, respecting the scale of the building, on the library’s north east facade. Modern Turkish publications are now on the second floor, Turkish and Ottoman periodicals on the first and Ottoman, Arabic and Persian rare books and manuscripts kept safe in the ground floor vitrines.
Gürsel adds that the work also realised new spaces by accident, adding that ‘during the restoration enabling works, the remains of a Byzantine church were found, whose walls were left in situ and covered with a glass ceiling, revealing it for all to see.’ The architect seems unphased: this is the kind of thing that happens when, to reveal the layers of history in one of civilisation’s melting pots, you start to scratch beneath the surface.