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Volume 34, Number 2March/April 1983

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A Tradition In Peril

Written by John Lawton and Aysen Akpinar
Additional photographs by Ersin Alok

Baghdad is by no means the only Middle East city where traditional homes are being torn down to make way for the new. As early as the 1960's the same thing had begun to happen in Beirut, and in the 1970's even such cities as Riyadh and Jiddah were affected.

Usually, in the oil producing states of the Arabian Gulf, where space and funds are plentiful and the population small, the new homes combine the best elements of both modern and traditional architecture. But in other countries, like Turkey, where the overriding criterion is to provide as many dwellings as quickly and as inexpensively as possible - to meet the demands of rapidly rising populations - high rise models from the West have been almost totally adopted. As a result, traditional domestic architecture is being destroyed.

In Turkey, traces of the traditional home are still visible, but rapidly changing conditions have made their survival impossible, since the Turks, in addition to facing problems of overcrowding, have, since the 192Cs, deliberately sought to westernize their country and their ways.

In recent years, as industrialization has drawn more and more people to the cities of western Turkey, the old, warmly weathered wooden houses have been demolished to make way for characterless apartment blocks. At the same time, fast cinder-block construction has put the traditional builders out of business. As a result, says one Turkish architect, "the general character of contemporary Anatolian house architecture today can be defined as a product of a withering technology which seems to hover above a nonexistent socio-economic foundation."

In a sense, it was bound to happen anyway because, unlike the stone houses of Europe, the traditional Turkish home was not built to last. Stone was reserved for massive and magnificent palaces and mosques, while wood and dried brick were used for dwellings and these were regularly destroyed by fires, especially in the "aubergine (eggplant) season." Because Turks like to eat aubergines sliced and fried, great fires, starting in kitchens as cooking oil caught fire, would spread quickly through tinder-dry buildings.

In Turkey, which includes regions varying greatly both in climate and in natural features, traditional house types vary according to materials and design. Houses in the cold mountainous east and the hot south, for example, were made of stone, while timber and clay were favored in the temperate regions of the north and west, typical houses of central Anatolia were built of sun-baked mud-brick with heavy earth roofs.

Stone and mud-brick dwellings were usually one-story cubic structures with few windows; timber houses usually stood two, or even three, stories high, with sloping, tiled roofs. In the hot dry regions of southeast Anatolia, houses had rooms with one side opening onto a shaded courtyard; and on the humid southwest Mediterranean coast, homes had numerous windows and balconies overlooking the sea.

On the northern Black Sea coast, the houses were usually made almost entirely of wood, while in western Anatolia they were only half-timbered, with clay packed between carrier beams. Frequently, the ground floor was built of stone.

With the exception of stone houses in southeast Anatolia, where the sides of the courtyard were remarkable for their arched and ornamental masonry, external architecture was usually plain, and coloring was generally natural, or white - except for gaily painted villas overhanging the Bosporus Strait.

Turkish houses usually had overhanging upper stories and projecting roofs to increase interior living space and to protect the lower walls from sun and rain; the windows were covered with wooden lattice work to keep out prying eyes, doors were often decorated with hand carving, and ceilings with geometrical designs and star patterns made of thin strips of wood and colored to resemble the sky on a starry night.

While traditional Turkish house types were very different externally, internally they were not. In fact, with the exception of small concessions to regional taste, their interior layout conformed more or less to a general, three-unit working plan: rooms, the space between them and an antechamber. In various combinations, this elementary scheme could provide surprisingly flexible living arrangements; since all rooms were approximately alike in size and interior, each could serve either as a bedroom, living room or dining room. Each room, furthermore, was similarly, and simply, furnished - with the environmental setting provided not by three dimensional furniture, as it is today, but by colorful surfaces and empty spaces; since meals were served on large trays and bedding was stowed away during the day, the only furniture in most rooms was low, built-in couches strewn with cushions and pillows, while around the room there were alcoves and built-in cupboards. Heating was provided by fireplace or tiled charcoal stove.

Between the rooms were recesses called eyvans; they too were integral parts of the living area, they were used for activities other than sitting, eating or sleeping. And stretching alongside the rooms, linking the eyvans with the inner structure was an open-plan area known as a sofa in which sitting arrangements were often set up in a sort of lattice-work bay window overhanging the exterior wall. The eyvans and sofa were normally on the first and second floors, and the ground floor usually consisted of store rooms, kitchen, bathroom and stables, thus the ground and upper floors, together with the courtyard, formed an organic whole.

The traditional Muslim family structure and the characteristics of its lifestyle also had an important influence on designs; houses, for example, were usually divided into two parts - the men's quarters, and the women's quarters - and an insistence on privacy was expressed in the walled courtyard and lattice covered windows.

"From the standpoint of the nation's cultural history," says one authority, "the traditional homes are very precious indeed, but far more important than that is the role they still can play in our contemporary architecture and life style." Instead of being torn down to make way for new ones, he argues, they should be "reorganized to fit present conditions - something which, bearing in mind their versatility, can easily be achieved."

For "only by accepting its own socio-cultural heritage," he says "can the contemporary community achieve a healthy architectural conception."

This article appeared on pages 36-40 of the March/April 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1983 images.