| Dec 12, 2013
By Dr. Veronica Kalas, Ph.D.
I have been asked to write a report for the International Center of Medieval Art newsletter concerning recent events in Turkey whereby Byzantine churches that long have held the status of state museums and cultural heritage sites are being converted into mosques. It is crucial to raise awareness about this very critical issue. The examples include the church of the Hagia Sophia in Iznik (Nicea), the church of the Hagia Sophia in Trabzon (Trebizond), and the plans for the church and associated monastic complex of St. John Stoudios in Istanbul (Constantinople). Although these events have been ongoing for quite some time, the world started watching more closely in recent months when certain representatives of the Turkish government publicly called for the conversion of THE Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. For every example, the original Byzantine church building testifies to the vast contribution of Byzantine culture and civilization to the history of medieval art and architecture and world architecture more broadly. These churches were converted into mosques under Ottoman rule and subsequently into museums under the Turkish Republic.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (photo credit: Veronica Kalas)
Although it has been reported that right-wing Turkish politicians and political parties introduced these ideas since the 1950s, in the last year or so the trend has been implemented and seems to be gaining momentum. The political background, individuals, and organizations involved in the issue is intricate and sensitive, as Andrew Finkel has discussed in “Mosque conversion raises alarm: Christian art in Byzantine church-turned-museum is at risk after controversial court ruling,” The Art Newspaper 245 (April 2013). The peg on which to hang the legality of these conversions stems from a multifarious set of maneuvers that includes the transfer of the right to care for the monuments from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to the Directorate General of Pious Foundations. This transfer is highly significant in the Turkish context as the two organizations adhere to separate rules, regulations, and approaches to historic monuments and museums that are often at odds with one another. In some ways these buildings embody a kind of secular state being taken over or occupied by a religious state within Turkey, although in essence the Directorate of Pious Foundations always had jurisdiction over the monuments, which technically have been leased to the Ministry to run as museums. The situation is very complicated, not entirely transparent, and is not the same for every case. Claims that some consider dubious are circulating by an MHP party member who introduced the bill in parliament to make legal the conversion of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on the basis that the original document legalizing its conversion to a museum in the 1930s was a forgery, and therefore the building has maintained its status as a mosque since its initial conversion in the fifteenth century.
Analysts have considered the issue from a variety of angles, from the attempt of some politicians within the current government to garner votes from the religiously conservative majority population in Turkey, to the wish to reclaim Turkey’s Ottoman past, to a direct antagonism toward Eastern Christianity for which these buildings are immensely symbolic. Largely left out of the news reports is a significant discussion of the damage these priceless structures face in the process of conversion, and their subsequent use as mosques from an archaeological and historic preservation point of view as Amberin Zaman has reported in The Economist, Al Monitor, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the examples cited are only a fraction of a larger issue of the destruction of culturally and historically significant monuments worldwide.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (photo credit: Veronica Kalas)
Among many alterations to the building’s fabric, all religious imagery must be covered-- a process that inevitably leads to damage as has been demonstrated in the past. In the case of St. John Studios, the fifth-century church building would have to be rebuilt as a mosque as it is currently roofless. It has been reported that the proposed plan is to reconstruct the monument with a dome, which is entirely incongruous with the original design of the structure as a three-aisled basilica. Although individual academics and archaeologists from both within Turkey and internationally are openly opposed to this, thus far there has been no concerted effort put forth from any angle to voice an effective objection to these events. Particularly absent so far is any statement by international bodies concerned with cultural heritage preservation, such as UNESCO, ICOMOS, ICOM, and WMF among other organizations either from within Turkey or globally, to address the grave concerns about the fate of these invaluable buildings. Most likely the general perception is that there is no adequate way to deal with the complexity of the problem and any criticism from the outside would be perceived of as imposed from the ‘west’ and therefore ineffectual. I include below an archive of links to recent news items in English worthy of note to help anyone wishing to follow the events as they unravel.
Dr. Veronica Kalas, Ph.D.
December 7, 2013
Articles about the conversion of Byzantine churches to mosques in Turkey:
On Hagia Sophia, Istanbul:
On Hagia Sophia, Trabzon:
On Hagia Sophia, Iznik
On St. John Studios, Istanbul
On the trend in general:
| Nov 25, 2013
This week marks the anniversary of Swann's Way
, the first installment of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time
. Ira Glass, creator of This American Life, begins a marathon reading of the novel from a hotel room in Brooklyn. After constructing a replica of Proust's own room, Yale's French Department embarks on a similar marathon. With Proust, the modern self encountered a subjective re-awakening through architectural memory. Recent experiments in the medium of Podcasts genealogically connect with Proust's narrative stream, where, “I was more destitute than a cave dweller; but then the memory—not yet of the place where I was, but of several of those where I had lived and where I might have been—would come to me like help from on high to pull me out of the void from which I could not have got out on my own.”
The soothing voices of radio theater have long disappeared from the airwaves, but a new medium, radio podcasts, have taken their place. The discipline of architectural history seems to have finally exerted some creative real estate in this medium. Radio nonfiction has became a dominant form of narrative, beginning with WBEZ's This American Life in 1995. Its creator, Ira Glass, went as far as to herald a new era when in 2007 he published The New Kings of Nonfiction. “We're living in an age of great nonfiction writing,” writes Glass, “in the same way that the 1920s and '30s were a golden age of American popular song. Giants walk among us. Cole Porters and George Gershwins and Duke Ellingtons of nonfiction storytelling. They're trying new things and doing pirouettes with the form. But nobody talks about it that way.” The success of such alternative voices morphed further into podcast radio shows, seriated online rather than the syndicated radio waves. July 2013 seems to have marked a watershed moment for podcasts, when Welcome to the NIght Vale became the most downloadable podcast from iTunes. Another marker of success came, when 99% Invisible, the premier architectural podcast, raised double the amounts it had pledged on Kickstarter for Season Four. With Proust and the podcast in mind, I review the podcasts that I have found to be most relevant to architectural history.
This is the most exciting podcast on architecture and design. It was created by Roman Mars in San Francisco and produced by KALW and the San Francisco American Institute of Architects. Roman Mars has been called the Ira Glass of architecture. Although he commands an increasing presence in the podcast universe, Mars is interested in the deflated, the historical detail and its traction daily life. In a recent interview in Mother Jones, he noted, “I really wanted to focus on the everyday, even the mundane, and not the things that were shiny and new and exciting.” This month's fundraising success on Kickstarter means that the fourth season of 99% Invisible will be aired weekly.
Kurt Andersen's Studio 360, produced by WNYC in New York, is the oldest and most respected podcast on arts and culture with a Peabody Award under its belt. Although not devoted exclusively to architectural history, it often addresses issues of history and design. Its series, Design for the Real World and Redesigns, focus on issues of design, but the most useful series for architectural historians is the award-winning American Icons. So far, five episodes focus on architectural monuments: the Lincoln Memorial, Monticello, Falling Water, the Vietnam Memorial and Disneyland. Typically about 45 minutes long, these episodes have been excellent for teaching.
DnA: DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE
Hosted by Frances Anderton, this KCRW production centers on architecture and design with a focus on the Los Angeles area. Anderton is a seasoned architectural journalist (The Architectural Review, L.A. Architect) who has become the voice of design in southern California. (See an Anderton interview here.) DnA's perspective balances the other geographic anchors (New York, Chicago, and San Francisco).
The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., produces a different kind of podcast that distributes audio recordings of its programming. Typically based on lectures given at the museum, this podcast is exclusively dedicated to architectural history and is a MUST in the cadre of architecture listening. Two recent episodes by historian Elizabeth Hope Cushing and landscape architect Laurie Olin, for example, bring to the general audience the museum's symposium on Frederic Law Olmstead that took place on October 10.
ARCHITECTURAL LEAGUE OF NEW YORK
Like the National Building Museum, the Architectural League of New York podcasts all of its events and makes them available to general readers.
Similarly, the American Institute of Architects aggregates podcasts that relate to practicing architecture. "Architecture Knowledge Review is a podcast series for design professionals, featuring interviews, discussions, and best practices by architects and other design professionals who are at the forefront of the profession."
BBC - ARTS AND IDEAS
One way to remain adrift with what Britain's cultural conversation is to listen to Arts and Ideas, a podcast that weekly aggregates the best interviews by BBC Radio 3's Night Waves. Literature, fine arts, theater, and music predominate, but there is a strong architectural presence. New buildings are discussed and old buildings are reconsidered. A recent favorite is the discussion of zoo architecture. Here one can also learn about new buildings, such as Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre. Based entirely on interviews and conversations, this is one of the most intellectually charged podcasts. What makes British journalism interesting is the tradition of correspondents pushing their interviewers critically, rather than simply asking polite questions. Night Wave's correspondents (Matthew Sweet, Philip Dodd, Rana Mitter, and Anne McElvoy) press their interviewers with a critical edge.
BBC - IN OUR TIMES
Hosted by Melvyn Bragg, In Our Times is another highlight of British cultural journalism. The podcast's premise is simple. Bragg chooses a topic every week and invites three notable academics to discuss it. The topics are broad and rarely target individual monuments. As in other programs on arts and culture, architectural coverage is episodic. Programs include Architecture and Power
(with architectural historians Adrian Tinniswood, Gavin Stamp, and Gillian Darley), Archaeology and Imperialism
, the Gothic
, Architecture in the 20th Century
, Modernist Utopias
, John Ruskin
, and the Baroque
. WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE
Although most tangentially related to architectural history, Welcome to Night Vale is by far the most ambitious podcast. Narrated as a series of community announcements, Welcome to Night Vale transports the listener to an imaginary American town in the southwest. In its indeterminate subject, it touches on some fundamental issues of architecture and meaning. This podcast is impossible to describe, it must be experienced. In July 2013, it became the most downloaded podcast, surpassing the pioneering This American Life.
Given the rising number of podcasts and radio shows targeting architectural issues, it becomes increasingly apparent that certain other culture shows shy away from architecture. One of my favorite podcasts, Slate's CULTURE GABFEST
, for instance, is pathetically poor on design. Similarly, the best Canadian culture show, Q
,with Jian Ghomeshi, rarely tackles the built environment. Different productions have different strengths, and it makes no sense to DEMAND for venues greater architectural coverage. But it is disconcerting how certain articulations of cultural journalism do not see architecture in the same level as text or media creations. A different podcast genre is dedicated to traditional histories, such as Mike Duncan's THoR
(The History of Rome) or Robin Pierson's HISTORY OF BYZANTIUM.
These, too, spare little audio space for architecture.
To conclude, architectural podcasts fit into four categories that, for convenience, we might categorize as: 1. Story Driven, 2. Interview Driven, 3. Lecture Driven, and 4. Fantastical. The Story-Driven podcasts (99% Invisible) experiment with the journalistic voice by pursuing a story or a theme from the ground (replicating the experimental journalism of This American Life). The Interview-Driven podcasts take their cue from the radio interview show (Fresh Air, Radio Times, etc.) but target architectural guests. Lecture-Driven podcasts are simple translations of a live event that is recorded and made available on the internet. These proliferate across museums and organizations and are typically the least interesting in form. Finally, the Fantastical podcasts (Welcome to Night Vale) open new grounds to speak about architectural experience in unexpected ways.
In an era of digital uncertainties, architectural historians worry that their subject matter resists the digital translation. Its very physicality and three-dimensionality precluded the digital flatness. Podcasts offer one avenue of dreamy materialization.