An Interview with Turkish Architect/Poet Cengiz Bekt: Space and Poetry
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La Piana: Perhaps you could tell us a bit about your design for the home of Sumer Pek. I understand that you came here to Ann Arbor six years ago to begin this project.
Bektas: Yes I came here and lived with Sumer and his wife for a time. By living with them I could find out exactly what kind of a house they wanted. I could see what kind of life they had grown accustomed to, and incorporate those patterns of living into my design. During my stay with them I also made a three-dimensional model, so that they could see my ideas, and play with them and critique them. I feel that the people who will live in a house should be consulted throughout the design process. A structure can look beautiful, but be the wrong space for the people using it.
Cohen: Is the professional life of an architect in Turkey similar to what it is here?
Bektas: It's not really like in the U.S. In Turkey it is not possible to say: "I will do only hospitals." Or only hotels. We have to work on different kinds of projects. For me, architecture is a way of looking at the world. This means that if I can find a solution in one project, I can use it on other subjects (hospitals, houses, factories) as well.
When I design a building, I first address the question of function. If the project is a factory then I spend some time working in a similar factory in advance so that I will know what the function of the building really is, and so that I understand some of the problems employees might encounter in that factory. Once I figure out the function-once the shoe correctly fits the foot-then begins the real architecture.
La Piana: What about architectural tradition? To what degree do you think about the past when you work?
Bektas: Architectural tradition is very important in Turkey. The first human settlement in the world was in the region that is now Turkey. Many of the important ancient cities, which were built to create a better man, were founded in our region. Ancient western Anatolian cities such as Ephesus and Pergamum have been highly instrumental for the development of human social life.
La Piana: On the subject of Pergamum, what do you think of the Pergamum Museum in East Berlin?
Bektas: I am certain that one day the Germans will return the Temple of Pergamum to its original site, in Turkey. Not because of pressure from the Turks. But for educational reasons. A sculpture or a temple needs its appropriate environment around it. When taken out of its place, it becomes an object, no longer alive. The Germans realize this, I think…I am fighting for Pergamum. But if one day the Germans suddenly wrote us a letter saying: "We are sending back the Pergamum Temple," what would we do? We in Turkey must prepare ourselves for the coming of the Temple of Pergamum. How? We must have summer schools-architectural summer schools, archeological summer schools and other cultural institutions. In order to contribute to this preparation I have recently organized a meeting of poets in Bergama, which is the site of the ancient city of Pergamum. There was a school of literature in Pergamum during Homer's time. At this meeting poets from all over the Mediterranean region will come together and discuss the age of Homer. In the Iliad, Homer describes the Trojan War. But he describes this war with love, with feeling. I believe that unless you see Homer's environment you cannot develop a clear understanding of this love. By bringing cultural objects into their original environment, you develop this understanding…In terms of participants in the meeting, I have already received responses from France, Spain, Italy, Macedonia, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. They will all be taking part. Also from Cyprus…Only poets will be attending. They are all members of the PEN Club. The general secretary of the PEN Club will also be coming. For me this kind of symposium is part of fulfilling my responsibility to the next generation. Wars are being fought in many places now and people should work to prevent them. One way to do this is to emphasize what connects people, rather than focusing on differences and what separates us from each other, as is the current tendency. Over the centuries the Mediterranean countries have gradually come to believe that they have no relationship to each other. Because his work relates to the history of so many peoples of the Mediterranean, Homer is a very nice tool to emphasize the togetherness of all these nations.
La Piana: Can you talk a little about why you write poetry?
Bektas: I have things to tell. If I can express these things with architecture, that's fine. But if I have something to say that can't be said with architecture, I still must find a way to communicate it.
La Piana: You need both mediums, because some things can only be said with architecture, and some only with poetry. But I am curious to know what kinds of things one can say with architecture. I guess I never thought of architecture as a mode of saying something.
Bektas: I try to say that a home or a building is a place for coming together and living together, not for separating people from each other. In Sumer Pek's house, no matter what room you are in, you are somehow connected to the central area. You are always part of a community. The house is circular, which adds to the importance of the center. I believe that we have only one life, and thus that we have to learn how to live together. And I think Sumer Pek's house does say this. Architecture is space. It is not the walls and floors and windows which make up architecture, but the space created by them. This space must have special light. In the middle of Sumer Pek's central living area, around which all the rooms are arranged, the light is brightest, so that light radiates from the center.
La Piana: It sounds like you think about space as your main material, rather than wood or stone or glass.
Bektas: Yes. A sponge is a sponge not because of the material it's made of but because of the spaces in it.
La Piana: And what about your poetry? What do you try to say in your poetry?
Bektas: Love, love, love each other!
Pek: More specifically, what would you like to say about the characteristics of your poetry? We've heard about the qualities of your architecture, what about your poetic work?
Bektas: Literature is made with words, but also with rhythm and with silences. Architecture is about light and about rhythm between spaces… The critics say that my poetry has a specific structure. And in architecture you also have a structure: you have columns, you have beams. In Renaissance architecture the windows are made to be seen; they stand out. It's a very important element. But in my work you must forget the columns and the windows. As an architect I think not about windows or walls but about creating a space. Each of these elements (windows, columns) are like words in a poem. Individually they are not so important; but they bring music, color and light to the whole. In the end, with a poem or a building, you are happy or you are not. The individual elements, be they words or windows, are not so important.
Cohen: Do architecture critics, when they talk about your work, talk about it as a kind of poetry? And do the critics of poetry ever talk about your writing as a kind of architecture?
Bektas: Not everybody. Normally the poets in Turkey don't understand architecture too well. But personally I think it's almost impossible for a great poet not to have a feeling for architecture. If you have the feeling for painting, you cannot say you don't understand sculpture. Sculpture, architecture, poetry, painting-they are all interconnected, like a family.
Cohen: One of the things I'm interested in is the ways in which silences are constructed by what it is possible to say in a given political situation. And I'm thinking of analogies between these silences and the question of space which is broken by walls and other elements the way that silences are broken by words.
Bektas: Silences, pauses and spaces are necessary for architecture. I cannot understand why, for example, the Egyptian pyramids are considered to be architecture. You cannot go in! Architecture has an inside, a space inside. In the case of sculpture, on the other hand, we look from the outside. We can feel the inside, but we are not living in it. Architecture is something different. We are working with people's daily lives. But to address your question about silence: in the old conventional poetry you have regular spaces left between sections, and all lines are about the same length. In modern Turkish poetry the use of silence is much more versatile. Some lines abruptly stop after just two words, some go on longer. There is considerable versatility in modern poetry for the poet to use silence to emphasize his message. Giving an example from one of my poems: I present an image of a door opening, and then I follow it with empty space with a silence. The next line tells us that what we are entering is somehow the same as the outside world we have left. In the poem I try to tie together the inside space with the outside environment. The silence is there so that the reader can pause to envision the act of opening the door. Another contrast between poetry and architecture: a poem is just between the reader and the poet. But in architecture people are living in the structure, many people, not just one. The purpose of a city is to bring in people to live and enjoy it, whereas poetry is a one-to-one communication.
Cohen: But still the audience is expected to contribute not only by reading the words, but also by helping to create the meaning.
Pek: Yes, the audience must contribute to the poem. It's not a passive thing, it's a dialogue.
Bektas: The poetry is not yet finished if all I've done is write and publish it. It's not yet poetry. It only begins to be poetry when someone feels a connection with my words. It's just the same with architecture. If you spend your life living on a hill, all alone, at the end you are still not a man. You have no connection to the other people. A stone only becomes beautiful, rounded and smooth when it touches and rolls with many other stones. Otherwise it has hard edges. It is the same with people. Only when people come together do they become men. If you can bring more and more people together through architecture, you bring humanity into human relations. In my work I try to contribute to the building of a better cultural life for the people.
La Piana: What do you mean by "cultural life," exactly?
Bektas: Well, in Istanbul, for example there are people living in an isolated way and others living more together, as a community, and architecture can influence this and bring people together so that they give more time to each other. Through my knowledge of the old houses of Turkey, which I try to incorporate into my current projects, I tell the next generation how people lived before. I carry over the positive elements of past living styles into my contemporary buildings.
La Piana: Do you try to incorporate elements of traditional Turkish architecture into your work?
Bektas: Yes, but these elements are not always identifiable as such. You cannot always tell what I have reinterpreted from traditional Turkish architecture. You cannot see the elements exactly as they were before. But as in traditional Turkish architecture, I always try to create a central, public space in my projects, so that the people will come together. This is the main idea. I don't need, for example, to show my knowledge of Ottoman architecture by making cupolas or using stone. Instead, I try to make a building with the same mentality as the traditional architects, with a central space so people can come together. You don't need to show your cultural knowledge with little details and isolated elements. In traditional architecture everything comes together in the "sofa," the communal area. The "sofa" unites the space.
La Piana:I'm curious to know how you would organize a Turkish studies program at an American university, if you were to take on such a project.
Bektas: I would emphasize lifestyle and the sociology of Turkish people. It's only possible to understand Turkish architecture or literature or music if you know something about the way that Turkish people live. I would try to convey my sense of the importance of Turkish community. I can illustrate what I mean through an analogy. If I prepare some food in my house, and the scent of the food floats through the neighborhood, then I have a responsibility to share what I have prepared with my neighbors.
La Piana: Are you talking about a kind of equalization of resources? The idea that if one person has more he should share it with others who have less?
Bektas:Yes. It's the idea that by generating that wonderful smell you develop an obligation to give everyone a taste of it. Just making the food isn't good enough-you must share it.
Renowned Turkish architect and poet Cengiz Bektas made a brief visit to the University of Michigan in April. Born in 1934 in Denizli, a small town in the south of Turkey, Bektas has won numerous prizes for his poetry and architecture, including the prestigious Den Bir Superior Service to the Arts prize and several awards for his contributions to the Turkish National Architecture Exhibition. Bektas was educated at the Himar Sinan University in Turkey and the Munich Technical University in Germany, and his architectural projects have included residences, schools, office buildings and factories. Each of his projects has emphasized comfortable, functional common spaces which build a sense of community among residents and workers.
Bektas is also an accomplished poet and essayist. He has published ten books of poetry and six books of essays on architecture and culture. This year he has organized a conference of poets who are members of the PEN Club. The poets will meet in Bergama, the site of the ancient city of Pergamum, where they will share their perspectives on the ancient Greek epic poet Homer.
Since 1978 Bektas has worked collaboratively with other architects within the context of the Bektas Participatory Architectural Workshop, in Istanbul. The members of the Workshop work non-hierarchically. Everyone is paid the same salary and each architect has an equal voice in decision-making. This principle of participation extends also to the relation between clients and the architects in the Workshop. Before Bektas and his partners began designing the Turkish Language Society Building, which was voted the "best and most important contemporary building" in Turkey by Turkish architectural students, they interviewed every employee there, so that their needs and desires could be incorporated into the plan. The same philosophy of participation was implemented in a housing project in Edirne, Turkey and in a commercial centre in Denizli, Turkey.
During his eight-day visit to the University of Michigan Bektas presented a talk on Turkish architectural traditions, emphasizing the continuity of styles throughout the antique, the Seljuk and the Ottoman periods. Bektas also gave a poetry reading, in Turkish, with members of the Turkish Students' Association. His brief visit also included a meeting with members of the staff of i.i.: The Journal of the International Institute, in which he discussed the relation between his architectural philosophy and his poetic work, and the ways in which his architectural work is connected to Turkish architectural heritage
Although the majority of Bektas' projects have been built in Turkey, Ann Arbor has also been graced with one of his designs. Bektas did the plans for the residence of University of Michigan Professor of Internal Medicine Sumer Pek, a friend of Bektas since their first meeting, as Turkish students abroad, in Germany. It was in the residence of Sumer Pek that the conversation between Bektas and members of our staff took place. Present at the discussion, which is excerpted below, were Cengiz Bektas, Sumer Pek, Mickey Pek, David William Cohen (Director of the International Institute), Gretchen Elsner-Sommer and Siobhan La Piana (Research Assistant at the International Institute).