Session at the European Architectural History Network Sixth International Meeting

The “Ottoman house” refers to a vernacular building type and urban housing layout that became ubiquitous across a large swathe of regions, from Anatolia to the Adriatic in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Equally shared by different ethnic groups and religious denominations, it represented a common, pre-national cultural model and pre-modern architectural type distinguished by a number of elements that featured numerous local variants. However, despite being the “syncretic product of a multiethnic society”, it has been symptomatically identified as “Turkish” and “Oriental”. In the era of nationalism, which reached its peak after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman house and its associated meanings went on an unexpectedly complex and controversial semiotic journey.

Practically all post Ottoman successor states, including the republican Turkey, endeavoured to appropriate and “nationalize” the once common architectural heritage, both by scholarly interpretation and a “modern vernacular” building production. This included the unequivocal rebuttal of its Oriental identity through the question of its origins that became both complex and contradictory. Was the Ottoman house autochthonous or derivative? Was its ancestry Byzantine, Ancient Greek, Slavic, or genuinely Turkish; or even Thracian and Illyrian? Or was its cultural backbone pan-Balkan or Mediterranean? While architectural historians tried to trace back the Ottoman house’s roots, the cities in which it flourished had already been de-Ottomanized and “Europeanized” — from the Black Sea to the Adriatic coast, from the Dodecanese to the Danube — causing the precarious vernacular heritage to be paradoxically seen as an obstacle to the national culture and a source of its identity. At the same time, its architectural features were appreciated through the modernist lenses of rationality, functionalism, simplicity and honesty. Propelled by Le Corbusier’s enduring interest in what he called the “architectural masterpieces” of the Ottoman vernacular, various interpretations by historians, anthropologists and architects included the Ottoman house in the modernist discourse about universal responses to natural conditions and a cultural ethos that transcended history.

A key rationale for this session is a paradox that lies at the heart of this identitydynamics in which the once common heritage, which was initially despised and then so utterly transformed to become the epitome of national parochialism, was also seen as a protomodernist expression of universal and supra-ethnic principles. The proposed session would invite the participants to investigate this remarkable afterlife—both written and constructed—of Ottoman vernacular architecture, torn between cultural exceptionalism and cultural universalism.

Aleksandar Ignjatovic, University of Belgrade

Contact : Aleksandar Ignjatovic, Email : [email protected]