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Filling Istanbul's Park Void with Mosques' Green Spaces

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Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers.

Istanbul is a city of many hills and many mosques—according to government tourist data, over 444 mosques, to be precise. Some are tourist hubs, items, says Gregers Tang Thomsen, founder, with partner Selva Gürdoğan, of Istanbul's Superpool, to tick off a visitor's to-see list. The less historic hundreds are active sacred spaces, where the call to prayer attracts neighborhood worshippers daily. And yet, Thomsen says, fewer and fewer of these religious institutions fulfill dual functions in their neighborhoods as community hubs.

"From the user point of view, people go to mosques to worship, but beyond that (in some cases) they don't function as much anymore," he says. "They used to be more of a focal point for each neighborhood or community…. Still, many are located quite prominently in the landscape."

What Istanbul offers in mosques, it lacks in parks. In 1950, the city held just a million residents; today, its population nears fifteen million. This rapid growth occurred, for the most part, unplanned, free of the oversight that might protect urban parklands from citizens more focused on the immediate need for housing. A quick glance at a map today reveals startlingly little green space within the urban fabric—a fact highlighted by 2013's Gezi Park protests, which sparked at the proposed demolition of one of the neighborhood's only remaining green areas to make room for a mall and sprawled into one of Istanbul's largest protest movements.

Thomsen and Gürdoğan offer a proposal that embraces Istanbul's reality while offering a small antidote to one of its major problems.

"Anything remotely green is very precious. The green spaces you do see in the city are cemeteries or courtyards of older hospitals, which are not accessible," says Thomsen. "But mosques often do have green spaces" that are open to the public. "The fact that the city is so short on green space necessitates that we be clever with the ones that are there."

Not far from Gezi Park, Cihangir Mosque sits on a hill that drops dramatically toward the Bosphorus. Amid the mosque's largely residential area, its small courtyard entices locals and tourists with enviable river views. The mosque itself, originally built in 1559 in honor of a son of Suleiman the Magnificent and rebuilt various times over the centuries, dates from 1889. Its bright foliage stands out on a hillside overgrown with apartment complexes whose windows pitch out to the river below.

Just past the courtyard, the slope of the steep hill on which the mosque is built drops dramatically. Superpool proposes a landscaping project that would extend the courtyard's park space with wide wooden platforms.

By building up the vertical dropoff beneath the mosque's courtyard with a broad, slanting installation, Superpool effectively extends the possible parkland within the available horizontal space, around and under the courtyard's foliage. On the west side of the mosque, a stairway connects the existing courtyard to platforms below; on the east side, the horizontal plot is modified to extend the slanted platforms to the street-level above.

"Because of Istanbul's topography, there winds up being unusable space," says Thomsen. "There are lost spaces that no one uses because they're too narrow, too sloped, not big enough for a tree to grow, not comfortable to hang out on."

With minimal intervention, focus remains on what already exists: sweeping vistas of the river below, precious greenery in the courtyards above, connection to the residential neighborhood on either side. Superpool envisions the sort of collective balcony-like outdoor space on which groups of teenagers might socialize and elderly residents might relax, an urban park to alternately traverse through or rest in, that folds itself reflexively into the community.

As Istanbul's citizens grapple with their urban and democratic future, so dramatically demonstrated by the Gezi Park movement, in which more than 8,000 citizens were injured, spying bits of possible parkland acquires a certain political gravity. Such protests cast the need for community space, free of charge, into relief. While these drawings, by Memed Erdener, suggest a specific project for Cihangir Mosque, Thomsen and Gürdoğan posit them as less of a specific intervention than "a global idea that we could insert into different places."

"It is not a new thing for Istanbullus to drift off watching the Bosphorus, but nowadays it is nearly impossible for them to socialize without having to spend money," says Thomsen. "Here, life can revolve around the mosque as in any other public space."

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