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Collector of architectural pearls in Istanbul

With the Art Biennale as starting point for a trip to Istanbul in 2007, I met the idealist Stein-Gunnar Sommerset who buys and takes pity on old, derelict timber houses in Istanbul.

Text: Bjørg Taranger

Sommerset showed us another kind of “art” in the historic Istanbul, namely the forgotten architectural pearls he has become a passionate conservator of. The district he led us to was poor and slum like, but the beauty of the details in the architecture could still be seen through the decay. I was fascinated both by the houses, his work, his zeal and devotion. The contrast between the palpable decay and what was to me a mystical “sanctum” intensified the experience. I had the feeling of being in a sacral place, with death and destruction, but which at the same time exhibited strong vitality in each detail.

Tvillinghusene i Süleymaniye. Foto Jan Pettersson 2007

The twin house in Süleymaniye. Photo: Jan Pettersson 2007

Bjørg Taranger – Based on your commitment I regard you as a collector of “desired” objects. Can your work be compared to that of an art collector? Can it be said that here is something Utopian, passionate, and nearly religious in the way that you work?

Stein-Gunnar Sommerset – It would have been noble to claim that I am collecting houses which otherwise may have collapsed or would have been demolished; that I contribute in keeping up a part of the cultural heritage for the next generation even though not all are aware of the importance of this work.  However, my motives are, I dare say, more selfish than altruistic. I create my own identity working with restorations and conservation. In social events my restoration work is a prominent theme and I am delighted to show people what I am doing. For, what would the value of historic objects be if human beings were unable to appreciate them? Passion, love and religion are semantically weighty words which I would be reluctant to use when speaking about old timber houses. Do I desire these buildings? Do I worship them? Although the answers to these questions are negative, I have to admit that I deal with historic houses in a passionate way. I take care of old and weathered wood, listen to the sounds that come from an old house during the night and discover its secrets.

I do recognise myself in the comparison with an art collector who has a nearly religious relationship to his objects, but I would like to emphasise my need to be in a process where the object little by little regains its past splendours. If the process were not there, I think I could dispose of what I have collected. Otherwise, it would have been hard to let it go. Whatever I collect is for myself. However, I wish to inspire others to carry out restoration works in the same spirit as I do mine. This I have to a certain extent achieved. The Municipality has in fact been inspired to carry out so called minimal repairs and they have restored the remaining buildings in the street in a similar way. The success of this work has been proved by the fact that UNESCO during its review mission last year called on this street first of all!

Perhaps it was here, through Pamuk’s texts on Istanbul that your dream was formed?

Just below Istanbul University, in one of the four historical areas in the metropolis of Istanbul, I have restored the exterior of a twin house dating from the last turn of the century. By twin houses I mean two attached buildings which mirror each other.

Last year, when I understood that the repair works of the houses in Süleymaniye would provoke attention in the media, I called a friend of mine who knows and understands my project well and asked her if she could kindly write an article about it in Hürriyet, one of the most serious newspapers in Turkey. In the article this reputable academic wrote, the feasibility of the project was underlined, the fact that two houses were already salvaged from further decay and from the urge of renewal found in developers without any sense of history, and that the work had been carried out by a private person with modest means. Although I have had to renounce some boons and comfort, I assert that it’s not Utopian to restore an old house; even in a country where the bureaucracy is perhaps more an obstacle than a benefit for the protection of cultural values.

The houses make up a part of a historical quarter which has not been over restored and which has therefore kept its “soul”. Although the elevations of these twin houses look majestic, are they in fact tiny three-storey houses on 50 yd² lots; not exactly an investor’s dream. These houses are examples of tangible cultural heritage which I with confidence can claim would have been irretrievably lost if worn down by yet another winter. I wish to inhabit and live in these houses without changing my lifestyle. Moreover, I regard it as crucial for the conservation of the houses that they are inhabited. I do not wish for a museum. Consequently, I have drawn in balconies and a roof terrace on the houses. What’s important is that it will remain clear to anyone, included those without any interest in architecture, that these are modern additions. I wish to bring life back to the houses. Norwegian real estate brokers commonly speak about the “soul” of a house when they are about to sell a property not yet renovated. What frequently happens during renovations is that a part of this “soul” gets lost. I was compelled to undertake some reconstruction of the Süleymaniye-houses, but their authenticity remains intact.

Tvillinghusene i Süleymaniye. Foto Jan Pettersson 2007

The twin house in Süleymaniye. Photo: Jan Pettersson 2007

BT – In an interview in the newspaper Turkish Daily News you have said that you are inspired by the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. Perhaps it was here, through Pamuks texts on Istanbul that your dream was formed?

SGS – I first got to know Istanbul back in 1992 when I travelled through Greece and Turkey with an InterRail ticket. I still recall the scents and the atmosphere in the streets the first morning I trudged around searching for lodging. At the time, I didn’t know much about my imminent studies in Classical Greek and my stay in Copenhagen where I would study Modern Greek and read about the derelict “Greek” neighbourhoods in Constantinople – Phanari,  Pera and the amazing Princes’ Islands – that I would make up my mind and move here in order to salvage a decayed Greek house after my studies were over.

At irregular intervals, I travelled several times to Istanbul and got more and more attached to the city and its historical structure, in particular vernacular architecture. Upon discovering the literature of Orhan Pamuk who would receive the Nobel Prize a few years later, my choice was clear: I would settle in this city so rich with history. Orhan Pamuk has indeed managed to depict the tristesse of an empire lost. When I read Pamuks novels, I often feel a close communication between the author and myself.

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The twin house in Süleymaniye. Photo Stein-Gunnar Sommerset 2009

BT – How do you regard the ethical aspect of your work? Do you consider that your work will have a social meaning beyond your personal commitment? And in addition to your own efforts, how can you finance such a project? Is there a possibility that a sponsor and/or volunteers could help out? Someone who would like to pursue your dream? 


SGS – An inevitable result of the kind of regentrification that I am involved in here in the neighbourhood is expulsion of the poorest. As can be seen from the houses in the district of Süleymaniye, the poor and the well-to-do used to live closer to each other during Ottoman times than what we see in the West. Elegant mansions with decorative oriels are constructed in the same street as modest timber huts. To somewhat recreate this demography will, I think, make the district vital and more attractive. The district of Süleymaniye has been turned into a slum and the houses have generally speaking declined during the last fifty years. Poor Anatolian peasants have flocked in to Istanbul and done whatever they liked in abandoned houses. Many of these people are now dreaming about moving into comfortable apartments with a shower and WC. They are not necessarily aware of the assets of the historical environment. There might be some, however, who would wish to continue living in their houses if there are possibilities to get employed and get funds to adjust the houses to a modern standard of living.

These people should be considered more as a resource than a hurdle for conservation. It is essential to be aware of the value, not the least the pecuniary value, and the potential for development in historical districts. Considering the dismal shape the buildings are in, I do not think the negative effects of a cautious regentrification should invoke fear.

I had the feeling of being in a sacral place, with death and destruction, but which at the same time exhibited strong vitality in each detail.

Among the adults are many working as street peddlers or they drag along huge wagons at night to collect items for recycling. They are often forced to send their children off to the manufacturing industry. It is in everyone’s interest that these human beings are given an opportunity to go on living in their houses and that their standard of living increases. I wish I could do something for the children growing up here. There is so much to be done and so many men without anything to do!    People are pleased when I hire them to do some work. When they see that I, as patron, take an active part in the labour, that I dig in the ground and crawl into a dusty cellar, they might have thought that I am rather stingy not to hire a worker. But I believe most people now think that I have a mixture of foreign eccentricity and sheer job satisfaction.

My next door neighbour has helped out with mixing and applying a lime based mortar (horasan) which I have used for rendering the fire walls. I often express my scepticism towards cementitious mortars, the favoured construction material in the Mediterranean, and to my great delight I now see that this man has rendered his own basement walls out of his own free will using precisely horasan.

In Turkey 10% of all property tax is allocated to the conservation of listed buildings. I have applied for a  contribution so as to prepare a project for the houses in Süleymaniye and to get permission to restore, but it has been refused despite the fact that these are houses in one of Istanbul’s most historically important and vulnerable districts. I must admit that the economic load is a heavy burden and that I don’t expect to finalise these twin houses on my own. For the time being I am without any solution.

As for the Greek house that I have modernised on the Princes’ Islands, I have a team of carpenters from Berlin who will come this autumn in order to repair the elevations. This is funded by the Leonardo da Vinci programme and I offer a certain educational arrangement with local experts and institutions willing to share experiences and knowledge on a non profit basis. The carpenters are young people under training and I will see to it that their trip to Istanbul and the three weeks they will work on my house will be highly esteemed by all parties. I am myself paying for the materials and the permission to restore. It would have been fantastic if a similar project could have been done with the remaining work on the houses in Süleymaniye!

i Concerning Orhan Pamuk’s novel Istanbul: Memories and the City: ‘A city which one has lived in for a long time, is created in one’s own image, it gets the features of one’s own personality, characteristics of the soul common to one’s own. It becomes what Jorge Luis Borges once called ’a map over my humiliations and slips’ or, as is the case with Pamuk’s Istanbul, a map over the melancholy of a human being, both of his own sufferings and betrayals and his secret victories.’  Alberto Manguel
ii Architecture originating from the indigenous people; architecture without an architect.’

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