Dr Zeynep Celik is a distinguished professor of architecture and history at New Jersey Institute of Technology – Rutgers University, and adjunct professor of history at Columbia University. She has also written, edited and produced numerous publications that explore the architecture and cities of the late Ottoman Empire and French colonialism. Here, she discusses her extensive contributions to architectural history.
Tell us how you got started in your field.
My interest in architectural history goes back to my first year of architecture school at the Istanbul Technical University, thanks to an intellectually rigorous and stimulating group of faculty members. Under the tutelage of Professor Dogan Kuban, they were instrumental in provoking me to think about the culture of architecture in complex ways. Their approach was interdisciplinary and contextual as they situated buildings and cities in political, economic and socio-cultural frameworks.
After completing my professional degrees, my passion for architectural history led me to pursue a doctorate in architectural history at the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley, I was fortunate to study with another legendary professor, Spiro Kostof, a pioneer who integrated “non-western” contexts into his teaching and scholarship and who had a special interest in the architecture of the Middle East. I caught the bug of research and writing while working on my dissertation and the pleasure I found in scholarship turned me into a productive historian.
What sparked your interested in the architecture and cities of the late Ottoman Empire and French colonialism? What about these areas of study do you find most fascinating?
I was born and raised in Istanbul, a city with many layers of fascinating history. While each of these layers revealed different realities, stories, aesthetics, forms and spaces, I was drawn to the post-Tanzimat (post-1830s) reform era and its impact on the architecture and urbanism of the Ottoman capital. During the 1980s (when I chose my dissertation topic), this period was not a popular area of study as its architecture was considered derivative, eclectic and degenerate. Perhaps attracted by its impurity, I wanted to understand the meanings behind the 19th-century buildings.
I questioned the orthodoxy that dismissed this period and hoped to bring a new understanding to the discourse by investigating the built forms in reference to the political, social and cultural changes that re-shaped the empire. The revised version of my dissertation was published as The Remaking of Istanbul (1986). From then on, my scholarship followed an organic trajectory.
The cross-cultural dialogues I identified in The Remaking of Istanbul led me to look into the representations of “Islamic” cultures in international exhibitions resulting in my second book, Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at Nineteenth-Century World’s Fairs (1992). The presence of colonies in the exhibitions triggered me to turn to colonial architecture and urbanism, centering on the highly charged case study of Algiers, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers under French Rule (1997). I then brought my interest in Ottoman modernity in the Middle East and French colonisation in North Africa together by investigating them in comparison in Empire, Architecture, and the City: French Ottoman Encounters, 1830-1914 (2008).
The interconnected nature of Ottoman modernity with archaeological research, which the study opened up for me, resulted in my next book on the politics of archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, About Antiquities: Politics of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire (2016).
Along the way, I edited several books and wrote articles on related topics. From the brief synopses I gave above, it should be clear that I consider architecture and urban forms key expressions of societies and cultures and insist on their potential to open important questions, above all, political questions.
Who are your books for? Are they written for those working in architecture or architectural history, or are they written for the average person interested in these topics?
My books are primarily for the scholarly community, as well as for architects and planners. As they are interdisciplinary and trans-cultural, they appeal to a range of academic fields. However, I also aspire to address an interested general audience. As an academic, I find it challenging to engage a wide readership. However, judging from the reception of my books, and perhaps stemming from the attractive and unusual visual materials I use, I seem to have done reasonably well on this front.
Ultimately, it is through curating exhibitions on scholarly topics that I manage to reach a larger number of people. My curatorial work is accompanied by podcasts and widely attended public lectures. Furthermore, largely circulated newspapers and magazines report on the exhibitions; in the past, these included the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and the Turkish dailies Hürriyet and Cumhuriyet.
Across your career, what have you hoped to achieve? And what have you hoped to contribute?
I never had a career agenda. I was lucky to be able to follow my scholarly interests and passions. Academic institutions gave me the freedom to work on topics that excited me and that I believed were important. I aimed to contribute to the understanding of architecture and cities by introducing new perspectives. In its broadest parameters, my work situates architecture and urban forms in their ideological, social and cultural contexts. My contribution is to the understanding of built environments in the Middle East and North Africa in their contexts.
I consider architecture and urban forms key expressions of societies and cultures and insist on their potential to open important questions, above all, political questions. I take pride to be among the pioneers to study the modernisation of architecture and cities in the Middle East and North Africa by scrutinising 19th-century transformations.
Tell us about the exhibitions that you’ve curated.
The exhibitions I worked on are related to the overarching themes of my scholarship. They are all collaborations. The most recent, “Camera Ottomana,” at Koç University, Istanbul (April–August 2015) focused on the enthusiastic embrace of the modern technology of photography by the modernising Ottoman Empire from the 1840s to World War I. “1001 Faces of Orientalism,” at Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Istanbul (April–August 2013) covered many themes related to visual representations of the “Orient”; I was responsible for the section on 19th century world’s fairs.
“Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753–1914,” at SALT (a contemporary art institution in Turkey), Istanbul (November 2011–March 2012) took on the historiography of archaeology in the Ottoman Empire and approached it not as an alien imposition upon the East, but as a process that emerged from the interaction between Europe and the Ottoman World. “Walls of Algiers,” at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, (May–October 2009) narrated several episodes of French colonialism from the occupation of Algeria in 1830 to the Independence in 1962, relying on rare visual documents. Each exhibition was accompanied by a volume of scholarly essays, edited by myself and my curator colleagues
You have a new publication coming out – can you tell us about it?
I am currently finishing a volume on late Ottoman – early Turkish Republican texts that provided an early critique of the European Orientalist school. While participants of this reactive movement came from diverse ideological positions and fields (such as philosophy, literature and art history), collectively their writings coalesced into a robust proto-Saidian discourse. The book will include an anthology, proceeded by my introductory analysis. It will come out in Turkish and in English in early fall 2020.
What are you working on now?
I am currently in the writing stage of a book (working title: From Ottoman Modernity to the French and British Mandates), which examines the impact of the transitional period from the 1880s to the 1930s on the cities in the Middle East. I presented an excerpt from the study as my keynote address at the Giorgio Levi Della Vida conference in May 2019 as “Whose Modernity? Whose Imperial Order? Jerusalem between the Late Ottoman Empire and the Early British Mandate.” The papers from the conference will be collected in a volume on the occasion of the 22nd Levi Della Vida Award given to me; I am involved in the editing process of this book.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Dr Zeynep Celik is a finalist for Tamayouz’s award for women in architecture and construction, which awards female architects from the Middle East and North Africa.