Confessions of a Heritage Preservationist

Threatened by commercial development, an antique train station in Istanbul looks to New York and Vienna for its survival

News | Michael Werbowski | October 2011

This story begins nine years ago in Cuernavaca, Mexico. In August 2002, bulldozers tore into the remains of the Casino de la Seva, annihilating a site made famous by the opening scene of Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s great novel about lost love and redemption.  Covering the event for the Mexican daily Excelsior, I watched as security men and their dogs held back protestors and earth-moving machinery proceeded with the destruction of the historical structure, pulverising the Mexican murals inside. Today, the gambling club’s lush gardens are paved over, and the ornate salon replaced with a Costco mega-store, an American discount supermarket chain.

It was then, inspired by the local activists, that I became a volunteer heritage preservationist.

Now, let’s change place and time to Istanbul in 2010. That summer, I spent several weeks documenting the life of a train station on the Asian side of the Bosphoros called Haydarpaşa.

Built by German engineers, the neo-Gothic structure was a gift from the last Kaiser to the last Ottoman Sultan. On sweltering days, I spent many hours at the "Gar Bistro" in the station’s arrival hall, talking to locals over delicious cold platters. I was told of rumours that the station might be closed down and converted into a luxury hotel as the government privatised the Turkish railways. That autumn, fate dealt its hand: an "accidental" fire swept through the upper floors, damaging the roof and the administrative offices. The damage was extensive and repair work now, while undway, is slow. Ironically the calamity raised worldwide attention to the station’s plight.

The listing of landmarks in danger

This October, Haydarpaşa’s future may yet take another turn, as the World Monuments Fund (WMF) announces its 2012 watch-list of endangered historical sites. Since 1996, the New York based NGO has published its bi-annual World Monuments Watch to spotlight one hundred cultural heritage sites across the world threatened by neglect, commercial development, natural disasters, or war; the listing aims to foster community support and attract technical and financial assistance for their preservation.

Sites of all types and periods, from the ancient to the contemporary, from archaeological excavations to architectural jems, even landscapes and cityscapes. All have made the list.

International and local preservation groups and local authorities nominate the sites, while an independent panel of experts makes the ultimate selection. Last November, the Istanbul-based architects Mete and Seda Kiyan and I submitted a nomination for the Haydarpaşa railway station; there’s a good chance it will make it onto the WMF’s list this autumn.

Taking the cue

In Vienna, three buildings have had the ambiguous honour of making it onto the WMF’s list of outstanding, yet endangered, heritage sites: the Franciscan Church on Franziskanerplatz in the 1st District, the Belvedere palace in the 3rd, and the Wiener Werkbundsiedlung in the 13th District, a landmark of modernist architecture.

It is difficult to assess the impact of the WMF’s listing on the protracted political process of heritage preservation. However, the City of Vienna seems to have responded to the WMF’s calls for action. The Franciscan Church and the Belvedere have been gleamingly restored since their inclusion in the first watch-list in 1996.

However, the Werkbundsiedlung provides the most striking example of what an international heritage listing can do. It was added to the 2010 Watch in October 2009, after years of party political disputes had done nothing to stop moisture seeping into the porous 1930s brickwork. Promptly in the summer following the listing, the City of Vienna announced the funding of restoration work; on 18 Aug. of this year, the work began.

Form determines public function

The Werkbundsiedlung, or "Workers’ Association Settlement", is a unique ensemble of model houses designed by 32 architects of the Viennese modernist movement such as Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffman, and Clemens Holzmeister. Between 1930 and 1932, under the leadership of Josef Frank, they developed 33 different housing types, providing comfortable and functional living quarters in a highly limited and affordable space. Frank set the buildings, grouped according to type, into an urban master plan spanning a triangular plot between Veitingergasse, Jagdschloßgasse, and Woinovichgasse.

Today, 48 of the 70 apartment buildings are still owned by the City of Vienna, and rented out as public housing at a low rate. As such, the City and its public housing branch – Wiener Wohnen – are paying for the restoration, which is scheduled to end in 2016 and will run up a cost of €10 million. Michael Ludwig, the City’s councillor for the construction of public housing, told the press agency OTS that the large sum was due to the huge variety of design between the houses, with door hinges and window frames that have to be individually re-created by hand. Despite this state-of-the-art restoration, however, the original purpose of providing affordable public housing will be maintained, and all the existing rental contracts continued.

Like credit rating agencies, international heritage organisations such as the WMF are in the business of imagination: Their recognition bestows value to public property. Therefore, their verdict may prevent, or accelerate, its privatisation and re-development.

While many of the residents of the Werkbundsiedlung were unaware of their surroundings’ significance, the recent attention by the WMF and city planners must leave them in little doubt. The railway staff at Haydarpaşa, meanwhile, are hoping for a similar boost which might preserve the station’s public purpose and keep the property sharks at bay.

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