Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Urban Figures (Istanbul)

Providence, November 12, 2013

Often, travelers arriving to Istanbul have depicted a city of hills, domes and minarets. Instead, when the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Istanbul in 1964, he chose to point his camera deep into the life of the street. Among his photographs there is one showing the Camondo Stairs in Galata. It looks like a scene in play, with a small cast of characters in their urban roles, walking along the street, smoking against a parapet, coming down the steps, stopping at a landing, looking back towards the residential neighborhood up the hill.

But don't you think that the main character in the photograph is the stair itself? After all, it's an extraordinarily expressive urban piece, with its baroque contortions and heavy Art-Nouveau architecture, clearly a figure (not a backdrop) wedged tightly in the narrow slot sloping between the façades of the adjacent buildings.

The stairs were built in the 1870s by the Camondo family, a prominent Jewish family of financiers often compared to the Rothschilds. This is the part of Istanbul known as Galata, originally the Genoese concessions of Constantinople on the northern shore of the Golden Horn. The Camondo Stairs connect Bankalar Caddesi--the banking street and financial heart of Istanbul--with the residential neighborhood up the hill, where families like the Camondos lived at the time. Actually, you can think of the Camondo Stairs as the daily routines in the life of the city turned into architecture.

(With thanks to my former student Başak Öymen, who introduced me to the history of the Camondo family.)   

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