Mark: "Shopping Permitted" (Feb/Mar 2008)
Meydan shopping mall in Istanbul, Turkey (Foreign Office Architects)


At first glance, the Meydan shopping mall by Foreign Office Architects looks like a carefully designed public space, but appearances are deceiving.

Text David Keuning
Photos Cristobal Palma

Cars entering the parking garage of the latest building by Foreign Office Architects have to open their boots for inspection. Above ground, metal detectors await visitors here and there. Cameras on the walls betray a watchful eye. When I start taking photos, a guard immediately walks over to me to make it clear, in a friendly tone, that this is not allowed. And everywhere, including in the open-air central plaza, music pours out of loudspeakers. Almost loud enough to drown out the strident calls to prayer, which ring out from the many minarets in the vicinity punctually at 12 o’clock – but not quite.

FOA’s latest building is not a US embassy, or a national bank building. It is a shopping mall in Istanbul, intended to offer large numbers of people a pleasant stay and induce them to buy. On the central plaza, broad, gently descending steps provide access to the central section situated at its lowest point. It can be used as a stage for public performances, and the steps then serve as seats. They create the suggestion of a collective space that transcends vulgar commerce. The shops are arranged loosely around the plaza, as if in an accidental afterthought: a huge branch of the Real supermarket chain, a Media Markt and a large number of clothing shops. There are also cafés and a large cinema. An Ikea borders the complex, housed in a blue box that was clearly not part of the design brief.

The mall is a characteristic FOA product. The undulating roofs of the shopping complex are highly reminiscent of those of the cruise terminal in Yokohama, the project that earned partners Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera-Polo instant world fame upon completion in 2002. Buildings that look like landscapes have popped up in their work repeatedly ever since – their office building in Logroño, for instance (see page 148 in this issue). Moussavi does have an explanation for the success of the cruise terminal. ‘Every now and then, in architecture a problem arises that prevails, that a lot of people deal with at the same time,’ she tells me over the phone following my visit to Istanbul. ‘At the time of Yokohama, and still, this problem is the three-dimensional logistics of circulation of people, infrastructure, etcetera, and the influence this has on the shape of buildings. Yokohama seems to have captured this problem very well, and at precisely the right time.’ Although the landscape appearance of Yokohama was merely a side effect of research into traffic flows, many later designs by other architects owe a debt to FOA’s cruise terminal. Snøhetta’s Opera in Oslo, many designs by PLOT (split into BIG and JDS since 2006), even Rafael Viñoly’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia: without Yokohama they probably would have looked different. Even FOA seems to reuse their successful idea with some regularity, although Moussavi is horrified by this suggestion: ‘it’s important for us to keep being innovative, and not to develop a house style,’ she says. ‘The landscape feature emerges across a number of our projects, but I would say it is not relevant for all our projects. Among other things, we are interested in the building and the relation to its context. We interpret this relation in many ways, and the outcome sometimes is a building that looks like a landscape.’

In any case, house style or not, the formal idiom of the mall, with its undulating green roofs, fits in with the leafy hills in its immediate vicinity. After a short economic downturn in 2001-2002, Istanbul is currently in the midst of a building boom. New malls, too, are sprouting like mushrooms. Most of the new construction is taking place on the European side of the city. This is where the tall office buildings, the monuments, the tourists and the major urban problems can be found. The Meydan is located on the Asian side of the Bosporus, in the residential district of Ümraniye, on the edge of the city’s built-up area. This part of the city is relatively clean and quiet: every day, two million workers commute across one of the two bridges spanning the Bosporus to their jobs in the city centre on the other side. The immediate surroundings of the mall are dominated by endless rows of medium-high apartment buildings, regularly interrupted by the slender, tall minarets of mosques. But from the upper sections of the mall, you can see that these buildings do not extend very far. To Moussavi, this is one of the most successful elements of the project: ‘I like the fact that you can walk up the ramps and have a beautiful view of the hilly surroundings. It’s almost like a belvedere.’

Moussavi is also pleased with the whimsical layout of the project. A plaza forms the centre of the mall. Around this the shop fronts are oriented in a multitude of angles, creating branches that gradually narrow to one of the many entrances and exits. ‘We have considerable experience with retail in the UK,’ says Moussavi, ‘and there every corner of a mall is engineered, from a commercial point of view. The visibility of the shop fronts is the single most important aspect. Asians are very good at this, their advice are very important for developers. But in Istanbul, there was no such adviser in sight. Therefore, we could corrugate the shop fronts, with the result that some shops don’t face the central square. In the UK, developers would complain that shops that are invisible from the main space cannot be let out, but in Istanbul that proved not to be a problem. Also, shop fronts in UK malls are not designed by the main architect. Every shopkeeper designs his own front, which results in a bricolage of mullions and windows. In Istanbul, we designed everything ourselves, so everything is very coherent.’

She is right in this regard, but not every element is so successful. The complex has been reasonably well built in comparison with other recent malls in Istanbul, including Jerde Partnership’s Canyon Shopping Mall (see Mark #5), but some details have turned out sloppy. The fascia boards and ceiling panels on the roofs were mounted with little precision. This sloppiness is particularly visible in the irregular seams between the panels. The design called for the panels to be invisibly welded together, but FOA was not able to get this done. The red bricks that pave the plaza and the access ways are not exactly of the highest quality either. Here and there, they show salt deposits that will take several years to fade. Moussavi says she did not select the brick herself. ‘When working abroad, there are some things that you cannot control. Some things you can only specify, but they won’t necessarily be executed. On the other hand, I am glad that the building performs really well. The concept is so strong that it works independent from the structure. It is a very pleasant enclosure of public space, an urban centre for the surrounding residential areas.’

This last assertion is debatable. The complex may look like a carefully designed public space, yet nothing could be further from the truth. I notice this again as I attempt to climb one of the green hills and a guard call tells me off for the second time. ‘It is definitely the idea that visitors can walk on the grass roofs,’ Moussavi replies when I tell her about this, ‘and it’s strange that you were called back when climbing them. The same happened in Yokohama though. The undulating roof was intended to walk on, but soon after completion fences and notice boards appeared, saying that people were not allowed on some parts of the roof because of their personal safety. But people ignored them, even in Japan, and over time the notice boards disappeared again. Now anyone can go anywhere they want.’ If that is the definition of public space – that anyone can go where they want – the mall does not fulfil it. But when one looks through the pretence of a public space, one sees a beautifully designed shopping paradise. With excellent security.