Notas de un proyecto de archivo: la construcción del archivo privado de un arquitecto en Turquía
Este artículo se centra en un proyecto de archivo, conducido por la Asociación de Arquitectos 1927 en Ankara, sobre una de las figuras principales de la arquitectura moderna en Turquía, el arquitecto Nejat Ersin (1924-2010). La realización de estudios de investigación sobre su vida y sus obras ha estado en la agenda desde 2013, cuando la Asociación trasladó su oficina principal al bloque lecorbusiano de viviendas que Ersin había diseñado. En abril de 2017, su esposa donó sus documentos profesionales y personales a la Asociación. Después de que ella falleció, sus familiares proporcionaron material adicional de archivo en enero de 2018. Los documentos y proyectos recogidos a través de las donaciones, tomados en conjunto, requirieron rediseñar los estudios previstos en 2013. A partir de ello, se discute la construcción del archivo privado de un arquitecto en el contexto de la historiografía arquitectónica.
Palabras clave: Nejat Ersin, archivo, archivos de arquitecto, historia de la arquitectura, historiografía, Turquía, Asociación de Arquitectos 1927
Notes from an Archiving Project: Building the Private Archive of an Architect in Turkey
This paper focuses on an archiving project, conducted by the Architects’ Association 1927 in Ankara, about one of the leading figures of modern architecture in Turkey, Nejat Ersin (1924-2010). Carrying out research on his life and works has been on the agenda since 2013, when the association moved its headquarters to the Corbusian housing block that Ersin designed. In April 2017, his wife donated his professional and personal documents to the association. After she passed away, his family members provided additional archival material in January 2018. These documents and projects, collected through donations, together meant that a new approach to the study of his work, foreseen in 2013, had become necessary. In this article, I will discuss the construction of the private archive of an architect in the context of architectural historiography.
Keywords: Nejat Ersin, archiving, architect’s archive, architectural history, historiography, Turkey, Architects’ Association 1927
To live, as Walter Benjamin said, “means to leave traces.” 4505N01 However, one’s approach to the traces left behind may differ from person to person. By analyzing modern architecture’s relationship with the mass media through two important figures of twentieth century modern architecture, Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier, Beatriz Colomina revealed the architects’ different approaches in her book Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media. The first chapter of the book, “Archive,” opens with a comparison between Loos, who seems to have not left many traces behind, and Le Corbusier, who collected far too many. Thus, the materials in the architects’ archives also define the research conducted on them: “If the research into Loos is organized according to gaps in the archive, the research into Le Corbusier is organized by archival excesses.” 4505N02 Considering this issue in the context of the relationship between the archive and architectural historiography, both lead to the same result: “If Loos destroys all traces and Le Corbusier accumulates too many, both hide.” 4505N03 When it comes to the archive, there is no absolute truth in historiography. The writing of history is a search for truth. There is no single path to truth, there are only possible readings and interpretations of the archive, which is a place where “the professional historian is a reader.” 4505N04 In the early 1990s, it was the archival turn that opened up the role of the archive to discussion as a source of information that also preserves historical truth. Since then, it has been noted that “archival materials did not only tell one ‘story’ but could be interpreted in different ways depending on the audience.” 4505N05 As such, an archive gains meaning depending on its context, time, archivist and researchers. The archive is not static, but rather dynamic, flexible and mobile.
Although the role of the archive is questioned in historiography, archives help us remember the past and keep traces of the past alive. As for architectural history, Dana Arnold claims, “The past does leave traces of itself in the present in the form of archives, whether they be documents, institutions or indeed buildings.” 4505N06 In short, in terms of historical sources, architecture has two modes: built architecture and documented architecture. 4505N07 However, if one considers the primary pictorial and literary evidence for the architecture of the past, what determines whether documents are worth keeping is, initially, the architect’s point of view. Wigley suggests that “it is not even possible to imagine the act of design without thinking of the archiving gesture.” 4505N08 Nevertheless, architects in Turkey, for instance, do not seem very willing to record their practices and preserve them for the future. It seems that Turkey does not have a long-standing tradition of architectural archives, yet new attitudes began to emerge in the country’s architectural culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the support of digital technology. 4505N09 This is a new worldview, appearing in parallel with the global order, which values what we are doing rather than who we are, and which apparently influences architects to this day. Architects thus embrace the will to claim their own past and the making of history, whether it be conscious or accidental, through the preservation of their professional and personal documents.
Taking this background into consideration, this article tries to explore the issue of the relationship between archives and architectural historiography. In this respect, it introduces a unique case: an archiving project conducted by the Architects’ Association 1927 in Ankara on the architect Nejat Ersin (1924-2010), who was one of the active architectural actors in twentieth century Turkey. By focusing on this particular case, the intention is to examine the value of private and local collections in architectural historiography in order to show how constituting the private archive of an architect has implications for the historical development of architecture and to discuss how uses of such archives, i.e. any attempt at producing knowledge through architectural documentation, adds new layers of meaning to the archive. This article is divided into three parts: the first is devoted to a brief introduction to the architect, the institution and the materials, the three elements that give the Nejat Ersin Archive its character; the second reflects on the construction of an architect’s archive through current theoretical approaches; and the third examines the potential uses of such archives in writing architectural history.
The Architect, the Institution and the Materials
No archive arises out of thin air. Each archive
has a “pre-history,” in the sense of
prior conditions of existence. 4505N10
Nejat Ersin, born in 1924 in Darıca Kocaeli, is one of the leading figures of modern architecture in Turkey. Although he graduated in 1950 from the Academy of Fine Arts in İstanbul, his life and career were mainly centered in Ankara, the capital of Turkey. After working as an architect for several institutions and organizations during the first decade of his professional life, Ersin opened his own architectural firm in 1960 and continued practicing architecture until he retired in 1996. 4505N11 Nejat Ersin is known as one of the protagonists of Ankara and Turkish architecture, embracing the contemporary (modern) environment and making use of modern architectural language in several meticulously-designed buildings. 4505N12 His early architectural portfolio in the 1950s, which can be described as rigorously modernist, gradually evolved toward a synthesis of local and universal architecture in his later works. The second half of the twentieth century, in which he developed his professional practice, was marked by several turning points in Turkey’s socioeconomic discourses and practices. These key transformations, such as elections that brought parties of different ideologies into government, occurred between the 1950s and the mid-1990s. They include the 1950 election, which resulted in the victory of the Democrat Party and thus brought collaboration with the United States; the political, cultural and intellectual liberalism of the 1960s that led to the differentiation of social structures; and the introduction of a free market economy and the effects of globalization in the 1980s, which provoked a widespread construction boom. The architectural realm associated with these transformations also changed during this period. 4505N13 In brief, Ersin’s architectural practice carries the traces of this period’s characteristics. The country’s social, political and economic conditions over the course of his career had a significant impact on his work, which greatly contributed to the formation of twentieth century architecture in Turkey.
In parallel with the global changes that occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War, Turkey embraced a modernist attitude, not only in the country’s social and political structures, but also in architecture. 4505N14 The international style that emerged in the postwar era was influential on the architecture of Ersin, who had just recently joined Turkey’s professional milieu in the 1950s. This period in his career was dominated by the projects he designed for housing cooperatives. In the 1960s, when professional practices began to develop and several architectural firms opened in Turkey, Ersin started his own firm, thereby taking an active role in the production of architecture as an entrepreneur known as a “buildand-sell” contractor. These developments exponentially increased the number of residential projects he designed. The 1970s saw greater diversity in his works in terms of functional programs and private enterprises. The architect designed a wider range of building types than ever before, such as private residences and offices, and other commercial buildings. In addition to these new corporate employers, industrial buildings constituted an important part of his practice in the 1970s. In this period, Ersin also explored new spatial articulations and complicated construction solutions in his designs. The process of globalization, which roughly began in the 1980s, manifested itself in the construction of the physical environment in general and in Nejat Ersin’s architecture in particular. In this period, consumerism started to invade all areas of life in Turkey. Starting in the 1980s, tourism-oriented investments and vacations began to emerge as a social phenomenon, especially in Turkey’s coastal regions. Consequently, summer homes, full-service hotels with recreational facilities and other amenities and, in general, tourist accommodations began to appear in Ersin’s architectural practice in the 1980s and mid-1990s. In his nearly fifty years of professional life, Nejat Ersin produced over 150 projects of different scales and functions throughout Turkey that, notwithstanding the distinguishing characteristics and qualities of his architecture, are consonant with the country’s social and economic realities. 4505N15
Over the course of his career, Ersin simultaneously undertook duties in non-governmental organizations, including the Kavaklıdere Sporting Club, and professional institutions, such as the Chamber of Architects of Turkey. He also occasionally wrote for architectural publications. In 2002, he was granted the Achievement Award for Contributions to Architecture at the National Architecture Exhibition and Awards, given out by the Chamber of Architects; he later served as the chairman of the jury during the ninth edition of the event. The jury report summarized his comprehensive and versatile career, as represented by several exceptional productions:
To Nejat Ersin, who has witnessed in person the history of the profession in Republican Turkey; who, throughout his 52-year career, aside from realizing outstanding projects such as airports, urban residences and industrial buildings, has shown efforts in promoting the profession and in bringing to prominence the social function of architecture; and who represents the reputation of architects in society with his humble and estimable personality. 4505N16
Nejat Ersin passed away in Ankara at the age of 86. After retiring, Ersin kept a few of his documents in a wooden cabinet in his house. These documents, along with many others, were donated to the Architects’ Association 1927 in April 2017 by his wife Perihan Ersin, a process that was continued by other family members after she passed away in January 2018.
The Architects’ Association 1927 is the oldest independent architectural institution in Turkey. It was established on February 18, 1927, four years after the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey. 4505N17 As a nonprofit institution, the association, aiming to develop and disseminate architectural culture in the country, regularly organizes talks, exhibitions, competitions and other public events for architects, architecture students and citizens. After moving around Ankara for several years, in February 2013, the association moved its headquarters to the Corbusian housing block in Ankara known as Cinnah 19 that was designed and built in 1956-1960 by Nejat Ersin and his team of architects and engineers. While working at the State Airports Construction Department, Ersin and his coworkers founded a housing cooperative. The architect himself was appointed project architect and construction supervisor by the cooperative.
The ideals of modern architecture had awakened Ersin’s interest and he stated that he was inspired by Le Corbusier’s housing blocks during the design process. By following Le Corbusier and the Unité d’Habitation (1947-52), he designed an iconic modernist building in 1950s Ankara. 4505N18 Since 2013, the association’s presence in the building has gradually turned the space into a new center for the arts and culture in Ankara and reincorporated the building into the life of the city. It creates an awareness of the heritage of modern architecture and offers a model for its preservation.
Keeping Ersin’s personal archive of over six thousand artifacts on the association’s premises therefore constitutes a meaningful whole. 4505N19 The collection acquired by the association in 2017 comprises over 2,500 architectural drawings in his own hand documenting over 150 projects from between 1951 and 1994 (though many others are undated); over 3,000 photographs documenting the architect’s career and life; numerous books and journals; documents such as project notes, his correspondence and article drafts; and objects including drawing sets, awards, photography tools and watercolors and/or pencil drawings. In this sense, the collection presents an architecture that the architect closely linked to his life and a life intertwined with architecture. As such, the association undertook the task of an archiving project that may be twofold and interdependent in nature: constituting the archive and introducing the wealth of the archive through events and publications. 4505N20 Moreover, the association chose not to outsource the project, but rather decided to use its own resources, devoting a part of its facilities to this architectural heritage, which is entirely stored onsite. Since 2017, this project has been undertaken with great care: the collection has been classified, digitized and cataloged and research has also been conducted in other institutions, such as the municipal archives. As of August 2020, we are now working on creating a database to facilitate access to scholars engaged in historical research and preparing a book to introduce the Ersin archive to the public interested in the built environment. 4505N21
Cinnah 19. Photography: Duygu Tüntaş, 2019
Building the Archive
Constituting an archive represents a significant moment,
on which we need to reflect with care. 4505N22
The construction of an architect’s archive was not a task the association had undertaken before. There had been no similar cases in Turkey except for a few big-budget projects carried out by professional teams partnering with corporations. There was no preliminary experience that could be regarded as a model because each collection possesses its own characteristics and is unique in relation to its formation and the way it is archived. In this sense, I suggest that the materials held by the Nejat Ersin collection also reveal the way the archive was constituted. At this point, one of the most important questions should be that addressed by Millar: “When and how do pieces of evidence become archives?” 4505N23 –the “significant moment” Stuart Hall calls attention to, when random and dispersed pieces begin to become an organized whole. Our first attempt at understanding the Nejat Ersin Archive was to examine in depth the materials acquired by the association and to simultaneously transfer all analog documents to a digital format. As a matter of principle, all projects, documents, photographs, ephemera, objects and books were kept together, regardless of their archival value. Protecting these records as a unified whole has been our primary approach to the archive’s formation and none of the materials were therefore excluded.
The Nejat Ersin Archive consists of documents collected as the natural result of human activity, even though “postmodern archival thinkers questioned the idea that archives could be innocent by-products of life and work.” 4505N24 It is an original collection that contains documentary evidence related to Ersin’s 50-year professional practice and traces of his daily life; as Ricoeur suggests: “all sorts of traces can be archived.” 4505N25 These documents, which survived the ordinary birth-death cycle of unplanned destruction or intentional discard, were doubtlessly intentionally preserved by the architect’s own decision. Although we do not know today exactly why they were chosen, I believe that the selection was not very conscious, but was instead random. Presumably, the selection was based upon practical reasons or even chance. In this sense, the organization of the records, as they do not appear to be arranged according to any particular principle, simultaneously has its own order and disorder. 4505N26 These characteristics thus distinguish the Ersin archive from any “systematic” and “artificial” collection.
At the earliest stages of the evolution of the archive, we tried to make a list of Ersin’s complete works. The records of the collection and what is known from Ersin’s published works and from researchers’ previous studies have created the components of this list, which also reveals the gaps in the collection. It is also correct to say that both the contents of the collection and these gaps define the Ersin archive. This reminds us of the dialectic that exists between the presence and absence of documents in archives. The list, with its full and empty lines, likewise guides us through the next steps for research. The first step toward filling these gaps is to place archival documents in their context and to provide an interpretative framework; only in this way can the documents serve as evidence. Having analyzed the difference between information and evidence, Laura A. Millar emphasizes the importance of content, structure and context for evidence by saying: “If content is the ‘what’ and structure the ‘how’, context is everything else: the ‘who,’ ‘where,’ ‘when’ and possibly even ‘why.’” 4505N27 To exemplify this: the documents in the archive were mostly silent when it comes to their dates. However, the date, as outlined by Roland Barthes, “belongs to the photograph,” 4505N28 and similarly, the project or construction date is undoubtedly an important part of architecture. In light of every new piece of information from other sources, the list was organized and reorganized and gaps have begun to be partially filled in with the appearance of new evidence. It is also necessary to save each record from becoming decontextualized; constant efforts have been made to find any information about the relationship of the document to any other architectural records. Defining relationships between each record in the collection with another, on the one hand, and the relationship of the Ersin archive with other archives, on the other, plays an important role in the structuring of the collection. The Nejat Ersin Archive therefore shows that random and dispersed pieces could become an archive only in communication with other material. As Derrida contends, “the archivization produces as much as it records the event.” 4505N29 As such, the underlying argument in favor of Derrida is that, in the case observed in this paper, constituting the archive is made possible by enlarging the scope of the archivist’s work with new research and the filling of gaps. For this reason, when and how these pieces started to create an archive, i.e. “the very moment,” could be hard to pin down.
Reading the Archive and Writing Architectural
History with the Archive
The architect who leaves traces behind takes the very first step to historicize him or herself and provides historians with first-hand documents. Here, the archive becomes a tool for architects who are remembered by future generations. In this sense, putting the architect Nejat Ersin at the center of the research provides the opportunity to examine this individual in great depth and detail, which grand narratives are not able to pay attention to. Furthermore, the characteristics that make Ersin’s architecture unique and special become the subject of historical research. This provides new opportunities for the architectural historian to go beyond what is known about the architect and to produce new research on his life and works. It would not be wrong to say that the archival materials, such as pictorial and literary architectural records, determine the direction of historiography in each project alongside the built work itself. The building, commonly considered to be the primary archive by some architectural history scholars, becomes secondary. Historians generally tend to see the building as the final product, yet the building is the final product of a process; it is designed, commissioned, built and occupied. Documented architecture therefore gives us a different perspective that allows us to understand the evolution of this process. Architectural records provide information on all actors that play a role in fields ranging from design to construction and they support a holistic approach to the study of the architectural past.
The issue of authenticity is also on the agenda. The building may have been changed or there may be differences between the drawing and the structure, between architectural design and construction. Kleinman claims that “almost every built work is itself a reproduction, made of reproducible and inter-changeable components. In short, built work has a troubled relationship with the question of originality.” 4505N30 For cases in which the project is not implemented or the building disappears, the body of documentary evidence is the most important record left behind for architectural historians. As a result, “The architectural archive promises to stabilize architecture; this is the archive’s task and gift.” 4505N31 Apart from the detailed research to be carried out on a single building or project, the archive provides the chance to examine Nejat Ersin’s career and life with a “complete” view. The continuity in his architectural works, the characteristics of the architect’s world of production or approaches that may make one appearance and then disappear can be analyzed. Trying to understand the roles taken on by Ersin, besides his architectural production, also illustrates how the architect constructed himself as a subject, an identity or a social figure in the architectural environment of his time. The issue of an architect as an individual also becomes a topic for critical analysis and is extensively and critically examined. It aims to reestablish the “architect” as a subject in all its plurality and to discuss architectural actors through their biographies, productions and contributions to the architectural field.
The Nejat Ersin Archive not only preserves the traces of an individual architect’s life and professional practice, but also holds evidence of a period’s architecture in its social, cultural, political and economic context. The Ersin archive materializes memory, which preserves the architect’s past, life and practice and characteristics of the period’s cultural and sociopolitical life. The archive is therefore both public and private; it is a place for the publicity of the private, though Colomina claims that “the archive is private, history is public…” 4505N32 Here, the Ersin archive is also key to understanding twentieth century architecture in Turkey. As a cross-section of Nejat Ersin’s architecture, the architecture of Turkey and the sociocultural life of the city of Ankara, the archive becomes a place for the production of knowledge of this milieu. Along with the history of architecture, revealing interdisciplinary relationships, the archive will also enhance opportunities for other research practices on related or seemingly unrelated disciplines, such as the professionalization of architecture, urban history, urban sociology, the history of fashion and everyday life.
The archive bridges the past and the future; it is one of the interfaces that establish a relationship with the past, but what belongs to the past is, in fact, important and valuable for the present and the future. As Marlene Manoff emphasizes, “The archive affirms the past, present, and future; it preserves the records of the past and it embodies the promise of the present to the future.” 4505N33 In the context of the Ersin archive, getting to know him and his architecture and trying to understand his practice is especially meaningful in terms of the history of the present. In this way, we meet one of the key actors who played a role in the production of the built environment in which we live, walk and experience life. This acquaintance adds a historical dimension, a dimension of experience to our lives. Although the recent past constitutes an important part of our daily life and a very large percentage of our cities today, it is being subjected to rapid destruction in Turkey. We are in a period in which continuous change is perceived as a necessity, even an innovation. The question of whether we can redefine “contemporary history” as a period that develops its own documentation and research methods assumes a new meaning with the presence of the Nejat Ersin Archive, especially in the architectural historiography in Turkey. In this context, if the built environment is one of the mediums through which one relates oneself to the past, the architectural archive is another. Here, both the built environment and the archive are mediums that provide a direct relationship with the past. 4505N34 As a result, archives like the Nejat Ersin Archive allow for the existence of plural, autonomous and democratic approaches to architectural historiography. Instead of a canon established through a limited number of “remarkable” actors and their architecture, it leads to a methodology that includes other practicing architects who were not at the forefront of architectural media. 4505N35
Some objects from the archive— award plaques (upper) and technical tools for photography (lower). Photographs: Evin Zelal Ataç and Beste Nur Öztürk, 2019.
Source: © Nejat Ersin Archive, Architects’ Association 1927, Ankara
To conclude, having introduced the project of archiving the life and works of a modern architect in Turkey, I have attempted to analyze the role of constituting the private archive of an architect in the writing of architectural history. As such, the discussion was centered on the special significance of archives in establishing a relationship between the past and architecture. Architectural archives create a background for historians engaged in research and help them construct and reconstruct their narrations. Here I argue that private and local collections have immense value in architectural historiography, as can be seen in the formation of the private archive of an architect in Turkey. Nonetheless, this exploration should not be considered more than a preliminary survey. I suggest that the past is a place where nothing can be changed; nevertheless, knowledge of the past, in Bloch’s terms, “is something progressive which is constantly transforming and perfecting itself.” 4505N36 Along similar lines, Millar argues that “there would be no history without archives. Every time new archival collections are made available or existing holdings are described in more detail, historians have the opportunity to re-examine past events through a new lens.” 4505N37 The knowledge of the past contained in the Nejat Ersin Archive thus awaits its readers, a new generation of researchers who shall explore and interpret the “silent” architectural records sleeping in the archive. 4505N38 The archive, as Derrida claims, “is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.” 4505N39 It confirms the assumption that the past, present and future are all parts of a single order. Every interpretation of the archive, including any attempt at reading the archive or writing architectural history with the archive, becomes its extension; it enriches and enlarges the archive. Hall accordingly reminds us of “a living archive, whose construction must be seen as an on-going, never-completed project.” 4505N40 The Nejat Ersin Archive, in its incompleteness, may turn into something new, something alive with every interpretation it receives; it will be built and rebuilt over and over again with every active reading of the archive. Once the past has been recorded, organized and stored, any and every archive becomes a living archive.
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Department of Architecture, Assist. Prof. Dr.
TOBB University of Economics and Technology