June 23, 2010 - From the June, 2010 issue

Sevan Nisanyan: Turkish Villager, Renegade Planner, Hotel Developer, Builder, Author

Sevan Nisanyan is the owner of the Nisanyan Hotel & Cottages; author of the Little Hotel Book (the bible of Turkey's small, character-filled hotels; and an activist in the village of Şirince in the Turkish province of İzmir. TPR presents this exclusive interview in the hopes that his experiences-developing in Turkey and doing jail time for ignoring a demolition order-will be informative to those working to improve "place" anywhere in the world.


Sevan Nisanyan

If we built the Nisanyan Hotel-a small hotel in Şirince, a historic hill village near Ephesus-again, we would be so much more wiser and better.

When we (my wife Mujed and I) purchased this farmhouse-well I call it a house but it wasn't really a house, it was just a cracked, dangerous shell of a house-we renovated it with the expectation that eventually we would sell it or rent it or do something with it. Once it was finished it felt like it would be like selling our baby because it was a beautiful house and, of course, we made all the possible new mistakes.

Nonetheless, having built that house we felt like if we just build one more house, this time we will do it right. The next door house was also in ruins, so we bought that one too and renovated it.

At that point I published a guidebook to the small hotels of Turkey. I was a guidebook writer, professionally, for many years at that point. The hotel book sort of came about like, "Let's do it, we have three months without anything in particular to do, let's just write it." It turned out to be a major publishing phenomenon in this country. It became a run away best seller in 1998.

Since we spent a whole year visiting hotels and learning everything about small hotels, how they are run and all the very interesting and very unusual personalities who are in this business, we thought, "Gee, we could do it even better than this." So we decided to convert these three houses into a kind of a hotel. The initial idea was, "Look, we are not going to give full-time service to these people so let's make these houses as perfectly self contained as possible so they will have everything possible. They will have aspirin, they will have a package of spaghetti, they will have extra matches, and a box of cigarettes, and all that. And the neighboring lady will just take care of the cleaning. We'll just drop by and say hello to our guests."

The houses proved very successful. Then we built the main building, which was an unfinished construction site; it's a very ugly building, as a matter of fact. It contravened the planning rules and therefore it was stopped, and, for seven years, it just sat an unfinished red-brick pile of ugliness.

We decided to buy it with the initial intention of pulling it down and building something different in its place. But then we realized that a little makeup can go a long way so we put a lot of makeup on it and then it just kept developing like that.

How many years have past since you built the first house?

1998, so it's twelve years old. The main building is nine years old now, and with that complete we really started feeling like a hotel as opposed to just three eccentric houses.

Did the old main building go through the planning process officially? Has it been approved since?

No, it had a demolition order. You have to realize, 30,000 buildings in the province of İzmir alone have demolition orders. So they are not realistic orders. However, once you have a demolition order, since the old owners didn't even object to the demolition order, legally it was a closed case, nothing could be done about it. You couldn't go to court, and the bureaucratic process was finished.

The district governor came to our house one day and said, "Why didn't you pull this thing down?" It looked so horrible, and we were sick and tired of using Photoshop to remove that building from the panorama of Şirince.

I said, "Look, nobody's going to pull that building down so just let us finish the building, at least it's better that way." He said, "No, that's legally impossible." I said, "So why don't you nationalize it so the state can take over the thing?" He said, "We don't have the budget." I said, "What do you want to happen?" He said, "Our children will have it in their laps; it will be there forever." I said, "It's impossible to convince anyone that this building can look good one day, so why don't you just give me the permission, I'll buy the thing and change the external appearance; then we have at least a chance of convincing someone in the official process that this is worth saving." He said, "Alright, I have my annual vacation next month, just do it while I'm not here," because it was his job to stop me. We were too slow; we agonized for almost a year before deciding what to do.

You had bought it by then?

Yes, we bought it. The building is the highest building in the village, on top of a rocky and barren hill, and it's shaped like a "T", like a mushroom. It's three stories high, as opposed to all the other buildings in this village, which have a very strongly horizontal appearance. We had to hide this building somehow. We thought and thought, and the first idea was to build a second house in front of it so that it would look like two houses, but that was technically impossible.

By the end of the nine months this government was gone, a new one came in. We went to the new bureaucrats and said, "This is what we plan to do. He said, "Do you have a building permit?" I said, "Well let me explain this once again." After I told him the story he said, "Turkey is a state governed by law." I said, "I'm sorry I haven't been reading the newspapers for a few days."

So they tried to stop me but they couldn't, and I finished the building. They went to court, and I actually won the case on a technicality, so they came up with nine cases of illegal building activity, which were all justified to some extent. I won eight; I lost one. They turned it into a lynching campaign. Instantly they discovered that I was Armenian with dangerous political views and not sufficient respect for the state, which are all true. They eventually nabbed me on something totally silly. I went to jail for a wall built in my own garden. The village is a protected village. It was declared a protected village in 1984 and then everybody forgot about it.

By protected do you mean historically significant?

Yes. By the time, in the mid-1990s, when the village slowly started becoming more economically sophisticated, everybody did the natural thing and pulled down their ugly old buildings and built nice cement blocks in their place. That was the trend. Every peasant's dream is to live in a city-type apartment building. So my wife and I had a huge battle trying to protect the architecture of the village.

Within the period, that I know of, about 90 illegal building constructions went on in the village. So long as you did it with the appropriate show of humbleness, in other words, "My family needs the room, my mother is sick, and I have no money. Just please, please let me do it," then somehow it worked. The village was visibly deteriorating and rotting in architectural terms. So we set up an association. I wrote a booklet about how to restore old buildings in Şirince. We taught builders how to do things the traditional way, we publicized the village, and there were articles about the village. And then, since everybody was doing everything illegally, we thought we might as well do it the nice way.

It's not that simple because when a place is declared a historical site, by law they have to produce a plan for the village within a year. It actually took 23 years to produce the plan. It came into effect, finally, last year. Throughout this period, it was entirely impossible to build anything legally in the village.

Who produced the plan? The planning department of the city, or did you produce the plan for the facility?

I'm not talking about the architectural plan; I'm talking about the zoning plan. Initially there was a bureaucratic battle between the Ministry of Public Works and the Ministry of Culture about which one was responsible for the plan. The Ministry of Public Works came up with a plan and this was flatly rejected by the Ministry of Culture, and rightly so, because it was a disaster of a plan.

Then the Ministry of Culture wrangled within itself for several years to decide how they were going about the plan. Finally they decided to prepare a public tender. Then an individual just won it, a planner from another town who was a very well-meaning but totally ignorant person. It took us several years trying to educate him into the fine points of the architecture of this village. He came up with a half decent plan, which went through about 20 different bureaucratic departments, and each one of them objected to a detail of the plan. By the end it turned into a nightmare. It's a totally self-contradictory and meaningless plan. It was put into effect three years ago and the villagers went to court against it. The court case dragged on for three years. Finally the plan came into effect the past year.

This is the good plan?

It's no longer a good plan.

Why is it no longer a good plan?

The basic elements of the traditional architecture are totally disregarded and misinterpreted.

There's no historic element?

There are certain proportions to the old building, which are actually very clear proportions. They are basic mathematical proportions: 2x3, 3x4, and so forth. These were completely overlooked. Secondly, the old architecture has adjoining buildings, whereas the new plan require buildings to be separate. This ruins the overall appearance of the village. The original plan required the traditional stone and timber architecture. The new plan allows cement, which means that everybody is using cement. It permits 250 new houses in the village, which will ruin the village I believe.

How many houses are there now?

There are 400 all together.

So you've completely failed?

I could say that. After I went to jail I stopped being active in public affairs; I decided this was my little kingdom, I wouldn't let anyone touch it, and I couldn't care less about the plan.

When did you go to jail?

In 2001.

So you decided to keep on building regardless of the plan?

Exactly. I know the fine points of the battle much better now than I did at the time. Eventually they'll nab me again, I'm sure about that. But they'll have a much harder time. There are all sorts of little tricks you can play with them. Once you learn the legal and bureaucratic game, you can play it as well as they can.

How would you describe your little village kingdom to the American audience that's reading this interview?

The village is an historic village, which has a beautiful character to it; it has a spirit to it. The big problem is how can you build something new, serving a new purpose, with a new function, while reproducing and maintaining the traditional spirit? This is the challenge that we face. What we are doing is something radically new. With the old houses, for example, the typical architecture is that the ground floor is for the animals and the upper floor is for people. The heat from the animals actually helps keep the building warm. Well, how can you put the ground floor to new use? The old houses have external bathrooms, toilets. How can you bring the bathroom inside the building? So on and so forth-problems of this nature. How can you bring modernization and economic development without ruining a place? This is a major, universal problem all around the world. Is there any solution to this problem? I'm still skeptical; I don't know the answer.

What has been your solution?

We try following principles: You have to respect tradition. In other words, use the language of traditional architecture, use the elements of traditional architecture, use the proportions of traditional architecture. Do something new, not a slave to tradition, but take the same elements, take the same overall attitude of the architecture, and try to reproduce it.

Be humble is another rule. In other words, if people have done things in a certain way for several hundred years, we are not any wiser. If something worked in the 18th century, there is no reason why it should not work in the 21st century. The extreme limit of this line of reasoning is that when we built these cottages here my initial decision was to not use any electricity whatsoever. Then people wiser than myself convinced me otherwise. There's that element of humility that is so radically lacking in modern construction. People have built perfectly comfortable and pleasing houses in a certain way in the past. There is no reason why we should not be able to build equally comfortable and equally pleasant houses now in the old way. Beauty is something that is considered largely passé, even the word sounds old fashioned in modern architecture. People don't talk about beauty in modern architecture. It exists, and it is an important factor. Whatever you build has to look pleasing to the eye.

Did you have to train masons and other builders?

Absolutely. No architect or civil engineers ever touched these buildings. We had to use trial and error to learn all these things. Since the local workmen and builders haven't had an opportunity to build in the traditional way in 30, 40, 50 years-modernity invaded this country really in the '50s and '60s-they had to be retrained. I had to teach them. We pulled apart a couple ruined old houses to see how the timbers were placed, how the detail work was done, and what kind of wood they used.

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Then I turned all this information into a little booklet with lots of drawings and diagrams, written in a very simple and explanatory language for building masters and people who are building in Şirince, not for architects.

Are the villagers sympathetic to what you teach and have advocated regarding development?

The typical initial response is jealously, or, "What is the bastard Armenian trying to teach us?" Eventually most people turn around and realize that we are doing something right.

Allow me to ask: Why do you so hate architects?

My father was an architect. They're pretentious, and they have never worked with their hands. You have to work with your hands in order to know how to build a small house. You might need an architect for large-scale public works, but in this country, the law requires that even if you are building a chicken coop you need an architect. That is criminal.

In addition to the hotel cottages you own, what else is now included in your Şirince land holdings?

We also renovated six or seven houses in the village, of which three are our property and are now part of our hotel. Then there is the main building, which is a five-room hotel. That was our second project. Then we have a smaller guest house down in the village, which is a seven-room guest house and is somewhat more modest than the other one. And then we built a property with a vast garden, seven cottages, and all sorts of secondary buildings. It is effectively a village of its own. Finally, in the last two years I built a mathematics institute for a very good friend of mine who is a mathematician. The institute is about one mile outside the village, which is a whole campus for 100 boarding students. It has a capacity for up to 250 day students.

How many people live in the village? What is the population?

About 650.

Do you see the village changing? When and because of what forces?

Radically!

This used to be a rather poor agricultural village with limited connection with the outside world. When we first came into the village in 1992 we didn't even have an automatic telephone connection. You had to lift the handset. The barber was also the telephone man; you'd have to ask him to connect you to a given number and make sure he didn't listen on.

So, you've gentrified the village?

I'm afraid so, yes. It has become very gentrified. Property prices have just gone through the stratosphere. It's ridiculous now; it's too expensive. In fixed prices, property values went up more than 20-fold in 15 years. You could buy a decent ruined house, in other words, a house in need of renovation, but a fairly decent size, for about $10,000. Now $250,000 is more like it.

How has property hyper-appreciation changed who lives in the village?

The villagers can no longer afford to buy their own houses. Whenever there is a death in the family, the traditional pattern is that the oldest child continues to live in the house and then he has to buy off the shares of the other siblings. They can no longer do this. So, when the father dies, or when the mother dies, they have to sell the house.

Who then buys from the heirs?

City folks.

Do they buy it to live here or as a second home or a vacation home?

Mostly as a second home.

If you look ten years down the line for example, what do you want to see throughout the whole village? How do you imagine it unrolling?

Economic development and tourism are uncontrollable monsters. They are dragons. Once they are awakened you cannot keep them on a leash. I think they will devour this village.

That's pretty apocalyptic. Is the village better today than it was 15 years ago?

Economically, absolutely! Socially, I'm not so sure about that. Politically, I'm not so sure about that either. There is serious money running through the village now. And the villagers have become very well-off. They tend to invest in Seljuq rather than here. The younger generation refuses to live in this village. They want to move on to the town.

What drives the Şirince economy?

Tourism and agriculture. Although agriculture is dying.

If you wished the best for this village in ten years, what must happen?

I don't know the answer to that.

Actually, my dream for the last two or three years has been more involved with the mathematics instituteI mentioned earlier. I was more ambitious witht that initially, maybe now I'm beginning to slow down a little bit, but the initial plan was to have a social sciences institute next to the mathematics institute and possibly an arts camp somewhere near the site as well, to be developed gradually into a sort of academic institution.

That is a very good way of balancing the extreme reliance on tourism, so the village would have a second foot to stand on. That is still very much in the books; I'm working on it.

In order to better influence the land use and the physicality of this village, Şirince, what official position, such as a planning director or cultural officer, would you need in place?

First of all, one of the most important things is that this village is not an incorporated town. It's a village, and, therefore, all decisions are made by the bureaucracy in İzmir. There isn't a local body. Because I don't trust bureaucracies, I tried to establish-and this was my big battle back in 2000-a local foundation that would raise funds and also establish a board of advisors within the village to advise people, to provide free architectural services, and to direct investors and builders in soft ways.

We need something of that sort- a local authority to make the local decisions. The absence of a democratic structure within the village itself is a major, major problem. The Ministry of Public Works decides everything.

And there's no representation from this village in the provincial government?

It's an invisible, infinitesimal representation.

If you wanted to affect the physicality of this village what would you have to be?

Probably the Chairman of the board of the local foundation.

It's like a Getty grant.

As a matter of fact, a Getty grant is exactly what we need. We had a high-level director of the Getty Foundation as our guest here. He fell in love with the village and said, "Well let's talk about this."

Do you remember his name?

I forget entirely. He arrived here from Nigeria where they had built the irrigation system of an entire province or something of that sort with a Getty grant. And now we have a steady flow of high-level Getty executives and the board of directors of the Getty Museum. We have a Getty fan club here.

We have talked with people from the European Union and various other similar establishments. One of the three biggest businessmen in this country, the chairman of one of the biggest corporations, is a regular guest here. We have never really touched him for a few bucks but, if necessary, he would be in a position to support the village in a serious way.

Since the bureaucratic structure in this country is horribly ossified, it's impossible to accomplish anything decent. My belief is that in order to really accomplish anything good you have to work outside the official framework and use a civil pressure group, an association, a foundation-basically use a mixture of arguments, convincing, good examples, financial quotes, incentives, and so on-to direct the village in a better way. There are certain principles I try to obey in all my buildings. These are good principles as well as generalizable principles.

In other words, if everybody more or less followed the same ideas, they couldn't go too far wrong.

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