Race against time to save Europe’s largest wooden building

Istanbul’s historic Greek orphanage, known as Europe’s largest and the second largest wooden building in the world, will be salvaged after decades of involuntary disuse that has left the building nearly in ruins. Experts, meanwhile, warn that ongoing restoration efforts are still far from reassuring.

Preparatory work for the salvage of the 123-year-old building and building located on a hilltop on the island of Buyukada off the coast of Istanbul, it began earlier this year through the coordination of the Istanbul Municipality and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the owner of the site. In May, a construction company of the Istanbul Municipality reproduced the visual image of the structure mapping the current state of the building and analyzing the damage. The research will serve as the basis for the restoration project.

However, the salvage of the historic building is far from sealed, as the restoration process seems to be accompanied by several uncertainties.

The landmark building was designed by the Levantine architect Alexandre Vallaury and built in 1898 on Buyukada, the largest of Istanbul’s nine Prince Islands, which originally served as a casino and hotel complex. After the Ottoman authorities refused to issue an operating license for the hotel, a Greek philanthropist bought the building and donated it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1903 to operate as an orphanage. The orphanage housed more than 5,000 children before falling into disrepair in 1964.

After decades of disuse, almost half of the roof of the building has now collapsed and several floors have been demolished. The building was designated as one of the seven most endangered locations in 2018 by Europa Nostra, a European cultural heritage organization.

“It is obvious at first glance that the buildings are at immediate risk of collapse unless urgent measures are taken quickly to support the structures and protect them from collapsing,” a 2018 Europe Our report said.

While ongoing restoration efforts have been welcomed amid growing fears of the monumental building’s total collapse, experts say the process is progressing very slowly and lacks the institutionalized approach required for a project of this sensibility. After the completion of the digital mapping, no concrete measure has been taken to protect the building from looming bad weather.

Architect Korhan Gumus, one of the experts who applied to the Europa Nostra Endangered Sites Program for the orphanage’s inclusion, warned of “disastrous consequences” for lack of such an approach.

“We are wasting our time,” Gumus told Al-Monitor, calling for an advisory board to be formed or an international competition to speed up the process.

Gumus argued that a restoration project of this magnitude cannot be carried out by the Istanbul Municipality’s sub-company alone and that the mammoth effort requires the immediate involvement of architects.

Princess Islands mayor Erdem Gul also said “immediate action” is required, but continued efforts are focused on urgent action to preserve the building rather than restore it.

He noted that before restoration work begins, a decision must be made about how the building should function once it has been rebuilt.

“Since it will no longer be an orphanage, it is necessary to decide what its function will be, and then the architectural mind can intervene,” Gul told Al-Monitor, stressing that the final decision on the function of the building should be taken. taken by the patriarchy.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew II, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians around the world, previously expressed his desire to restore the site as a environmental center where international conferences on environmental protection would take place.

Yako Karayani, a Buyukada native of Greek descent, supports that idea. “If this place becomes a place of environmental studies, it could earn fame around the world,” he told Al-Monitor. He said he is “hopeful about the ongoing process” aimed at restoring the building.

Cost is another major barrier to the restoration project. The Europa Nostra report estimates that the total investment for the project will require approximately $47 million. Who will finance the project remains an open question. Some argue that the government should sponsor the project because it was official negligence that left the building to rot.

The Turkish government evicted the residents of the orphanage and confiscated the property in 1964, along with several other properties belonging to Turkish citizens of Greek descent, amid deteriorating military and political relations between Turkey and Greece. The European Court of Human Rights ended the decades-long legal saga between the Turkish government and the patriarchate in 2010 by ruling that property back to the patriarchy.

Mihail Vasiliadis, editor-in-chief of the Istanbul-based Greek-language newspaper Apoyevmatini, agrees that the government should take responsibility, stressing that the landmark building was left unattended after the seizure.

“[The orphanage] was taken from the patriarchy and the children living there were forced to leave. Unfortunately, the government has not carried out any maintenance work [since then]’ Vasiliadis told Al-Monitor. “You have taken [the building] away from me, but at least you have to protect and care for it. The orphanage had to be demolished. The state must cover the costs of making it usable again. The patriarchy cannot afford that.”

The patriarchy plans to fundraising campaign for the restoration project. Speaking on a 28 Aug event Organized in the front yard of the orphanage after the completion of digital surveying, Bartholomew called for a “comprehensive collaboration” to overcome the financial and technical hurdles to the restoration project.

“The orphanage is our common value and its fate is our responsibility,” Bartholomew said at the event. “We want to reach out to the state authorities, municipalities, non-governmental organizations and all lovers of Istanbul to receive their support.”

Gul said they were considering shielding the building’s exterior in an effort to protect it from inclement weather, as impending winter weather could cause further damage.

Following the immediate action calls from experts, he said the urgent decision-making process should follow the urgent conservation measures.

“That building had shown compassion for orphans, but we have failed to return the compassion it deserves. From now on we have to see how we can show compassion for it,” he concluded.

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