Ferit Sahenk Hall provides a working space that fulfills different expectations with the combination of exclusive details and well-selected materials. Dirim Dincer talks to Alexis Sanal of Sanalarc about the project as well as the public role of the libraries
Dirim Dincer: You designed the Salt Research Center in 2011, and the Ferit Şahenk Hall is now completed. How do you relate your idea of seeing libraries as the core of knowledge to the Salt experience?
Alexis Sanal: Libraries, by their nature, are public tools. They mean more than just being a service to the caring of the collection of human knowledge. They are curated and organized in thematic, responsive or social purposes: public libraries, which have a higher public purpose, contain popular content; state libraries, which tend to archive historical cultural perspective, work as research institutions, or as a collector of regional information that [constitutes] important archives; and then there are institutional libraries, which are very much in the service of public pursuit and knowledge.
What makes Salt unique–and unlike any other institutional libraries—is that it is completely accessible to the public. So it is open for any reader who would like to use its resources, which include the collections, but also the community around it, with spaces for research and study. It houses important archives and art. Its economic finance is also very unique with regards to Turkey’s last 200 years of development. So it has very interesting, different aspects. I think a lot of institutional libraries open to the public have two parallel cultural constructs—one that of the economy, and one that is of the art culture, and these [come] together. So I see the libraries, and librarians, as stores of the public knowledge.
DD: You settle into a monumental building; and at one level, you don’t want to lose that connection, and at another level, Salt has more space than others as an institution open to development. Did you have any principles in the language of the design? What, in that sense, are the similarities and differences? AS: We feel the same about the building. There is something very special about this building, as well as about many others around there. They are handmade; and what you get with handmade architecture is a lot more curvature—the way they sculpt the columns, the way they do the windows, or the way they move the body on the staircases. It was an introduction of industrialization. So it was nice that both projects reintroduced this handmade, post-industrial understanding of body, space and materials. So the lower level is kind of an extreme version of that.
The upper level was envisioned as the core of the Salt institutional research capacity; so the whole point was to make it visible and highly accessible, and to make it appear iconic in the central space, and allow people to penetrate deep into the everyday life of the building through these settings. The other thing was that the design was very much in service of the original architect of the building, Alexander Vallury, who had tried to create a series of settings that represented the anthology of the design narrative. So there were these creations—Sadi Öziş’s chairs, Aziz Sarıyer’s table and Derin Sarıyer’s chairs—but it was about how they configured with having a very formal table while you had a certain kind of seating around the lounge, or when you have the conventional, as well as the contemporary, library studies, or that you have the amphitheatre seating and you have that room… It was really about the idea of constructing together all these little, different, micro-cosmos. In that sense, it was also very sympathetic to the public audience. It was really trying to offer [a new] breath to those potential audiences. Seven years on, it turned out a little more successful that we had thought [it would], in that way. People really owned the space as their own, in line with the sympathetic, humanist approach that we have taken at the time. Interestingly enough, even though all the furniture is mobile, nothing has changed ever since.
The collection continues down through the building. The building historically is very connected with the bank safes—the upper safe and the lower safe—so these two rooms had always worked that way, and somehow, they still do. Avlu (the courtyard) is the public interface of exchange, and the case holds the much more formal, protocol version of the exchange. So these rooms continue to work together in a very similar fashion. I think what is very unique about the new and the old spaces is that with the main avlu library, we always wanted it to have a strong relationship with the street, but because of the glasses, which are very darkly tinted, we were never able to achieve that. But down below, the glasses are not like that; so that is a nice gift—to be able to interact with the street in the way that we had wanted to with the above level.
At the same time, what we also learned was that Salt Research has a very specific audience, who marginalize that space in a specific way. People are coming to specifically use the collection, in order to develop further research. So the connection is maybe a little bit visual, too; but culturally, we opted for a take that is kind of holistic; and it was to welcome the audience to have a space of their own. As a reflection of contemporary pursuit, it can be historical or speculative, but the space really belongs to these researchers, so they ended up getting their own spaces. So in that sense, they very connected, because as you can imagine it would be with a public library like the British Library, if you want to do very serious research, you have to access a deeper sense of the collection, and become an everyday user. In that sense, it kind of evolved to having to cater to that need of the general public, and of the specific audience. So we see them very much connected to the space.
DD: Do they have any physical connections?
AS:No, they don’t. You have to go outside and come back but this works well for them. Because for the lower part, you have to become a member; and you have to be an academic researcher etc. This is a corner which is dedicated to people—for them to come and concentrate on their work, and to enhance the lower level more, as well as the circulation.
DD: Does the defined user profile—as a student, academician or independent researcher and such—have any effects on the design?
AS: It very much does. If you consider the plan, each room is designed for a different type of researcher; the audience may not be more student, or academic, but it tends to be more about being a social or a silent reader. So the first room is a social [space] where we have different furniture coming in and out. The furniture is from the Salt archive of exhibition, so it has a narrative quality to it, and they are removable. The people can be comfortable and social with these changeable settings. The next room is more for researchers; I would say, it is like a contemporary university library—still very social in a concentrated way. People have big or small territories; they can look this way or that way, they can sit together with friends, or sit across from each other and work. And the third room actually has very traditional carrels, which are the most traditional library settings, where researchers work side by side on a shared table. In those spaces, you define your space by placing a book in front of you. So these are really meant for people who want hyper-silent concentration.
So what we tried to do in the design was to come up with more of a terrain, or a forest-like idea. Everything in a forest is of a similar species, and has a similar touch; but as you go deeper in a meadow, or come out of the meadow, or of the forest, the settings change within the same collection of things. So the table, the poles, everything—is the same, with regards to how you shaped them, and suggested their use. It was about trying to create an asymmetry to the above levels, because the upper level is the exact opposite of the lower level. Every single setting is idiosyncratic environment. But down below, the design is very organic; you don’t have symmetry, and what changes is only how those elements come together to suggest a kind of playroom for social researchers or hardcore silent researchers.
The main common trait of the two levels is the shelving system between, but it appears in a different placement in each. Shelving system is the most interesting aspect of the upper level. It was a real challenge that the archival work and the libraries in this region did not have the same level of progress that we have in a lot of developing cultures, because they are actually big investments. So one another big investment is making the shelving system because that is the one thing you aren't going to change every 15 years—you’d want to change it every 60 years. So in that sense we spent a lot time on the shelving system.
Beyond just the steel and carcasses, we worked with Ersa Mobilya to develop the system to work with the designed object itself, and the fine profiles; and to make it really hyper-utilitarian. Lin is not a sexy product, but it has a fine edge, and efficiency; it functions very well. It has been 8 years [since] and it still performs well. So we brought that to downstairs as well. I think we also learned how to use the storage to visualize the collection. For example, at the above level, we focused on capacity, and I realized later that that was a mistake. Being able to see the collection is actually incredibly important. I realized that after what we did at Robert College; I realized what it means to be able to step back and see how huge a difference a really bright white light makes. It allows for the use of imagination and curiosity to go beyond [just] finding the book, which leaves you capable of diving into the sequence. I think the one other big transformation working with Salt [brought on] was to see how working with the manufacturer and our own design group and having a better understanding affects] how you engage collectively with the collection through that process. That was interesting, and I think the new space really reflects that. People say they feel more like exploring than they did in Salt before. Going through and seeing what they find and pulling out random books… I think that is something nice.
DD: What about the relation between space and materials? Recycling materials, plywood tables that form through curves; and circles, which create different perspectives; paper tubes that has deep effects on space, and [using] lighting equipments as the main components. And how does collaborating with a local manufacturer affect the design process?
AS: It is very much about giving it a natural softness. For example, the recycled craft paper was about the shared excitement that the Salt team has for the material culture and our responsibility to engage in recycled materials. Paper, as we know form Shigeru Ban’s research, has an incredible capacity. We do not use it here in a capacity that is as off-limits as the ways he explores [in his work], but we do introduced it in another way. It has a very high acoustic performance. We use it as a way for the deconstructive building mass to move from room to room; and each one also allows for a really good acoustic transition between the rooms. Paper also performs very high with the plywood. This comes from creating a natural environment—you can touch the natural material, and it will change in time and you can see changes and how it comes to document the space. The upper level also continues with these plywood objects. We talked about how you can craft wood in the 21st century as a kind of offering to the historical building that had crafted timber in the 19th century. Using this industrialized wood of the timber industry, which has a high efficiency in use, and just celebrating how beautiful it is, as well as working with the carpenters who did very nice profiles—you just feel the softness of the material better, and staying with that, and with the shelving, and with that simplicity, you see the nice richness.
People are often scared of the curve; they think it is deterministic. But interestingly, it is not. We really like its geometry, and we worked with it a lot because of that. But this was the first time that we deeply explored a complete setting with curves. The curves suggest humanness, they suggest coming together in a way that nothing else can—I don't know why. Another thing we tried to do is to always use the inside of the curve. You always sit in a circle, which represents comfort. We had the opportunity to do that because curves have character. But this character is sovereign. Circles can be very kind to the body, and we are excited to explore circle and also to see circles as a way of extruding, as a way to move the eye through, or to get rid of it, from space to space… Coming back to the previous question, we use the scraps to make the corner, which is for the 18-22 year old crowd, and [it] is all made from the scraps of the plywood. All the residual materials left out from the cut of the circle; we flipped them over and made the table space.
The contribution of the local manufacturer comes especially on the plexy lights. Those are all Perşembe Pazarı special. They were all very fun and eccentric manufacturers who were really excited about laminating the plexy, about getting power LEDs; and it was a really fun collaboration to have, because the manufacturers really love to work with those elements. We always end up working with local producers because they really understand the materials, and are very excited about experimenting.