What Kind of Architecture is in Istanbul?

To describe what kind of architecture is in Istanbul would take a complete book and much understanding of various styles over the centuries. Istanbul, a city straddling two continents, has been a melting pot of cultures, civilisations, and influences throughout its rich history. From ancient marvels of the Byzantine Empire to the grand Ottoman era, Istanbul testifies to evolving architectural styles. These days, that architecture makes it one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, due to people flocking to see the ancient buildings.

Additionally, modern architecture also makes the city, Turkey’s most popular real estate and investment hub. From Byzantine architecture to public spaces, residential buildings and more, styles are as varied as they are unique. While certain buildings like the Blue mosque stand out for their timeless appearance, others display modern Turkish architecture that serves as homes and investment assets. Let's look at the architecture in Istanbul over the years and where you can see the best examples.

Istanbul architecture

What Kind of Architecture is in Istanbul?

Roman and Byzantine Architecture

Originally started in the 7th century BC by Greek settlers, the foundations of Istanbul's architectural heritage are rooted in the former capital city of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, which held sway over the city for over a millennium. Originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537, Hagia Sophia is a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. Built during the 6th century reign of Emperor Justinian I, the Basilica Cistern subterranean water reservoir demonstrates Byzantine architecture and engineering.

Originally a church, later converted into a mosque and now a museum, Chora Church depicts scenes of Christ and the Virgin Mary in vibrant detail. Initially erected in ancient Egypt, the Obelisk of Theodosius was brought to Constantinople by Roman Emperor Theodosius I in the 4th century. The Hippodrome of Constantinople, a Roman chariot-racing stadium, was also a social centre. While much of it is in ruins, notable elements like the Egyptian Obelisk and Serpent Column still stand. Most Roman and Byzantine architecture examples stand in Sultanahmet Square in the Fatih district.

Hagia Sophia

Ottoman Empire Opulence

The Ottoman Empire, which succeeded the Byzantine Empire, left an indelible mark on Istanbul's architectural identity with many historical buildings. The Ottoman Istanbul era is defined by imperial capital mosques, palaces, and public squares. The Blue Mosque, officially called Sultan Ahmed Mosque, portrays typical Ottoman architecture, featuring cascading domes, towering minarets, and an interior adorned with blue tiles, lending it its popular name. Built during the 17th century, the Blue mosque is one of Turkey's most famous ancient structures. Topkapi Palace, once the home of Ottoman sultans and the brainchild of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, showcases fused architectural styles, from Byzantine and Persian influences to traditional Ottoman design. Like the above, good examples of Ottoman architecture stand in the historic centre of Sultanahmet Square.

Blue Mosque

Beyazit Square and Mosque

Beyazit Square and Beyazit Mosque in the historic heart of Istanbul, Turkey, hold significant cultural and historical importance. The area is named after Beyazıt II, the son of Mehmed the Conqueror, who commissioned construction in the early 16th century. The 16th-century Beyazit Mosque, also called Beyazıt II Mosque, displays early Ottoman imperial mosque architecture. Designed by renowned architect Yakup Şah Bin Yusuf, the mosque is characterised by simplicity and elegance. The central dome, supported by semi-domes and massive piers, dominates interior spaces, creating grandeur. The mosque also features a spacious courtyard and small domes on the façade, contributing to the architectural charm.

Beyazit Square, in front of the mosque, has historically been a significant public space. Surrounded by essential institutions like Istanbul University, one of Turkey's oldest universities founded in 1453, Beyazit Square has witnessed various historical events, including public gatherings, protests, and celebrations. In addition to historical and architectural significance, Beyazıt Square is a vibrant area with bustling markets, shops, and restaurants, attracting both locals and tourists. The Grand Bazaar, Turkey's oldest and largest covered market, is also within walking distance from Beyazıt Square, adding to the area's cultural richness.

The Most Famous Ottoman Architect

Mimar Sinan, born in 1489, was the greatest Ottoman architect to shape trends during the 16th century. Mimar was the chief architect (or "Mimarbaşı") for three Ottoman sultans: Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, and Murad III. Over his prolific career, Mimar Sinan designed numerous mosques, palaces, bridges, and other structures, leaving an indelible mark on Ottoman architecture.

Mimar Sinan's most famous work is the Süleymaniye Mosque, commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and completed in 1557. This mosque showcases blended Islamic and Byzantine influences, and includes a hospital, madrasas, and a public kitchen, reflecting Sinan's comprehensive approach to architectural design.

Another significant creation by Mimar Sinan is Şehzade Mosque, completed in 1548. Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in memory of his son Şehzade Mehmed, the mosque features a centralised dome and symmetrical designs, highlighting Sinan's mastery of architectural balance. In addition, Mimar Sinan designed Rustem Pasha Mosque, an intimate and intricately decorated mosque in Istanbul's bustling Eminönü district. Commissioned by Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha and completed in 1563, the mosque is known for exquisite Iznik tilework.

Mimar Sinan's contributions extended beyond religious structures. He designed the iconic Istanbul's Büyükçekmece Bridge, built over the Büyükçekmece River during the reign of Selim II. The bridge combined functionality with aesthetic beauty and exemplified Sinan's engineering prowess. These all display Mimar Sinan's remarkable legacy. His influence on Ottoman architecture was profound, and his works continue to be celebrated for their aesthetic and structural brilliance.

Neo-Classical and Western Influences

In the nineteenth century, Istanbul underwent modernisation under the Ottoman Empire's Tanzimat reforms. This era witnessed the introduction of Western architectural styles, most notably Neo-Classical and Baroque influences. The Dolmabahçe Palace, built in the mid-19th century, portrays this shift, with ornate facades, grand halls, and European-inspired aesthetics. Designed by the Armenian architect Garabet Amira Balyan and his son Nigoğayos Balyan, Dolmabahce Palace features symmetrical layouts with a prominent central clock tower. The exterior also blends Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical architectural elements. At the same time, interiors are adorned with exquisite crystal chandeliers, lavish furnishings, and intricate decorations.

The iconic structure of Beylerbeyi Palace, on the Bosphorus Asian shore, testifies to 19th-century Ottoman architectural styles. Built between 1861 and 1865 during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz, the palace served as a summer residence and guesthouse for visiting dignitaries. The renowned architects Sarkis Balyan and Agop Balyan were responsible for the design, infusing the structure with blended Western and Ottoman architectural elements.

Beylerbeyi Palace, characterised by elegant facades adorned with intricate stonework, ornate balconies, and a majestic central dome, features opulent reception rooms adorned with exquisite marble, mother-of-pearl inlays, and gilded details, showcasing the luxurious lifestyle of the Ottoman elite.

During the late Ottoman period and the early years of the republican period, Istanbul's skyline and public buildings began to incorporate more contemporary designs. The Pera Palace Hotel, built in the early twentieth century, reflects the Art Nouveau and Neoclassical styles, catering to the tastes of the cosmopolitan elite. You can see many forms on this style on Istiklal avenue.

Dolmabahce Palace

Towering Skyscrapers

Istanbul has experienced a surge in modern architecture, with several tall buildings and skyscrapers transforming its skyline. The genre has evolved over the years, with modern skyscraper designs emphasising sustainability, energy efficiency, and innovative aesthetics to meet the demands of contemporary urban living.

Istanbul Sapphire: Completed in 2011, Istanbul Sapphire is one of Istanbul's tallest public buildings in Levent's business district. Offering unique architectural designs, it is known for environmental features, including rainwater harvesting and energy-efficient systems.

Istanbul Cevahir: While not a traditional skyscraper, Istanbul Cevahir is a massive shopping and entertainment complex with distinctive architecture that is part of cultural life. It includes office spaces and a large shopping mall, making it a prominent landmark.

Skyland Istanbul: Skyland Istanbul is a mixed-use complex comprising residential and commercial spaces. The project includes two towers and features a modern architectural design. It is in the Seyrantepe district.

Istanbul Finance Center (IFC): The Istanbul Finance Center is a large-scale project designed to be a financial hub. It aimed to include several skyscrapers in the Atasehir district. Completion significantly altered Istanbul's skyline.

Trump Towers Istanbul: Developed by the Trump Organization and a foreign architect, these twin towers in the Mecidiyeköy district house luxury residential apartments, offices, and a shopping mall. They add contemporary designs to Istanbul's architecture and daily life.

Anthill Residence: In the Bomonti district, Anthill Residence is a residential complex featuring twin towers. The design is notable for its sleek and modern appearance, contributing to Istanbul's evolving architectural landscape.

Istanbul tall buildings

Control Tower at the New Istanbul Airport

The new Istanbul Airport, officially known as Istanbul Airport (IST), opened its doors to passengers in 2018. The architectural design of Istanbul Airport is characterised by modern and functional aesthetics. However, the architectural design that has captured the most attention is the control tower. Shaped like a tulip, the tower reflects the 18th-century Ottoman period. Having won many awards for modern architecture, architects also took an eco-friendly approach when designing the building. As one of Turkey's most prominent structures, the tower makes it a unique airport.

Ataturk Cultural Center on Taksim Square

Atatürk Cultural Center (Atatürk Kültür Merkezi or AKM) in Taksim Square, Istanbul, has been a significant part of cultural life and is an architectural landmark. The original building was inaugurated in 1969 and was a product of modernist architectural periods designed by Hayati Tabanlioglu. It was built to honour Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.

The original AKM was characterised by distinctive architectural features, with modernist and minimalist designs. The building's facade featured geometric patterns, and large windows allowed natural light into interior spaces. In 2018, the old building was demolished to make way for a new and larger cultural complex designed by Hayati Tabanlioglu's son. The decision to demolish the old AKM was met with support and criticism, reflecting differing opinions on preserving architectural heritage versus contemporary architecture.

The new building is part of a broader project called the Taksim Square and Gezi Park Redesign Project. The design blends modernity with respect for the surrounding urban context. The architectural plans incorporated more contemporary and functional approaches, as well as new public spaces around the new AKM, contributing to the overall urban experiences of Taksim Square.

Famous Turkish Architects

Emre Arolat: Emre Arolat is a renowned Turkish architect and co-founder of EAA-Emre Arolat Architecture. His work often commits to sustainability and contemporary period design with local context. His notable Turkish architecture projects include the Sancaklar Mosque and the Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture.

Murat Tabanlıoğlu: Murat Tabanlıoğlu is the founder of Tabanlıoğlu Architects, a leading architectural firm in Turkey. He has contributed to numerous period projects, from cultural and residential buildings to urban design. Istanbul Modern Art Museum and Atatürk Cultural Center are among his notable works.

Han Tümertekin: Han Tümertekin is a Turkish architect known for his approach to environmentally sustainable design of public spaces. He founded the architectural firm Mimarlar Tasarım. His works often blend modern structure design with traditional architectural elements. Bodrum International Airport is one of his prominent projects.

Güler Güngör: Güler Güngör is an architect known for her focus on contemporary structure design and sustainable practices. She has worked on various projects, including residential and commercial buildings. Her work often creates spaces that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Sinan Kafadar: Sinan Kafadar is an architect and founder of SO Architecture and Ideas. His work explores innovative design solutions and often challenges traditional architectural norms. His projects range from urban design to cultural spaces.

Nevzat Sayın: Nevzat Sayın is an architect recognised for his contributions to modern Turkish architecture. He has been involved in various projects, including residential complexes and public buildings. His work often reflects contemporary approaches while respecting cultural and historical contexts.

Residential Architecture and Modern Lifestyles

From public spaces to Ottoman palaces and mosques, architectural styles have changed, and this is also clearly seen in residential buildings and housing styles. Historical approaches to providing housing for Istanbul residents were originally to use wood. However, this posed a massive fire problem and was banned. At the turn of the 21st century, there were also massive problems of unsafe buildings that were poorly constructed.

So, Istanbul embarked on new plans to revolutionise its housing industry, and these days, the trend is modernist-style apartment complexes with lifestyle amenities and facilities. Architects also incorporate green areas into urban spaces to make daily life family-friendly places to live and invest in property. (More about residential property in Istanbul.)


More About Istanbul in Turkey

European Istanbul: European Istanbul, also known as Turkey's historic and cultural heart, is a captivating blend of rich heritage and modern dynamism. Nestled on the European side of the Bosporus Strait, this vibrant part of Istanbul seamlessly weaves centuries of history with contemporary life. From Topkapi Palace's grandeur to Taksim Square's lively atmosphere, European Istanbul embodies tradition and progress, making it a magnetic destination to explore the cultural mosaic of this enchanting city.

Asian Istanbul: Asian Istanbul, situated on the eastern side of the legendary Bosporus Strait, offers a distinct and dynamic facet of Turkey's largest metropolis. While the European side may boast the historic charm, the Asian side contributes a more laid-back atmosphere with its residential neighbourhoods, scenic parks, and bustling local markets. With the bustling ferry terminals connecting both sides, Asian Istanbul is a gateway to the vibrant fusion of tradition and modernity that defines the city, offering a captivating contrast to its European counterpart.

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Istanbul bridge


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