Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Architecture and the Late Ottoman Historical Imaginary: Reconfiguring the Architectural Past in a Modernizing Empire

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Architecture and the Late Ottoman Historical Imaginary: Reconfiguring the Architectural Past in a Modernizing Empire

Article excerpt

Orientalist Orientals: re-conceptualizing Ottoman architecture in the late Empire

Review of:

Ahmet Ersoy, Architecture and the Late Ottoman Historical Imaginary: Reconfiguring the Architectural Past in a Modernizing Empire, Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2015, 313 pp. includes bibliographical references and index; 72 b & w illus., $112.46 hdbk, ISBN: 978-1-4724-3139-4

Sibel Bozdogan

Architecture and the Late Ottoman Historical Imaginary is a book that, like nesting Russian dolls, contains multiple, interlinked stories across its four chapters. With each chapter, the story unfolds further, with many detours and subsequent returns to the central themes, gradually adding to and enriching the overall account of cultural change in the late Ottoman Empire giving us a truly 'thick description' of its subject matter. The specific story of one canonic architectural publication, Usul-i Mimariyi Osmani (Chapter 3), authored by a cosmopolitan group of Ottoman artists and intellectuals (Chapter 2), is nestled within the story of Ottoman participation in Vienna World Exhibition of 1873 for which the Usul was prepared (Chapter 1), which in turn, is nestled within the broader story of late Ottoman search for authenticity and cultural rootedness in the context of Tanzimat modernization (Chapter 4). Beyond its many scholarly contributions that are discussed below, it is this ingenious organization of the material into four chapters that complement each other in multiple ways but can nonetheless be read alone, that makes the book highly readable, informative and thought-provoking for diverse audiences.

The historical legacy of the Tanzimat and more generally, the political, cultural and aesthetic meanings of late Ottoman encounters with modernity has always been a contentious topic. Even seemingly competing interpretations have frequently collapsed back to the same Eurocentric conception of the 'globalization' of the world in the nineteenth century, taking for granted the West's privileged position as the exclusive source and agent of change, either positively as a necessary if belated modernization of the Empire along Western trajectories, or negatively as a lamentable contamination of its national culture by foreign influences. Architecture and the Late Ottoman Imaginary does an excellent job of dismantling this construct and historicizing Tanzimat culture in new ways. Taking issue with both the so-called 'westernization paradigm' in terms of which late Ottoman modernization has typically been viewed, and the 'nativist' or 'nationist' readings which have treated the cosmopolitanism of the era as suspect, the book urges us to look instead at the complex histories of 'cultural inspection, syncretism and improvisation that informed late Ottoman engagement with the modern world' (p.5). It urges us to get to know the multiple actors involved in this process, with their diverse backgrounds, ambivalent positions and sometimes-conflicting agendas. In short, the book is a call for understanding cultural change in late Ottoman Empire from within the Ottoman society itself, thereby giving agency to the myriad of local actors who articulated novel demands for an authentic cultural past in order to better position the Empire as a legitimate and still powerful player in the emerging modern world system.

As laid out in the Introduction (which is an invaluable essay in itself for recapping the book's contents and intellectual propositions), Architecture and the Late Ottoman Imaginary gives us a compelling case of how modernity and nostalgia were intimately intertwined in the latter part of the nineteenth century - how institutional, technological and social change following the Tanzimat reforms also fired up the 'historical imagination' and triggered local re-conceptualizations of the Ottoman cultural past in novel ways. This 'new historical mindedness of the 19th century', itself a modern concept (discussed via Stephen Bann), is offered in the book as the primary framework within which we should interpret 'the invention of the modern form of Ottoman nostalgia' as Ersoy calls it (p. …

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