The amazing subterranean palace of Istanbul reopens

A joint Turkish-Italian lighting design scheme for the Basilica Cistern.



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«Only one journey is possible: the journey within. Man can never reach back to the point of origin, because he has changed in the process»
Andrej Tarkowsky

There is a curious historical connection (and probably not only a historical one) between the Turkish city of Istanbul and Italy, as well as with Rome, its capital city. Previously known as Byzantium and later as Constantinople, Istanbul was renamed ‘Nova Roma’ by Roman Emperor Constantine I and appointed as the capital of the Roman Empire. Today, thanks to an extraordinary joint scheme by Atelye 70, a Turkish architecture practice, and Rome-based firms Insula architettura e ingegneria and Studioillumina, has further cemented the two eternal cities, reaffirming this connection.

The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi, which in Turkish means “subterranean palace”) was originally designed in Constantine’s time. It is a monumental underground chamber whose entrance is in Saint Sophia square, with a surface area of 140 metres by 70 metres, and it is supported by 336 columns, each 9 metres high, arranged in 12 rows. It was rediscovered in the 16th century.

1. Cisterna Basilica Istanbul

Adriano Caputo, architect and founder of StudioIllumina, tells us about some of the conceptual ideas behind the new lighting project of the Basilica Cistern: «This light narrative involves various perceptual scenarios; a single elliptical projector, placed on the wall opposite the route of the walkway, illuminates each of the columns from the bottom up. Light levels gradually decrease as visitors walk further into the route through the underground space, conveying a sense of an almost archeological and personal exploration».

The Rome-based architect, who was inspired by the words of Jean-Paul Sartre (I have crossed the seas, I have left cities behind me, and I have followed the rivers towards their source or plunged into forests), explains: «The walk into the chamber feels like plunging into a forest revealed just in silhouette and is inspired to the ancient world of miniatures. It pays homage to the Eastern world, where perspective does not play a central role; it kind of wanes in the background to leave room for drawings and shapes».

«I descended the stairs, and the landlord and I rowed with torches and wandered among a forest of pillars, which were partly submerged underwater».
Pierre Gilles, when first entering the Cistern, 1500

2. Cisterna Basilica Istanbul

Italo Calvino was the inspiring source for this narrative which has been conceived as a journey, almost an odyssey – a return trip between East and West where the Medusa-headed columns stand for the end of the journey in and the beginning of the journey out and seem to symbolically represent the flow of life.

Water is the constant throughout the Cistern, ever present through the journey – an ongoing mirror which draws silhouettes on the journey in and outlines the architectural silhouette on the journey out. There is only a flickering moment in the journey where the light of the columns fades into a different, grazing light to reveal the coarse surface of the original flooring and the bases of all columns. High up, only a faint glimmer of light reaches up to the vaults. Half-way through, quite unexpectedly, the subterranean space takes on the hues of Turkey’s atmosphere, seamlessly shifting from aquamarine to amber according to the whims of zultanite, the Anatolian gem whose colour changes with light.

«Walking presupposes that at every step the world changes in some aspect and also that something changes in us».
Italo Calvino

3. Cisterna Basilica Istanbul

In closing, Adriano Caputo notes how the lighting design scheme is hinged upon the idea of a maze and forest – a forest that is almost labyrinthine in its architectural structure: «The Cistern can be likened to a swamp forest… where all the senses are awakened and where reflections and water sounds go hand in hand… an immersive journey that involves both the senses and the mind, providing a unique experience that makes the Basilica Cistern one of the most sought-after places in the world».

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