If it wasn’t for the bold blue sign extending from one of its humble, aging walls, many would walk right past SALT, in Ankara’s Ulus district, oblivious to the fact that this inconspicuous looking ‘house’ regularly plays host to some of the capital’s most engaging contemporary art exhibitions and cultural programmes.
Originally designed by Italian architect Giulio Mongeri in 1928, the modest two-storeyed building resembles a provincial cottage, with its triangular, brown brick roof and wooden window shutters, and originally served as an annexe of the former Ottoman Bank, housing visiting inspectors. In April 2013, after eleven years in disuse, the building was dusted off and reintroduced as the third node in SALT’s network, adding to the Turkish cultural initiative’s two highly-regarded spaces in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu and Galata neighbourhoods.
While Çankaya currently serves as the capital’s central neighbourhood, the Ulus district has historical significance, designated as the city’s ‘official heart’ in the 1920s. It remains a lively locale, punctuated with heritage buildings that keep architects and artists drawn to its vibe. Housed in a preserved historical structure and institutionally dedicated to engaging with both the Turkish past and present, SALT Ulus fits seamlessly into the neighbourhood, but it is also, according to Meriç Öner, SALT’s associate director of research and programmes, an architectural exception.
‘It’s not a common sight in the area. To begin with, it was built as a separate entity distinct from the bank, which was not a customary practice. And, the style of the masonry building is very particular. A lot of the elements incorporated by Mongeri can be interpreted as experiments “in between times”. His decision, for example, to position an oriel window right next to the balcony was curious.’
Acclaimed Turkish architect Han Tümertekin, who handled the renovation of SALT’s two flagship spaces in Istanbul, was also invited to repurpose the annexe in Ankara. ‘As an architect,’ he reflects, ‘I find the intervention process within historical buildings rather challenging. The cultural and physical limits of the building force you to think critically about the old and the new.’ The end result was a small, cosy venue with a domestic feel and its own ‘weird’ energy. ‘Even though the space is highly limited in size and the redesign didn’t necessarily address these problems,’ states Öner, ‘it benefits from this feeling of familiarity.’
Tümertekin was not allowed to, as he puts it, ‘play’ with the annexe. He was only able to alter the façade, to which he attempted to add some contemporary details that could complement its historical style – clearly rooted in the nationalist architecture of the Republican period. Spatially, SALT Ulus’ former rooms were restructured to flow into one another through the adjustment of door locations, creating a relatively open plan that provides a total of three exhibition spaces. Additionally, Tümertekin transformed the parking lot adjacent to the space into an exhibition area. The courtyard, a ‘hidden, fresh corner’ as described by Öner, is used as a gathering place for public talks and presentations during the warmer months.
But why, after two successful years in Istanbul and predictions of many more to come, expand into the comparatively less charted waters of Ankara? ‘We knew from the beginning that it was on the way,’ comments Öner. ‘Istanbul has become a very fashionable city when it comes to art and architecture. To a certain extent, people there are consuming the city more than adding to it, so I think as cultural institutions we have to be careful with our programming and try not to use it for our own purposes.’ Ankara, she continues, is a different story.
Istanbul might be the cradle of Ottoman history, but for Öner, Ankara is the ‘seat of Turkish modernism.’ During the early years of the Republic, the two cities evolved along completely different trajectories, the former dedicatedly developed while the latter was relatively abandoned. During the 1960s and 1970s, Istanbul experienced an industrial boom, while Ankara continued to develop at a steadier pace.
‘It’s important to be locally grounded in these different histories throughout the country,’ Öner explains. The layers of cultures that exist in both Istanbul and Ankara, for SALT, all need to be engaged with. In terms of the arts, Öner says, ‘Istanbul is more complicated to look at and discuss, but Ankara has been this humble city from the beginning with great intellectual potential, especially thanks to certain precious universities. But, it’s also difficult because the community is organised into circles of people who keep to themselves. With SALT Ulus, we are trying to break this isolation, and to decentralise this whole discussion of culture.’
All of SALT’s properties were conceived as ‘programmes, not just spaces.’ Originally imagined as ‘one programme in two buildings’ in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu and Galata districts, SALT was provided a 15,000 square metre setting for its activities that spanned two 19th century structures acquired by Garanti Bank. SALT Beyoğlu is housed in what was a six-storey apartment building, while SALT Galata was installed in the former headquarters of the Imperial Ottoman Bank.
The approach to the renovation of SALT Beyoğlu and Galata was the result of careful negotiations and collaborations between the SALT team and Tümertekin. Both were designed to have distinct but complementary functions, and each required a space that could cater to its specific concerns and identity.
SALT felt that limiting the repurposing process to one architect might not be the most appropriate approach, particularly for an institution that’s so dedicated to programmatic diversity that it refuses to even create its own logo, adamantly insisting that SALT is what its users – whether artists or random passersby – want it to be.
‘If we had only worked with Han, everything would have looked the same,’ explains Öner. ‘Instead, we invited eight groups of designers to respond to various aspects of the space, and now each portion is its own different world.’
SALT Ulus however, was approached differently. ‘It had been there since Garanti bought the Ottoman Bank in 2001,’ explains Öner. ‘They always thought of it as a potential cultural space, but back then we were focused on introducing SALT to the public. It wasn’t the right moment for us to invest in Ankara, so we took our time.’
While its refurbishment might not have been as customised as that of its sister buildings, SALT Ulus is most certainly not a satellite office – one that merely imports programming from Istanbul. Rather, it is meant to work in the reverse, to expose Ankara’s potential to the whole of Turkey, funneling its talent and perspectives outwards. It’s an exciting time for SALT and its cross-country programme, but Öner does confess some concerns. ‘I have to admit, it’s also problematic when you start building these little places all around. We have to expand qualities instead of quantifiable things, but Ankara is an experiment. Let’s see how it goes.’