Friday, March 16, 2012

2.29: Journey to Santralistanbul

The name itself is exotic, like some sort of Eastern Traveler’s Fantasyland, both magical and remote, attainable only by the stout of heart or the favored of God. Perhaps not even visible to those who cling to the beaten path, the common run, the guided tour.
Okay, it’s a power plant. Or it used to be. Now it’s what Frommer’s calls “an astounding new art space,” the transformation of the nerve center plant that served the center of Istanbul from 1911 to 1983 into a mega-sized artistic play space, giving power plant scope and scale for big ideas in visual arts and installations.
Obviously, you won’t find room for a 20th century industrial site in the Old City crammed with historic monuments and great buildings going back two millennia and new planeloads of tourists every day. But where exactly is it?
Getting there turns out to be not only half the fun but a serious challenge to urban pathfinders with skills honed on New York City subways and Arab minibuses. The solution turns out to be best value for your travel money west of Suez because Turkey’s estimable public transportation system enables you to ride up the Golden Horn, the city’s unique interior seaway, on a ferry or “seabus” that costs the same as a ride on a tram or an ordinary bus. Which is to say about $1.30.
Unlike explorers of old, today’s travelers are equipped with handy resources such as guidebooks and the internet, as well as the vague memories of friends. But in practice (don’t we all know it) these airy directions fail as soon as our footsteps leave the well-trod path to the city’s Big Attractions. Once on the ground, the rush of the three-dimensional unfamiliar chews up the simplistic reference guide prose and spits out those cheerful internet advisories – “a university shuttle bus leaves from Taksim Square”: Oh? When? Why?– like so many useless bits, bytes and pixels. The well-intended gestures of people whose language you don’t speak don’t help much either. “Heidi-ho,” we say in bad Turkish, “can you show me the way to your big electric buttons?”
As to how to get to Santralistanbul, we hear different accounts. There is the puzzling assurance of a shuttle bus, a piece of information that makes no sense until you learn the bus serves Bilgi University, a kind of Greater Istanbul campus that now encompasses Santralistanbul. The shuttle bus remains an unattractive option because busy Taksim Square, one of the main transportation hubs for a city of 10 million, is two tram lines away from our hotel. We also learn certain that several numbered city buses will bring us near our goal. But the labyrinthine complexity of Istanbul’s bus lines resembles the New York City subway map, only in Turkish.
So when we discover the existence of a seabus which will ferry us up the Golden Horn, shuttling from coast to coast across a water way that separates the Old City from the so-called “new city” (a relative term), we think we are golden indeed. What a great transportation system, we think, that offers an inexpensive ride up a fabled body of water named for the way it completes a mental picture of the city’s geography by resembling the horn of a rhinoceros! (Please see a map to understand what the city’s inhabitants had in mind with this name.)
Directions on what to do when you get off the ferry, however, are vague. There is even a division of opinion on which side of the Golden Horn to disembark. We choose to ride to the last stop, the charming village of Eyup (Old City side), which appears close to our destination on the map.
But not close enough.
“How do we get to Santralistanbul?” we ask the ticket clerk at the ferry station. Mention is made of a “little bus.” The reply is intimidatingly vague.
Can’t we walk?
“Walk? Impossible! Much too far!”
Enter the hero of the piece, a tall commanding station master whose skill set includes an excellent command of English, a rare find in the country’s customer service bureaucracy.
“Santralistanbul?” he asks. We nod, imploringly.
“Wait,” he commands. Then: “Follow me.”
We do, out to a busy avenue, with no indication of bus service or signs in any language. Our public conveyance arrives soon. Something between a minibus and large van, it cruises the main drag, stopping where people want to get off or on.
The station master conveys our destination to the Turkish-speaking driver, wishes us goodbye, accepts our thanks, and strides authoritatively off. I’m not sure how we would have managed this transaction by ourselves.
The little bus drops us off close to Santralistanbul, though I have my doubts at first, and the uniform lack of signage in any language remains staggering. Here the intrepid traveler must rely on resources other than English, trusting that a thin line of foot traffic to Bilgi University will lead us to our destination. We travel through a puddle-strewn, packed earth parking lot, the sort of path the dainty feet of tour-guided camera-toting tourists seldom tread.
We arrive at a little booth where you can ask directions and get incomprehensible answers. Our daughter does better by accosting an “arty girl,” her term, who confirms we are indeed on the road to Santralistanbul.
It’s not exactly retracing the Silk Road by mule and camel, but finding your own way to a destination off the beaten tourist track does provide the solid satisfaction of arriving some place where you’re not expected, regardless of the guidebooks’ raves. It’s different. It’s foreign. When we stumble on the correct entrance into the right oversized building we find an empty hallway with a lonely man behind a distant desk speaking Turkish on the phone. He looks like he hasn’t had a visitor in a week. He also looks like he was one of the guys manning the great power station when it closed in 1983.
What hooked us in the guidebooks’ description of Santralistanbul was the promise that along with the creation of huge spaces for big art the new incarnation retained many of the power plant’s original structures, including the “turbine-generator groups” that produced the electricity and the control room with its fat clock-face dials telling you how many minutes to go before the world blows up and other such useful technical information.
The place doesn’t disappoint. I doubt we explored all of Santralistanbul’s vast interiors, but we gave it a good try. Its block-long, semi-darkened spaces reminded me of Aya Sophia, the most famous vast interior in a city of big enclosed spaces. While the famous church was dedicated to spiritual needs, Santralistanbul was created to serve a modern demand for more power. It’s the dynamo to Sophia’s virgin. Both buildings are technically retired, but the memory of the functions they served and the needs they met is steeped into their bones.
What you see in Santralistanbul’s “Museum of Energy” is high ceilings, steel beams, extra-tall metal-framed windows like open mouths walking on stilts, steel walls, monstrous generators of power. For those of us (our number is legion) who don’t know what happens when we flick a light switch, and don’t expect to ever know, exploring the cavernous, silent once-powerful space – an atmosphere suggesting a forgotten cathedral or sci-fi underworld – gives us something to put in our imagination when we think about the source of the energy we constantly consume. You walk through the great corridors of power, empty now except for our own small party and those giant turbine-generator groups referenced in the museum’s brief and outdated brochure, and feel you’ve discovered the deep and secret hive which keeps us all humming.
While making movies in your mind, since aside from patriarchs and emperors movie-makers are the great fans of these dark, evocative interiors, you work your way into the promised control room, which has preserved the kind of faded industrial green in which mad scientists and end-of-the-world dramas must play out their demented dreams. My wife and I happily discover those afore-mentioned period piece dials, their pointy-tipped fingers capable of signaling all clear on one side or imminent apocalypse on the other. These dials symbolize the red lines in human aspirations.
As for the art on display, the size of the building swallowed it up, at least on our visit. I was expecting vast installations, multidimensional universes spinning from the ceiling, video projections on the galleries’ big blank walls, large sculpted fantasies. I think Santralistanbul has such shows (the brochure touts 433 works by 20 Turkish artists), but these are probably saved for the summer tourist season. Late winter visitors are treated to a one-man show of works described as “three-dimensional paintings,” designs in bright colors, in fact colors brighter than paint ought to be (I kept looking for some hidden light source). Inside the place’s extensive, darkened galleries – together composing a great horizontal space of 3,500 square meters, about the size of a shopping mall – the show resembles a nighttime street scene at night in one of Istanbul’s brightly lit tourist sections, the elements stretched out over the void between them instead of packed together the way the city’s narrow streets do it. The setting draws you to them, but the painting’s bright orange and red surfaces left me thinking of neon signs.
Santralistanbul also offers a very clever “Energy Play Zone” featuring 22 interactive exhibits intended to teach you the science behind electricity production. The gadget-rich displays are pitched toward family groups and give you things to touch, pick up, move or even whack at. Exhibits have names like “The Energy Bike,” which encourages you petal as hard as you can in order to power successive appliances. The light bulb goes on, the radio plays, the egg beater whirls, the drill revolves. The “Stubborn Suitcase” resists your effort to pick it up because the gyroscope inside it resists changes to its spatial orientation.
Some exhibits, however, failed to produce the desired effects when we tried them, as if they’d been whacked too much already or somebody turned off a hidden switch, maybe to save energy for a busier day. The fascinating “Reactable” exhibit invites you to move shapes along a magnetic surface while a light board illustrates the new connections you’ve created. But the movements are also supposed to produce sounds in a kind of spontaneous musical composition, and – ta da! – they don’t.
But these are minor disappointments. Even if getting there on a cruise along the fascinating shorelines of the Golden Horn wasn’t sufficiently fun by all by itself, and it totally was, Santralistanbul’s real-space “Museum of Energy” is a blast, clearing out the mental cobwebs of crowds, guidebook prose, the onslaught of historical facts such as the names of extremely important figures you won’t remember (was that Mehmet II or Ahmet or, everyone’s favorite, Selim the Sot, commemorated in a portico with blue mosaics and a rococo roof?), oversized tour groups, and overly persistent restaurant touts, substituting in their place a vision of a cool, vast, secret space where machines and people come together to produce both function and beauty.
Santralistanbul is the place that made a new industrial civilization’s machines work. It’s the place where you can contemplate how enormous the change must have been – and still is in many parts of the world. It’s a setting that fires the imagination and inspires artists. Getting there rouses the inner explorer inside the convenience-loving modern traveler.
Besides, how grumpy can you get in a city that provides public transportation by waterbus?