From prison to luxury hotel: the story of an ironic conversion

Istanbul began to emerge from Ankara’s shadow as the country’s prime city in the 1950s. The urban development that accommodated the city’s phenom­enal industrial and financial expansion took place mostly outside the historic peninsula, which was densely packed with old neighbourhoods and landmarks. Meanwhile, even though it was home to Turkey’s most prominent cultural heritage sites, the Sultanahmet District, suffered from neglect and deteriorated considerably, having failed to generate investment. The presence of the prison – and its later abandonment which turned it into a shelter for transients by fiat – did little to improve the district’s prospects. Well into the 1980s Sultanahmet was a tourist destination only during daytime. At night it was known to be a somewhat seedy neighbourhood with cheap hostels, which catered to travellers on a shoestring budget and other indigents. Things slowly began to change in the 1980s. Successful enterprises pioneered by Turing Club (Turkish Touring and Automotive Club) ushered the new trend for the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Among them, the Sogukgesme Street Project immediately behind the Hagia Sophia revealed that the Sultanahmet District was ripe for upscale touristic development. The addition of a few more boutique hotels and shops in historic buildings with the initiative of the Turing Club and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture and the support of an enterprising city government cemented the direction of changes to come.20

The possibility of converting the former prison into a hotel was brought up in 1990 and the permit to develop and lease the building was given to Aslan Nakliyat. It was unclear whether Aslan Nakliyat really intended to get into the hotel business, since the family-owned company was known more for its long distance moving business rather than its interest in the hospitality industry. However, the owners of the Aslan Nakliyat did take the initiative to hire preservationist-architect Dr Yalgin OzQekren who began to work on converting the former prison into a three-star hotel targeted primarily at an upper middle-class clientele. In 1992, Aslan Nakliyat turned their permit over to Sultanahmet Tourism AS. The executives of Sultanahmet Tourism AS were interested in converting the project into a high-end high-profile enterprise and for this purpose sought the partnership of the Toronto-based Four Seasons Regent Hotels and Resorts. In short order, Dr OzQekren was asked to scrap his plans to design a hotel with far fewer but more spacious rooms and more lavish amenities that would appeal to a wealthier and more discriminating clientele.

The High Commission of Monuments, which reviewed and issued the license for the conversion, stipulated that the building’s interiors could be modified as long as the original fagade remained intact.21 In the case of the Sultanahmet Prison, this meant restoring the original fagade, which through multiple modifications and the ensuing years of dilapidation had changed beyond recognition. Very few modifications were made to the overall mass of the building. These included the construction of glass passages connecting the formerly detached blocks and the addition of a square-shaped glass and steel structure to accommodate the hotel’s famous Seasons restaurant on the south corner of the courtyard. In the summer, the sliding glass doors of the restaurant, which resembles a winter garden, are flung open to provide al fresco dining experience in the hotel’s secluded courtyard. More import­antly, the project Dr OzQekren and Sinan Kafadar proposed honoured not only the building’s fagade but preserved much of the original plan layout as well.22 Although many of the walls and slabs had to be torn down to structurally retrofit the building in a seismically active area, a comparative examination of the floor plans of the prison and the hotel reveals that Dr OzQekren had used the original loadbearing walls as a guide for demarcating spaces in the hotel. Apparently, the proportions and sizes of the former public rooms and the prison cells lent themselves relatively easily for reuse as lounges and hotel rooms respectively. This should not be so surprising, since, both uses call for cells/rooms flanking long corridors, service spaces (such as kitchens, laundry, offices, and storage, etc.), and semi-private gathering areas. In other words, if we look beyond interior treatments (such as furniture, fixtures, surfaces, etc.), which obviously set the two apart, the prison and the hotel share much in common as distinctively modern building types. Interestingly, the similarity was not lost on the prisoners who sarcastically referred to the Sultanahmet Prison as ‘the Hilton’ long before anyone thought of such a conversion (Figure 10.4).

This observation implies that what endows a prison or a hotel with a distinctive character and the attendant socio-cultural meanings are the particular practices through which each of these buildings is produced as a space. A comparison of the degrees of privacy the prison and the hotel afford their respective residents brings this point into sharp focus. Privacy may be defined as an individual’s ability to control the timing and degree of his/her interaction with other individuals. This definition is useful, because it acknow­ledges the centrality of choice and control for privacy. Hence, forced solitary confinement can no more be seen as an exercise of privacy than being compelled to share the same limited space with a large number of people on a constant basis, but choosing to remain anonymous in a crowded urban space can. When we take this definition of privacy as an axis of comparison, the socio-spatial practices that produce the prison and the hotel within the same shell stand in stark contrast to one another.

Even a sheer numerical comparison begins to reveal how density affected the experience of privacy in each of these settings. The Sultanahmet Prison was built to hold 1,000 inmates, but was known to have accommo­dated close to 2,000 at peak times. To deal with the day to day operations, it employed 50 personnel including the warden. In contrast, the remodeled hotel consists of 65 rooms, including its 11 suites. With a remarkable ratio of three bilingual and professionally trained personnel per room, the manage­ment strives to meet the needs of even its most demanding guests twenty-four hours a day. More fundamental are the differences in specific


Plans of the building new and old

practices and privileges that produced space, defined boundaries, and affirmed subjectivities in the prison and the hotel. At the Four Seasons Istanbul, the stated goal of the management is ‘to make the guests feel as though they were in their own home’ which arguably is the ultimate site of personal privacy. The guests are given full control over a wide range of choices for preserving their privacy whether they prefer to remain in their room, get a massage, or linger in the lounge.

In contrast, when the detainees arrived at the Sultanahmet Prison, they were thoroughly searched, deloused and then sent to the solitary confinement cells on the lower level for fifteen days to ‘facilitate their transi – tion’.23 Only once a week, on Tuesdays, were they granted permission to meet with their loved ones, but that too was a restricted arrangement. Male and female visitors were allowed on alternating weeks, had to wait in line and get thoroughly searched before being taken inside the building in groups of fifteen; and they were always separated from the inmates who sat behind iron bars. Visitors whose last name did not match with that of the inmate had to obtain a special permit from the district attorney’s office every time. Similarly, meetings between the inmates and their lawyers were limited to Thursday afternoons and almost never took place in private. Incoming and outgoing letters were monitored and suspicious correspondence duly inter­cepted. Inside the prison, even the most individual sorts of activities were regulated.24 One could not stay behind reading on a sleepless night or listen to the radio to fight boredom. Everyone had to turn in at the same time every night because the lights were turned off. In addition to those imposed by the prison administration, there were other unwritten rules one had to learn to survive in this alternate society, which brought together toughened gangsters, first time offenders, political prisoners, and those who considered themselves ‘victims of fate’. Each inmate was ‘situated’ in a pecking order which determined how much one forked out for collective purchases of cigarettes, tea, or drugs; who washed the dishes after a common meal; and how and where one moved in the courtyard during the daily outings. In short, every aspect of an inmate’s life was under surveillance – whether by the wardens or by the leaders of the local prison gang to whom the wardens often deferred.

The swiveling of spatial meanings, uses, users, and intentions defines Sultanahmet Prison/Four Seasons Istanbul as a distinctively hetero­topic site. The irony is made all the more poignant since relatively few modifications were made to invert the prison’s patterns of circulation, accessi­bility, levels of privacy, and strategies of surveillance to accommodate the hotel. As one local newspaper remarked sarcastically: ‘The Sultanahmet now accommodates volunteers in the space of the prison. . . The mechanisms of surveillance have been reversed, rather than holding the insiders from going out, it serves to keep the outsiders from coming in.’25 This remark seems to be in line with Foucault’s observation that heterotopic sites ‘always pre­suppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable’.26 In other words, they have a threshold-like quality: they modulate and manipulate the complex relationships between the alternate social and spatial orders inside and outside of themselves. Entrances to and exits from heterotopic sites are restricted, they are mediated by highly monitored physical obstacles and/or are contingent, submitting to rites and purifications. In that sense, the prison is an archetypically heterotopic site; but the building’s newly expanded biography complicates this interpretation calling for a more layered analysis. Locating heterotopic relationships is rela­tively easier when the boundaries between being inside and outside are clearly marked or coincide with the physical boundaries of a given space. Identification becomes more difficult when boundaries are blurred and exclusion and inclusion no longer fully overlap with visible, physical markers. There are, however, other sites which, as Foucault acknowledges, ‘seem to be pure and simple openings, but that generally hide curious exclusions’.27 These are sites where gaining entry is just an illusion and where being inside is a condition of exclusion. The hotel is an example of this more elusive sort of heterotopic site, where what appears to be a public space is, indeed, carefully monitored and only selectively accessible and where no effort is spared to make the guests feel ‘as though they were in their own home’ but never really are. This is not simply because all stays at a hotel are, by defini­tion, temporary or because just about all human interaction is, in effect, business. Rather, an international hotel at the turn of the twenty-first century is also a point of sale, a node at which information is gathered and conveyed to the global nerve centres of data processing to be catalogued for further use in consumer research, sales, and marketing. In other words, bodily privacy comes at the expense of the privacy of personal information. Sultanahmet Prison/Four Seasons Istanbul Hotel is remarkable because it brings together two uses that are heterotopic in their own right in both of its incarnations, generating yet another layer of heterotopic relations by inverting the spatial meanings they engender.

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm