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Thoughts on Kitchens*

After the lecture about the Ismailis, I got curious about who their current Imam was. So, I looked it up, and found out that he was the name-giver of the Aga Khan Architecture Awards, which I’ve been following for years. 

It was such a surprise. As an architecture enthusiast, I used to think a lot about what should determine the characteristics of a building, or any architectural structure -a city square or a courtyard is also considered architecture-. What principles and attitudes could be followed to produce a beautiful structure? I would come up with thoughts and solutions of my own, based on my readings, and little technical knowledge. Though, what I was mostly interested in -about architecture- was the social, psychological, and historical dimensions to it. 

Architecture is around us 24/7, no matter where we are. It has serious influence on human behavior and cognition. A society’s culture, customs, religion, and needs of course, the way they think even, the ideological view they follow have significant influence on how its architecture is shaped –naturally.

This also works from the other way around. It's possible to change individuals’ behaviors, feelings, and lifestyle by manipulating their living environment. We may not realize how different places make us feel, but it matters; because different paces do evoke different feelings. This is important to recognize, since only then we can look for ways to change. We can look for ways to design our cities and homes so that it promotes mental health and produces healthy behaviors.

I was born and partially raised in the United States and my family currently lives there. We had moved to Turkey when I was 8 years old. So, I had the chance to build a visual library of both American and Turkish houses (both modern and historical) and architecture. I use them as references when I think about different aspects of our living spaces —the kitchen for example. As houses got smaller because the population grew in Istanbul, apartment buildings have gained popularity and our living areas got relatively smaller. The kitchen is usually a separated room with a separate entrance. There is often a narrow hall in which the rooms are aligned on either or both sides. And in some houses, the kitchen neighbors the living room with no wall between. So, it’s somewhat part of the living room. 

As I was sitting in the living room of one of my friend’s place, which had a small opening on the wall between its kitchen that could be closed with a sliding panel by the person inside the kitchen. My friend’s mother slid the panel of the window to ask if we wanted tea; the moment the panel opened, the atmosphere in the room changed. Not because it got more light or anything. I believe because the kitchen was momentarily involved in the living room. This, for me, was a mind-boggling realization. Two other thoughts seemed to support this idea, and are presented in the following paragraphs.

The kitchen is the place where the meal is cooked, it’s where the fire is, it is lively. It’s one of the most busily used areas in Turkish houses. These thoughts started to make more sense as I thought about it further. It is of common knowledge that myths are important reference points to understand collective memory of humanity and that the symbolism matters. The Greek goddess Hestia was the goddess of hearth, domesticity, family, and home. She represented the warmth and family. Isn’t it interesting the same figure represented both fireside and family?

Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans have found fire to not only be a source of physical warmth, but of emotional warmth as well. It was used as a protector from predators and it was where the meal was cooked and where family members sat close, telling stories. Fire, today, is in our kitchens. It is the oven. So, by removing the barriers between our living areas and our kitchens, we might be able to change the whole atmosphere. American kitchens are often designed this way. Although I believe it's the best option, it doesn’t necessarily mean removing the wall between the two rooms, a window could also work —or even removing the door, and using an arched entrance instead.

I did look for sources whether there is any support, but haven’t come up with any. Surely, this does need a scientific support –a psychological research perhaps. Although there are practical reasons as to why kitchens are fully separated, I do believe if we want to make our living rooms more lively and warm -figuratively,- and want to improve our quality of communication with family members, we should design our houses so that the kitchen is visible from the living room (assuming this is the place mainly used by family members and a warmer family environment is what’s preferred). If not the whole kitchen, at least the stove.

I also used to think about the modern day Islamic arhictecture and how it lacks originality and new interpretations. Upon this, I found that there was an award called the Aga Khan Architecture award that aims to promote new interpretations of Islamic architecture and to revive creativity in Muslim societies. I used the award winning structures as references to think how architecture could be changed, which concerns should be taken into consideration as one designs these places, and so on. 

A couple of years later, in my Middle East Philosophy class I learn about the Ismailis and find out this award was introduced in 1977 by Aga Khan the 4th, who was the Imam of the Shi’a Ismaili Muslims and introduced the award because he, too, was sad about the state of architecture in the Islamic world. Since then, every three years the award is presented to architectural concepts that successfully address the needs of Muslim societies. 

Below are some of the buildings that were rewarded:

Rehabilitation of Muharraq, Bahrain.

Islamic Cemetery, Altach, Austria / Bernado Bader Architects.

Islamic Cemetery, Altach, Austria / Bernado Bader Architects.

Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Dhaka, Bangladesh / Marina Tabassum Architects.

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