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Thoughts on Kitchens*

After the lecture about the Ismailis, I got curious about who their current Imam is. 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. 

The discovery 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 too-. What principles and attitudes should 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 mainly interested in was the social, psychological, and historical dimensions to it. 

Architecture is around us 24/7. It has an undeniable impact on both human behavior and cognition. A society’s culture, customs, religion, and needs of course, the way they think even, the ideological views they hold have significant influence on how its architecture is shaped, naturally so.

This also works 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 does have an influence. Different paces do evoke different feelings. This is important to recognize, as it lets us look for ways to design our cities and homes so that they promote mental health and produce healthy behaviors.

I was born and partially raised in the United States. I had the chance to build a visual library of both American and Turkish houses and architecture, both modern and historical. I use them as references when I think about different aspects of our living spaces —the kitchen for example.

Houses got smaller as 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 in 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 to ask if we wanted tea; the moment the panel was open, the atmosphere in the room changed. Not because it got more light or anything. I believe ıt's because the kitchen was momentarily involved in the living room. This, for me, was a mind-boggling realization. Two other thoughts that I'll discuss below seemed to support this idea.

The kitchen is the place where the meal is cooked, it’s where the fire is, it's lively. It’s probably the most busily used area in Turkish houses. These thoughts started to make more sense as I thought about it further. I think myths are important reference points in terms of understanding humanity's collective memory. The symbolism they bear gives us an insight into the human psyche. The Greek goddess Hestia was the goddess of hearth, domesticity, family, and home. She represented the warmth and family together, not either one. Isn’t it interesting the same figure represented both fireside and family, or domesticity?

Some evolutionary psychologists argue that humans have used fire not only as a source of physical warmth, but it also provided a place of emotional warmth. It protected people from predator animals and it was the place where the meal was cooked, where family members sat close, told each other stories. Fire, today, is in our kitchens. It is the oven, or the stovetop.

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 a better option, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should remove the whole wall between the two rooms, a window could and does work —or even simply removing the door and using an arched entrance instead. Though, another important thing would be to actually use the kitchen, or to have some tea pot over the fire at times when we're not cooking. Notice how the atmosphere changes when there's dinner being cooked inside a house, it's almost what turns it into a home. The point here is to use the kitchen, keep the flame alive and let it be seen from the rest of living area.

I did look for sources whether there is any support, but haven’t found any. And surely, it does require scientific support –a cognitive 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 the quality of communication with our 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.

Aside from all this, I used to think a lot about the modern day Islamic arhictecture and how it lacks originality and new interpretations. I had learned about the Aga Khan Architecture Award right upon that. The award aims to promote new interpretations of Islamic architecture and to revive the creativity.

It was a surprise for me to discover that the award was introduced in 1977 by Aga Khan the 4th, who happened to be the Imam of Ismaili Muslims of the day. He too had been upset about the state of Islamic architecture. 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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