Some companies move office, some have a move thrust upon them. So it went in the case of Turkish fashion and TV company Vakko. Residing peacefully in a modernist edifice adorned with vernacular modern art, company kingpin and Turkish celeb Cem Hakko had no desire to uproot his workforce. That is until the Turkish civic authority decided the plot presented the perfect spot for a freeway off-ramp. Vakko had one year before the bulldozers arrived to level the building. With the clock ticking, CEO Cem Hakko approached US architecture practice REX Architecture with the purest of briefs – build me something good and build it quick. The time frame alone ensured the project was a mammoth undertaking, but this was compounded by an unfinished hotel structure standing on the site, which had to be incorporated into the design. “Our initial reaction was that it wasn’t possible,” admits Joshua Prince-Ramus, Principal of REX and the project leader. This gloomy assessment was turned on its head when Prince-Ramus caught sight of the existing structure. By fluke the building’s frame matched almost to the letter the practice’s California Institute of Technology’s Annenberg Centre – a scheme never realised. The game was on and just four days after their initial meeting work started on site.
Due to Turkey’s propensity for earthquakes, all modern buildings in the region are heavily over-designed, with lashings of concrete triumphing over more subtle architectural solutions. Compounding this, cheap materials and labour mean developers tend to forego exploring detailed design and just start building. If it fails to pan out they down tools and walk away. This almost capricious logic results in another architectural oddity, as half-finished buildings strew the Turkish landscape like skeletons across the Death Valley dunes. The existing building was a heavy concrete configuration and with no time for a forensic analysis to determine how it would perform in a tremor, REX wisely separated the project into two parts. The outer structure, comprising the old building and dubbed ‘the Ring’, housed the bulk of the office space while the tower it wraps round, the Showcase, hosts the auditorium, showrooms, meeting spaces and executive offices.
Working with the existing structure was a no-brainer, but how to absorb it into the new build was a different matter. “It was going to be very difficult to conceal how awkward and over-designed it was and we were almost scared to try because if we do it may just look like bad design,” explains Prince-Ramus. Rather than hide the concrete REX decided to draw attention to it, thereby making a statement on the untapped architectural potential littering the country. To achieve this, REX set about creating a wafer-thin glass facade that revealed the interior framework. Cleverly inserting an X into each pane strengthened the glass enough to do away with supporting perimeter mullions, whose clumsiness would defeat the point. “What looks like a cool aesthetic is actually the ideal performative shape,” says Prince-Ramus. “Completely driven around making the building really, really transparent.” A piece of good fortune, but the challenges did not end there.
The Showcase, a six-storey tower at the Ring’s centre, presented a different set of conundrums. With just two weeks to come up with a viable design, REX worked with their structural engineers to specify a series of steel boxes that could be configured on site. “Once they showed up, we could work out how to put them together inside the building. It was a bit like a rubix cube,” says Prince-Ramus. This proved to be an exhaustive case of trial and error, with 200 interpretations produced before REX narrowed it down to a single model.
“The boxes had to provide all the circulation, the elevators, the stairs, the connections between floors as well as to the Ring itself,” says Prince-Ramus. “And so in the end the design isn’t the one we thought was beautiful – it was the one that worked.” The canted steel boxes resemble a marble run when observed on the section plans, a dynamic obscured by the serene glass facade. The showcase is topped out in mirrored glass, a stylish flourish that the practice describes as a Saran wrap. Reflecting the fashion wing of the business (literally), REX decked out the interior corridors and ceilings with mirrors.
Devoid of architectural context, the Vakko building sits atop a hill on the Asian side of the Bosphorous. Surrounded by nothing of note, it’s a standalone building. Aesthetically, it may not be typically Turkish, but in construction terms it couldn’t be more so. “Designing and building side by side – you just couldn’t do this in the US,” says Prince-Ramus. “Turkey is going through its industrial revolution now, so there is still this artisan class. They have both the human technical skill and the technology.”
While these levels of technical ability may be reassuring, Prince-Ramus and colleagues were required to wing it on more than one occasion. For example, the glass was being attached to the building before REX had the results of the performance tests back. While many may blanche at the prospect, this was the only way Prince-Ramus could hit the schedule. “Everyone was taking a huge risk, but these people have a lifetime of dealing with each other and trust each other,” he says.
Similarly the Turkish approach to construction sites would leave most health and safety inspectors reaching for a stiff drink, and saw REX stretching laissez-faire to its zenith. “There was no project schedule. They (the workers) swarm the building like ants and if they destroy something while working, they just rebuild it.” While the building falls a little short of Western constructions standards it nevertheless raises the bar for Turkish architecture. With its roots in adversity, there was a lot riding on the success of the Vakko building. “Cem said to me that it couldn’t look like he was reacting to a bad thing [the forced move],” says Prince-Ramus. “I had to unveil something that made the bad thing disappear.” Mission accomplished.