The notion of establishing a modern and contemporary art museum in Istanbul originated in response to the first Istanbul Biennial in 1987, but no suitable location could be found. This continued for years until Antrepo No 4 – a historical maritime warehouse that formally occupied the site – was used to host the eighth Istanbul Biennial in 2003. The building was acquired by Istanbul Modern and, within a year, with support from private donors and local authorities, the new museum first opened its doors in December 2004.
“The public’s response was overwhelmingly positive and demonstrated how great the need was for a museum of this kind,” Eczacibasi says. “Visitor numbers far exceeded our expectations, [so we quickly] assumed an active role in conveying our country’s artistic production to national and international audiences.”
As time went by, however, the shortcomings of using a repurposed maritime warehouse as a venue became increasingly restrictive.
After almost a decade and a half of continuous operations, the decision was taken to create a new building on the site of the old, bringing the museum’s facilities in line with the institution’s more modern requirements. During the construction period, Istanbul Modern’s art collection was temporarily relocated to the former Union Francaise building in Beyoglu.
“[The old building] enabled us to carry out many – but not all – the activities we aspired to,” Eczacibasi says. “The building simply wasn’t designed to meet a modern museum’s needs. After much thought about how to raise our bar to the level of other international modern art museums, we were given the fortunate opportunity to construct a world-class building by the Galataport project.”
“The building that was here before was only storage – very simple, almost humble, totally silent,” says architect Renzo Piano.
“In a complex city like this, to make a silent place where you celebrate art in an open way – a place open to anybody – [is] a great idea, anywhere in the world. Those places make a city a better place. You need to be brave to do that, and you need to be even braver – 10 years later – to change and make it bigger.”
Piano – an Italian Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect and founder of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Italy – first became involved with the Istanbul Modern project in September 2014. He was immediately enamoured by their objective of creating a contemporary, urban museum space that also reflected the environment around it.
“From day one, Renzo wanted to create a structure that recalled a large ship at port, the original function of this waterfront district,” Eczacibasi says. “Working with him was an eye-opening experience for us, and full of surprises. We were delighted and encouraged that he was as excited as we were about our dreams for the future of Istanbul Modern.”
“This museum building is like a creature of the sea that has just jumped out from the water of the Bosphorus,” Piano says. “We wanted to make a building to defy gravity and levitate above the ground, creating transparency with views towards the sea on one side and, on the other, the park and the medieval district of Galata.
“Making a building is always a [group effort],” he says. “It’s never the work of one person. It’s like a long ping-pong match, lasting years between one and the other. There’s a long story, and people must understand that. It’s public art, making architecture.”
The grand opening coincides with the launching of five new exhibitions to welcome visitors, including Renzo Piano: Genius Loci, which documents the process behind the design of the new museum building. Constructing Architecture by photographer Cemal Emden examines the transformation of ideas, material and labour into Istanbul Modern through images captured during the construction.
Floating Islands presents a comprehensive selection of works from Istanbul Modern’s collection, many of which are being shown for the first time, encompassing nearly 300 works by 110 local and international artists. In Another Place is a selection of works by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, shown under the banner of Istanbul Modern Photography Gallery, and Always Here features works acquired through the Istanbul Modern Women Artists Fund, established in 2016.
Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson was invited to create a work specifically for the new building. The resulting installation, named Your Unexpected Journey, consists of three parts across different floors, located in the central stairwell, creating a dynamic and interactive experience for guests of the museum to enjoy.