Beril Köseoğlu / DUVAR English

Whenever the upcoming big earthquake is a topic of conversation, people mostly talk about concrete buildings. However, the central districts of Fatih and Beyoğlu, with their large numbers of old buildings, are expected to be affected most. The two districts are home to multi-floor buildings built around the late 19th and early 20th century, and many are unreinforced masonry buildings, which means that their structure is not strengthened with materials like steel.

Hence, in Beyoğlu, a district that often makes headlines because its buildings fall down due to their age, a 90-year-old building designated as a historical monument was recently evacuated and the street around it cleared due to fears it may collapse.

So what is the level of risk for residential and commercial buildings in the central districts of Cihangir, Galata, Tarlabaşı, Talimhane and Eminönü?

Unreinforced masonry buildings are considered very safe by architects if they are built, preserved and maintained according to regulations. Architect Mehmet Yazıcı, a member of Chamber of Architects Inspection Committee who was very active on-site after the 2011 Van earthquake, says most of the old buildings were built with heavy brick, thick foundations and quality craftsmanship.

Yazıcı says, “The soil mixture in these buildings, which have 60-centimeter-thick walls, have fused into the bricks over the years, almost turning them into stone. All of the buildings move together during an earthquake.” In short, these buildings with unreinforced masonry are expected to have a higher resistance to earthquakes that many concrete buildings that are reinforced.

However, many of these historical buildings that lack column-beam systems and depend on walls for load bearing, have a common problem that home owners and tenants don’t want to think about: the removal of load-bearing walls to create more space.

In the case of the building that was evacuated in Beyoğlu, it was said that some businesses damaged the load-bearing walls. Architect Korhan Gümüş, who has worked on several Beyoğlu projects, said, “In a study we made, we say that load-bearing walls were removed in 70 percent of the unreinforced buildings in Beyoğlu. Many buildings had illegal floors added.”

Gümüş also says that windows were enlarged in symbolic structures like the Doğan or Yeni Hayat buildings. But such interventions in unreinforced buildings damage the load-bearing system, and this situation can even lead to a building’s collapse. “It is no different than the car showroom in Avcılar that got rid of the columns,” he said. And according to Mehmet Yazıcı, “Demolishing walls to create more space in these buildings is like a death wish.”

The situation in Eminönü is not much different, as the unreinforced buildings there are used as offices. From removing walls to combining apartments, over the years many changes have been made to adjust to the building’s changing function without performing inspections at the same time.

Gümüş says, “These are very valuable buildings, but such senseless interventions the earthquake resistance was weakened in what were actually very strong buildings.”

So what is the way to keep these buildings standing and preserve the historical fabric of the city before the big Istanbul earthquake? Some of these buildings were restored and rented for thousands of liras, some of them were occupied, in a way, after their Greek, Armenian and Jewish occupants were forced to leave, some of them were left to rot for many years. But preserving them is easier than one might think, and no urban transformation is required.

“Unreinforced buildings can always be repaired. If a wall was removed, it is possible to build it again. In reinforced concrete buildings, you might have to give up, but unreinforced buildings are repairable. We know this from buildings repaired after the 1870 earthquake and buildings have stayed standing since the Genoese era.”

If the first rule for unreinforced buildings is to keep the load-bearing walls, the second rule is maintenance. “The steel beams used in most 19th century buildings can fuse, but it is also possible to repair the steel framework inside. Also, some buildings with pieces hanging out present a danger to people on the street.”

So how do we lower risk, make sure necessary repairs are made and check on buildings? Gümüş replies, “It is very easy—a fund should be created. After the 1999 earthquake, we had meetings with building managers. We taught them how to stabilize weakened beams built 100 years ago. It is very easy to stabilize the damaged parts.”

“Risk planning and organization is required—the municipality can’t do this alone. We must work street by street. We, as volunteers and as a civil society that organized after the last earthquake, have been very successful in this kind of work and have achieved results. Public institutions with budgets, resources and staff can’t do anything because such efforts require an organization with independent experts, civil society and local communities.”