The only sounds in the garden of the Riza Dervis house are the occasional put-put of a motorboat from the bay and the tinkle of bells on the horse-drawn carriages that trot up the streets of Buyukada, one of Istanbul’s nine Princes Islands. The house, with its sharp lines and green frontage obscured by dense foliage, will be known to the men driving the horses for its most famous past occupant: Kemal Dervis, the economist credited with rebuilding Turkey’s financial stability in the early 21st century and subsequently the island’s proudest son.
The house was built in 1956 for Riza Dervis, Kemal’s industrialist father, as a place to entertain during the summer. With its marble bar counters nestled under pine trees and private concrete jetty, the architecture here tells a story of the republican, westward-looking aristocracy of Turkey’s modern history, who would gather here to sojourn, discuss and drink. Today it’s a case study in how mid-century design found fine expression in the Turkish yazlik (summerhouse). We are met at the gate by current owner Julide Neslihan Taki, who married into the Dervis family in the 1960s and has spent many summers at the house. She has not lost her initial fascination. “I was living on the other side of the island and used to pass this house by bicycle,” she says. “I always wondered what it was because to me it didn’t look like a house; I thought that it might be a hotel or even a hospital.”
The building’s crisp modernity contrasts with many of its neighbours: white wooden mansions, typical to these islands, that are in various states of renovation. To design his summer home Riza Dervis enlisted Turkey’s leading architect of the time, Sedad Hakki Eldem. His design career was dedicated to the search for a “national style” in the new Turkish republic; he was motivated by the idea that Anatolia’s timber-built vernacular was essentially modern in that it emphasises ample light, honesty of materials and bringing the outdoor indoors with porches and courtyards.
Riza Dervis’s house of concrete and glass, then, appears like an abrupt departure in Eldem’s practice. “To enter this house is to discover a sequence of surprises,” says Taki in the long wooden hallway that culminates in a vast window onto the garden. Turn to the left and the blue sea is framed by a wall of windows with sharp structural lines that follow the horizon; enter the living room and you’re faced with the luminescent turquoise tiles adorning the fireplace. Eldem designed the furniture himself, from the sofas and built-in bureau to the perforated lamps and the garden tables. It’s the fireplace that is this house’s personality though; designed by Eldem with a motif reminiscent of the evil-eye charms kept by most Turks, the tiles were handmade in Iznik and originally conceived for the Hilton Bosphorus, another icon of mid-century Istanbul that Eldem consulted on.
“The Riza Dervis house is certainly very modernist and looks like something Le Corbusier or Eileen Gray would do,” says professor Meltem Gurel, who has written extensively on mid-century design in Turkey. “But at the same time it has characteristics of Eldem’s ‘Turkish House’: the overhangs, the space and the use of decorative tiles.”
The L-shaped house creates a natural courtyard, another feature of Turkish buildings, where a formal breakfast was once served each morning. Eldem created a service block that runs along the front of the house facing the street and seven full-time staff were employed in its heyday, including a captain on call for the home’s own Riva motor boat. On the upper floor a continuous balcony runs between the bedrooms, each of which includes its own small lounge and bathroom so that guests have a private retreat. Unlike the newer homes that cling to Buyukada’s cliffs, Eldem’s house is situated at a small remove from the edge, giving each room a perspective onto the Sea of Marmara and allowing the grounds to gracefully zigzag downhill to the precipice.
In the 1950s Turkey enjoyed a period in which the International Style dominated architecture. “Summerhouses allowed architects to experiment in house design,” says Gurel, adding that designers were freed to couple regional flourishes with modernism. “There was also a lot of American cultural influence flowing into Turkey. Communism was a great threat to Turkish politics; Turkey had become a Nato member and was a recipient of Marshall Plan aid.” These cultural shifts made the emphasis on healthy living and novelty of design that typified postwar US homes desirable to Turkey’s well-travelled elite.
A path of onyx, mined on Marmara Island off the coast of Istanbul, wends its way down each elevation of the garden, past the swimming pool (the first on the island, we’re told) to a promontory overlooking the sea. “In Ottoman gardens there are specific areas for specific functions,” says Gursan Ergil, a curator at the Museum of the Princes Islands who specialises in landscaping and leads tours to the islands’ most illustrious gardens. “So you might have a kiosk [pavilion] just for watching the full moon or one just to catch the breeze from the sea. Eldem used this idea to create platforms that view the landscape at various elevations.” The museum keeps one of the loungers Eldem designed for Riza Dervis’s poolside in its permanent collection.
Erol Dervis, Taki’s son, spent most of his childhood summers at the house. He takes us down a steep flight of stairs that leads past stumps of aloe sprouting from the cliff wall until we find ourselves at the private jetty. His dog Panti – “a real Turkish bulldog” – leads the way, snuffling pine cones. “In the 1950s and 1960s so many boats docked here,” he says. “There was no Bodrum or Cesme then; this is where high society would come at the weekend.” A more diverse crowd summers on Buyakada nowadays as ferries unload hundreds of visitors an hour at its port. “Now half of Istanbul comes here,” his mother adds. Every year Taki holds a summer gathering and rolls back the vast windows in the living room to let in the sea air. The elite may have shifted their attention to Alacati and the Mediterranean coast but in those parties something of the old days returns. “This was always intended as a party house,” she says.