ISTANBUL — Santralistanbul. The name itself is exotic, like some sort of medieval traveler’s fantasyland, magical and remote, attainable only by the stout of heart — and certainly not on the guided tour.
OK, it’s a power plant. Or it used to be. Now it’s what one guidebook calls “an astounding new art space.” Turkey, we learn, has transformed what was the electric power nerve center for Istanbul from 1911 to 1983 into a mega-size artistic play space, giving power-plant scope and scale for big ideas in visual arts and installations.
The country’s first industrial archeology museum, Santralistanbul has as its ambitious mission the promotion of contemporary Turkish art while teaching visitors something about the production of electric power.
Compared to London’s Tate Modern as an industrial building converted to an art space, the site includes a mammoth Museum of Energy, a Main Gallery with room for multiple exhibitions, a separate theater space, and two smaller buildings given award-winning designs for food and entertainment.
After three days of exploring Istanbul’s Old City and upscale Beyoglu, our family party of three jumped at the idea of stretching our knowledge of the city by exploring an attraction off the beaten track. Getting there proved a challenge since guidebook and website directions were sketchy. Fortunately, Turkey’s estimable public transportation system offers the opportunity to ride up the Golden Horn, Istanbul’s interior seaway, on a ferry or “seabus” that costs the same as a ride on the streets, or about $1.30.
We took the ferry to the end of the line, the charming village of Eyup, which looked close to Santralistanbul on the map. But not close enough. “Can we walk there?” we inquired at the ferry station.
“Walk? Impossible. Much too far.”
Enter our savior, a supervisor whose skill set included an excellent command of English, a rare find in Turkey.
He shepherded us to the informal minibus that cruised the main drag, conveyed our destination to the driver, wished us goodbye, and strode off. I’m not sure how we would have managed this transaction by ourselves.
It’s not exactly tracing the Silk Road by mule and camel, but finding a diamond in the rough provides a singular satisfaction. A great cathedral-like home of urban power restored to period mint condition, Santralistanbul’s main building includes huge, original “turbine-generator groups” (as the brochure describes them). Its vast interior housed 433 works by 20 Turkish artists in last year’s big show. In between the extravaganzas, gallery visitors are treated to smaller exhibitions such as the one-man show by contemporary artist Ahmet Gunestekin that we saw, described by the curator’s wall panels as “three-dimensional paintings.”
The galleries’ darkened setting draws you to these large, bold canvases, some with three-dimensional elements. A broad triptych panel makes use of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim symbols. Other paintings evoked the bright colors and dramatic lighting found in Istanbul’s tourist districts today.
Santralistanbul also offers a clever Energy Play Zone featuring 22 interactive, family-oriented exhibits intended to teach young and old the science behind electricity production. Pitched toward family groups, the gadget-rich displays give you things to touch, pick up, move, or even take a whack at. The Energy Bike encourages you to pedal as hard as you can in order to power successive appliances. The light bulb goes on, the radio plays, the egg beater whirls, the drill revolves. The Stubborn Suitcase resists your effort to pick it up because the gyroscope inside fights changes to its spatial orientation.
My wife, Anne Meyerson, played the curious learner, pumping energetically on the hydrogen separator and making the sparks fly in an exhibit drawing on personal magnetism.
At the end of the journey, it’s the cavernous, silent, machine-studded interior of the onetime powerhouse that fires the imagination.
Exploring Santralistanbul gives you something concrete to picture when you think about our ceaseless hunger for energy. You walk through these great corridors of power, empty except for those giant turbine-generators, and feel you have discovered the deep and secret hive that keeps us all humming.
In the perfectly preserved Control Room, walls evoke the faded industrial green in which the mad scientists and evil plutocrats of cinematic melodrama played out their demented dreams. The period-piece clock-face dials are there, their pointy-tipped fingers capable of signaling all clear on one side or imminent collapse on the other. They’re joined by small black steering wheels. Are they steering the future? Can we give it a try?
Before leaving we fueled the body at one of the restored support buildings designed with prominent steel cross-beams, enjoying a tangy, thin-crust pizza made with plenty of salty Turkish cheese.
All told the journey to Santralistanbul makes for a great day; it’s a stretch, not a stumble. Besides, how unhappy can you be in a city that provides public transportation by waterbus?
Robert Knox can be reached at