Architecture and urban design are often perceived as additive pursuits. New projects usually consist of new structures, whether they are built on “greenfield” sites or on existing sites that are wholly transformed by new construction. And yet, one of the most potent and underappreciated architectural tools is subtraction. Istanbul’s recently renovated Hasanpaşa Gazhanesi (Gasworks) is a compelling demonstration of how a successful outcome may be achieved via careful editing rather than superimposing. The project also reveals how one of the least desirable urban sites can be transformed via grassroots activism into one of the most attractive and environmentally beneficial examples of human development—with relatively little new material required.
The Hasanpaşa Gasworks was a facility constructed in 1891 in the Kadıköy district, located on Istanbul’s Anatolian side. Occupying a 33,000 square-meter (approximately 355,209-square-foot) site, the plant utilized coal gas for the heating and illumination of the wealthiest homes as well as public streets. Istanbul’s gasworks applied the same coal gas technology, developed by Dutch chemist Jan Pieter Minckelers, that was employed in many European cities beginning in the late 18th century. Hasanpaşa remained operational for over a century, finally shutting down in 1993 due to the obsolescence of coal gas as a source of heat and lighting. After that time, the abandoned site became increasingly dilapidated and unsafe, sparking concern among neighboring residents.
Despite initial proposals to raze the gasworks to make way for private developments, the local community banded together to initiate a study on how the site could be utilized in a preserved form. An NGO called Gasworks Environment Volunteers led an effort to list the site in the national register, and thorough site documentation ensued in 2000. The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality council supported efforts to protect the site and transform it into a cultural center. The neighborhood association collaborated with Istanbul Technical University, the project architect, to develop a master plan for a new center for art, education, and recreation. In 2013, restoration of the more than 20 existing deteriorating structures began, and the site officially reopened in 2021 as the Müze Ghazane (Gasworks Museum).
The resulting Hasanpaşa Gasworks Park and Museum Complex now houses an impressive array of programs for public education and activities, including two themed museums (climate and comics), two live performance theaters, six exhibition halls, workshops, cafeterias, a study hall, a library, a bookshop, and an observation deck. Notably, these programs are contained within existing structures that have been largely left intact, albeit cleaned and restored. For example, the gasometer now houses a theater, one of the coal storage buildings now contains a museum, and the water gas production plant now houses a cafe. Visually striking edifices such as a multistory concrete coal storage facility and the steel-framed gasometer retain their airy, skeletal character. At the same time, the original brick ovens are celebrated as quirky, program-free structures. A comprehensive landscape design incorporating multi-scalar paving and planting strategies ties the many individual buildings into a complete whole—and provides much-needed open space within an otherwise dense urban environment.
The Hasanpaşa Gasworks’ physical transformation thus accompanies a social and environmental one. Like many industrial facilities, gasworks were often located within poor areas due to their emission of foul-smelling coal gas. Such is the seemingly universal fate of marginalized urban communities everywhere, which have suffered environmental injustices due to their proximity to unhealthy and undesirable forms of infrastructure. Today, the neighborhood surrounding the Hasanpaşa site remains a diverse, working-class community. The local population’s collective support to transform the dilapidated site into an art and culture center—rather than allow the kind of privatized, raze-and-rebuild development that is much more common—is a remarkable story of grassroots advocacy for heritage preservation and civic infrastructure. The Istanbul Technical University's design team’s reliance on careful editing rather than the addition of new edifices represents a potent architectural strategy for such a historically significant site. And most importantly, in a striking reversal of environmental injustice, the project demonstrates how a typical and longstanding form of inequitable treatment in the built environment may be effectively inverted—turning the least appealing areas into the most desirable destinations.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.