As the sun beats down on the pool-side lounge on the ground floor of Emirates Towers, Murat Tabanlioglu lights another cigarette and looks at the skyline of Sheikh Zayed Road.
“It’s an interesting place,” he says, pausing for a second to exhale. “But for me it needs something else. All the buildings seem to be paying their own games. They are not playing together.”
As the son of acclaimed Turkish state architect Hayati Tabanlioglu, Murat has lived and breathed architecture since before he can remember. His father designed half of Istanbul, including the city’s airport and opera house, and since making Tabanlioglu Architects a father and son venture in 1990, Murat has continued that trend.
His wife, Melkan, joined the firm in 1995, and together the duo have made their name with high-profile projects both in Istanbul and overseas. Most recently Tabanlioglu completed the tallest tower in Istanbul, the Sapphire Tower and the Astana Stadium in Kazakhstan, while their much-acclaimed Tripoli Congress Centre has won the firm multiple awards.
“It was never decided that I would be an architect. I think it came naturally,” says Tabanlioglu, reflecting on his career so far.
“This firm is now 50 years old, but we’ve never changed our direction. I think it is important that we are still speaking the same language. It’s a family business. If you look at Europe – Spain, Greece, Germany – family businesses are strong and in Turkey this is no different.”
It is a factor that Murat hopes bodes well for the firm in its most recent foray into the Gulf. A number of the firm’s projects were put on hold during the financial crisis, but with its recent fame in Libya, Murat hopes that now is the time to increase Tabanlioglu’s presence outside Turkey.
Not that this is the first time Tabanlioglu has expanded into a new market, the volume of Murat’s work in Kazakhstan is prolific, with the recently completed Astana Stadium a major coup for the firm. But Murat explains that his Tabanlioglu’s links to the central Asian nation began with an equally prolific project.
“I was invited five or six years ago to take part in a competition to make a pyramid in Astana, which they wanted to be biggest pyramid in the world. They invited two firms, us and Foster and Partners, and in the end we were asked to do the project together,” he says.
The result was the iconic Astana Opera House, and, as Murat explains, the opportunity to work with Norman Foster, a fellow modernist and one of the best-known contemporary architects in the world.
“It was interesting working with Foster. We have similar styles and he and his team are very good, I learnt a lot,” he says.
“I particularly learnt how to be both a good architect and a good businessman. That’s the difference. There are many star architects in the world but I think he is the only architect-businessman.”
In terms of style, Murat is outspoken about his commitment to modernism, and the influence of architectural giants such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Corbusier on his design philosophy.
That said, it is essential that modernism does not to imitate the work of figures like Corbusier, design must keep up with the way in which people are living today.
“We cannot make buildings like they did in the 50 and 60s, because the way people live has changed,” he says.
“The materials are changing. Glass is getting more and more advanced, we have many choices of metals. In the past we had just stone and wood and then came concrete, which was the Corbusier time.
“The technologies are changing too. My father designed the Istanbul Opera House in the 1960s, and it’s still a nice building representative of its time, but it has many technical problems, like insulation. Today we have to incorporate new technology and new materials into our buildings and our designs.”
Which is why the Libya project was so successful, perhaps. The Tripoli Congress Centre impressed judges during the Middle East Architect awards with its modernism but also its ability to fit with its woodland surroundings.
It was beautiful, but appropriate; it had form, while being perfectly functional. At the same time it speaks to the environment in which it is based.
When asked about the project, Murat is inclined to get technical, explaining the practical reasons for the double skin facade or how the building achieves both structural transparency and the practical requirement for security and privacy – an integral factor considering that the project will host world leaders and dignitaries.
But he also jokes about the speed with which the project was completed.
“We made it very quickly. Maybe sometimes it is better if you don’t think so much. You make a concept and if the client is happy you just build it,” he says.
The project has already attracted more work for the firm, with the president of the West African nation of Guinea asking Tabanlioglu to produce a carbon copy of the project in his country.
“We said to him, we don’t make the same. It is a similar idea, but we don’t simply do copies. We drew up a new scheme and now it’s under construction,” he says.
PORTFOLIO: Murat Tabanlioglu past and present
Astana Stadium Opened in 2009, the Astana Stadium is the new ground for the Kazakhstan national football squad. The two-tiered arena can accomodate some 30,000 fans and has a retractable roof.
Sapphire Tower This 261m tower is the tallest building in Europe, designed and completed by Tabanlioglu in 2009. The building includes luxury residential units and a roof terrace with views over Istanbul.
Tripoli Congress Centre Completed in 2010, this conference centre is situated in the heart of Tripoli, in an area of the city due to become a diplomatic quarter. Its two-skinned facade provides privacy while enabling the building to merge into its woodland setting.