ISTANBUL — The new Istanbul Modern museum is a study in contradictions: It provides stunning views across the water of the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque on the European side of this city and to Asia to the east, but at first glance, it looks, simply, like a spiffy stack of waterfront containers. And both of those aspects of its design are the point.
The new space, designed by the architect Renzo Piano, will officially open on Tuesday, more than a month after welcoming its first visitors and nearly 20 years after the museum, which specializes in modern and contemporary art, opened in a former warehouse in the same location. (It then moved, for a time, to a 120-year-old temporary space in the nearby Beyoglu neighborhood.)
It’s a culturally crucial moment for a country more in the news these days after a devastating earthquake in February that killed tens of thousands of people, and a fraught election in May that cemented President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hold on power for another five years. But, more than that, the opening is also a celebration of the museum’s humble roots in a utilitarian waterfront.
On a recent spring afternoon, as families and the city’s famously pampered street cats lounged in an adjacent park, a crowd of about 100 people milled about the five stories of the 10,500-square-meter (about 113,020-square-foot) building. Several of the opening exhibitions, each running for about six months, celebrate modern Turkish artists but also honor modern art across the globe.
The building’s open staircases — a Piano signature — seem to invite visitors to the upper floors from the lobby and then again to the rooftop, where a reflecting pool has already become a popular hangout for the chatty Bosporus sea gull crowd.
The official opening of the museum this month will come just weeks after the re-election of a president under whose leadership the media has been censored, art and music have been suppressed throughout the country, and artists have been jailed. Several artists live in exile. Mr. Erdogan has shifted the country away from the West (Turkey has failed to obtain European Union membership) to the East, striving to promote a more nationalist view among Turks from across the political spectrum by embracing the country’s Ottoman past.
The museum’s vision, too, is to show the country’s past — but also its present — through art. The works of many of the artists featured in its galleries, seen together, form a sort of tapestry of Turkish life, culture and art since the demise of the Ottoman Empire following World War I and the country’s founding as a republic 100 years ago this October.
“Organizing exhibitions is storytelling, and we are telling a story from the 1940s and all the social and economic changes, and the founding of the republic and how that affected the artists,” said Oyku Ozsoy Sagnak, chief curator of the Istanbul Modern, during a recent tour. “Each gallery is like a section of about 10 years, so when you go through all of the permanent collection, you can see how Turkey changed in time through the works of the artists.”
That journey is exactly what was behind the concept of the museum when it opened in 2004. It is funded by two corporations, the Eczacibasi Group and Dogus Group-Bilgili Holding. Construction of the new building began in 2018 (its cost is undisclosed). It was always the museum founders’ plan to return the institution to its waterfront home.
“The main idea for this building has always been transparency from the ground floor, and the idea is to connect the sea and the park behind the museum with the park’s buildings from the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries,” said Umit Mesci, a curator at the Istanbul Modern. “In this transparent ground floor, it was about making everything free and open to the public: the library, cafe and educational areas.”
For Mr. Piano, the Istanbul Modern was all about its location, and he wanted to celebrate the building’s scrappy origins as a warehouse in his new design, with its facade of aluminum panels, along a waterfront area that has been transformed in the last several years with restaurants and luxury hotels. But the inspiration came more from the natural setting.
“I love a building by the water because water makes things beautiful,” Mr. Piano said in a recent phone interview from his home in Paris. “And the Istanbul Modern is about a dialogue between the building and the water.”
There were also some very practical considerations, including safety in an earthquake zone — a design element made even more urgent since the devastation in southern Turkey and northern Syria from February’s earthquake. A model of the building’s construction, on display in a room on the first floor, depicts the complicated way it was anchored with bendable giant pillars at the core of the building to absorb the impact of a major earthquake.
“We had to make a solid building that will be there for centuries, especially based on what happened several months ago with the big earthquake,” Mr. Piano said. “When you make a place for people for art and music, accessibility and safety are fundamental elements.”
From the start, a sense of community has been the mission of the museum, and its opening appears to have gathered momentum — perhaps almost as a distraction — in a country that has been grappling with uncertainty surrounding its democratic future.
“After the challenges of Covid and tragedy of the earthquakes in Turkey, it has been wonderful to witness this interest from the public, especially young people, to the reopening of the museum in our beautiful new home,” Oya Eczacibasi, chair of the Istanbul Modern, wrote in an email. “Our mission is to make modern and contemporary art accessible to everyone, and this new building helps us achieve that. In our first month of opening, the visitor figures have tripled since 2018.”
The focus of the museum is squarely on Turkish art, at least for now, in the opening shows.
“Just for the opening, the permanent exhibition gallery is starting with the works from 1945 to 2000, in order to show the transformation and development of modern and contemporary art in Turkey,” Ms. Sagnak, the chief curator, explained during the tour as a school group milled about the hall. “All of the artists you see in this gallery either studied or lived abroad, especially in Paris after the war, and many are part of the Nouvelle École de Paris, which supported a lot of Turkish artists.”
“One major artist is Fahrelnissa Zeid, who is one of the most important women of modern art,” Ms. Sagnak added. “She had a solo exhibition at the Tate Modern in London in 2017, and her family donated more than 30 of her works before the museum began in 2004.”
Another gallery features large portrait photographs by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the celebrated Turkish director, whose latest film, “About Dry Grasses,” was a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival in May (Merve Dizdar won the best actress prize). The museum’s pop-up gallery is featuring “Always Here,” 17 works by 11 female Turkish artists.
“Infinity Room: Bosphorus,” a new exhibit by the Turkish-American new media artist Refik Anadol, uses meteorological data from the Bosporus to create a room full of swirling Lego-like images of blue, gray and white. It is one of two pieces commissioned for the museum, along with “Your unexpected journey,” a three-part installation by Olafur Eliasson that seems to hang in the air, untethered, in the central stairwell.
From every vantage point of the Istanbul Modern, it’s all about the setting. In a city that is both Asia and Europe, dilapidated and vibrantly contemporary, ancient and modern, the connecting thread, for Mr. Piano, is what has defined this city for centuries.
“If you are an architect, you have to understand what the genius of the place is, and you have to catch the spirit of the place, and Istanbul is about the water,” he said. “There is magic in the light on the Bosporus.”