The Sultan’s Powerhouse: Santral Elektrik in Istanbul

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The Silahtarağa Power Station was once the main generator station for the Ottoman Empire; first powered up in 1914, it brought power to the city’s trams and lit the Sultan’s chambers at Topkapı Palace. Now reimagined as a museum, this beautifully preserved power station offers a valuable glimpse into the workings of an archaic coal-driven behemoth.

Santral Elektrik - 1-DRThe Silahtarağa Power Station now forms a part of the cultural complex known as Santralİstanbul. Opened in 2007 – in a ceremony presided over by Prime Minister Erdoğan – Santral İstanbul stands on the campus of Istanbul Bilgi University: a site in the city’s Eyüp district that features an art museum, a library, a café and concert halls. The generators remain in position, unmoved since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Paying the entrance fee and following the guide rail inside the tall, solemn building, I didn’t feel much like an explorer. It seemed too orderly, packaged and labelled ready for tourist consumption. This sensation soon left me though, as I entered the power station proper and passed between the veins of a vast, interconnected and long-forgotten machine.

The escalator that led to the first floor turbines blinked into life as I approached it; a whirring glass and steel mechanism lit from within, that seemed strangely in keeping with its surroundings despite its new build. It was fitted as a replacement for the coal conveyors which once occupied this spot. On the raised gantry above, I found myself hemmed in by a series of living exhibits that charted the evolution of the Sultan’s own powerhouse. The vast steam turbines and electrical generators of Silahtarağa were each stamped with a maker’s mark: AEG, Brown Boveri, Siemens, Thomson-Houston.

Santral Elektrik - 2-DRThe windows – hemmed in brick and arched in gothic designs – had since been bricked over. Now they were lit from within the frames, an ambient red light that cast the machinery in hellish hues and threw long, peculiar shadows across the steel plate.

The station was built by the Ottoman Electric Company – a business interest formed by the Austro-Hungarian Gas & Electric Company in association with Belgian investors. The coal-fired generators were assembled in the Silahtarağa neighbourhood of Eyüp, on a plot of land beside the upper reaches of the Golden Horn. On 11th February 1914 the power station was fired up, bringing life to the tram network of Istanbul. Not long after that, power was being channeled to the Sultan’s own palace.

The Ottoman Electric Company had been granted an Imperial Concession lasting 50 years – but in 1937, after the fall of the empire, that company was nationalised by President Atatürk… and the following year it was absorbed into the Municipality of Istanbul.

The Silahtarağa Power Station, now managed by the Electricity, Tunnel and Tram Company of Istanbul, was for many years the sole provider of electricity to the city. At first it had powered only the more prosperous districts, but by the 1950s Silahtarağa was linked to the Turkish national grid. The original array of three 6MW generators was increased, in time, to a capacity for 80MW. In the 60s and 70s there were further changes of management before the power station was eventually rendered obsolete, and from 13th March 1983 the generators were left cold.

The site was derelict for almost 20 years.

Santral Elektrik - 11-DRAn act was passed in 1991 that listed the site as a ‘cultural and natural object of Istanbul,’ earned the decayed building a degree of protection. Almost a decade later, in 2002, the redevelopment programme began.

The former power station was incorporated into a new university campus, the two buildings being preserved as museums. The project adopted the name SantralIstanbul, from the Turkish word ‘santral’ meaning ‘power station.’ The architect Han Tümertekin oversaw the redevelopment of Silahtarağa; a project which, despite being budgeted at $30 million, eventually cost in excess of $45 million. The complex was opened to the public on 8th September 2007.

From the first floor gantries, a steel staircase led up to the control room.

Occupying just one end of the building, the control room overlooks the station floor through a panelled glass wall. A wide arc of control panels surround the central area, fitted with gears, knobs, levers and dials which would allow engineers regulate the generators below.

Santral Elektrik - 15-DRI couldn’t resist the urge to play. I flicked switches, turned dials and pulled down levers. The machinery was stiff from lack of use, but after a little force the levers came down with a satisfying clunk. Naturally, the relay and control instrumentation had long since been deactivated, disconnected from the inert turbines and generators. Still, I felt a little disappointed when the engines and rotors failed to spring into life at my touch.

While the rest of the power station underwent some serious structural repairs during the redevelopment project, the control room was simply dusted down, to be preserved entirely in its original form. The only addition were the red floodlights that now bathed the deck; it didn’t make much imagination to picture the generators below humming away as they once had.

The control room looked a little like pictures I had seen from inside London’s Battersea Power Station – although here, with the exotic lighting playing over cumbersome handles marked in faded Turkish script, the atmosphere felt far removed from the former’s austere, Victorian charm.

Santral Elektrik - 4-DRBehind the curved control panels, at the back of the chamber, several banks of machinery stood watch, wires zigzagging back and forth between the panels like synapses. I wandered between them, to find a strange metal shell tucked away at the back of the control room.

Roughly seven feet in height, the angular case featured a narrow eye-slot, giving it the appearance of some diabolical automaton. Checking around the back of the fixture, I found a door: and realised the installation’s purpose. Formed from thick, reinforced metal, the pod was designed as protection for the power station’s engineers – a last resort option, somewhere to hide in case the generators below were to overload.

After the control room, I returned to the turbine floor. I hadn’t been aware of other visitors for some time, preoccupied as I was with the engines and consoles; perhaps one or two had passed me by on the higher gantries. Here they gathered en masse however, around a collection of interactive displays and moving exhibits.

There were static electricity experiments, plasma balls and a Van der Graaf generator. It looked as though someone had given Nikola Tesla free reign to design a children’s playground.

I exited to the courtyard, where a twin building is now used as an art gallery. Both stand five stories high, their steel and glass exteriors sometimes used for projecting films on the university campus.

Although the moving parts in the control room, the embryonic lighting and the basement full of toys may have given some illusion of life, I walked away from the building with a sense akin to leaving a graveside: superficial reanimation aside, the magnificent Silahtarağa Power Station is as dead now as the sultan who built it; the empire it once served.

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