Acclaimed architectural historian Zeynep Çelik to organize May conference at UCLA

Acclaimed architectural historian Zeynep Çelik to organize May conference at UCLAArchitectural historian and curator Zeynep Çelik (left), with the covers of her most recent books. (Photo: Ali Winston.)

Architectural historian and curator Zeynep Çelik has been awarded the UCLA Giorgio Levi Della Vida Award in Islamic Studies. As part of the award, a conference will be convened on her scholarly interests and contributions to the field at the Center for Near Eastern Studies later this spring.

“In its broadest parameters, my work situates architecture and urban forms in their ideological, social and cultural contexts. My contribution is hence to the understanding of built environments in the Middle East and North Africa in their contexts.”

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, April 8, 2019 — Acclaimed Ottoman and North African architectural historian and curator Zeynep Çelik has won the UCLA Giorgio Levi Della Vida Award in Islamic Studies. A distinguished professor of Ottoman history and architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and the federated department of history at NJIT and Rutgers-Newark, Çelik also teaches history at Columbia University.

“I consider the Giorgio Levi Della Vida Award the most important acknowledgment of scholarship in Middle Eastern Studies,” she remarks. “I am truly honored and humbled to receive the award. It is a great privilege to join the group of legendary scholars — the former awardees whose work I have admired for a long time,” she adds. As part of the award, she will organize a conference at the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies in May: “Perspectives on French Colonial and Late Ottoman Cultural History.”

Professor Çelik is the 22nd winner of award, which was created by the first director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, Gustav E. von Grunebaum (1909–1972), in honor of the Jewish Italian linguist and Middle East expert Giorgio Levi Della Vida (1886–1967). Della Vida was one of 12 Italian professors who refused to sign an oath of loyalty to Mussolini and spent the years of World War II teaching in the United States. After the war, he returned to Italy and resumed teaching at the University of Rome.

Past winners include, among others, the French scholar Robert Brunschvig, Gustav von Grunebaum himself (following his death), the British historian Albert Hourani, the Algerian scholar Mohammed Arkoun and, most recently, the Danish-American historian Patricia Crone.

Recognition of a life of scholarship

A chronicler of cities and expert archival researcher, Çelik has written five monographs on urban architecture and cultural history, as well as numerous book chapters and journal articles on diverse topics. She has also co-edited several multi-authored volumes.

In addition to her work as a scholar, Çelik is a well-recognized curator of museum exhibitions — each accompanied by an edited volume of scholarly essays. Among her most recent co-curated exhibitions (all co-curated) were “Camera Ottomana,” Koç University, Istanbul, April–August 2015; “1001 Faces of Orientalism,” Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Istanbul, April–August 2013; “Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753–1914,” SALT (a contemporary art institution in Turkey), Istanbul, November 2011–March 2012; and “Walls of Algiers,” Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, May–October 2009.

“In examining cultural currents between different geographies,” comments Çelik, “I aim to avoid one-way vectors and reveal networks, thus drawing complicated maps."

“Cross-cultural exchanges across the Mediterranean have always been at the center of her work,” says UCLA Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Susan Slyomovics, a longtime friend and fellow Berkeley colleague of the architectural historian. “Her numerous books, museum exhibitions and articles address topics in archaeological, museal, visual and art historical studies from the Mashriq to the Maghrib,” adds Slyomovics. “Her work is taught through many UCLA units and programs and she has close ties with the Getty Museum as well as UCLA.”

 Over the span of her career, Çelik has received fellowships from the National Endowment for Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation,and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), as well as book awards from the Institute of Turkish Studies Book Award (“The Remaking of Istanbul: Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century,” UC Press, 1986) and the Society of Architectural Historians (Spiro Kostof Book Award —“Empire, Architecture and the City: French-Ottoman Encounters, 1830–1914,” University of Washington Press, 2008). She was awarded an honorary doctorate by Boğaziçi University in Istanbul in 2013 and the prestigious Vehbi Koç Award in 2014.

“In its broadest parameters,” she says, “my work situates architecture and urban forms in their ideological, social and cultural contexts. My contribution is hence to the understanding of built environments in the Middle East and North Africa in their contexts.”

After receiving an undergraduate degree in architecture from Istanbul Technical University, Çelik went on to earn an M.A. in architecture from Rice University and a Ph.D. in architectural history from UC Berkeley. She takes a chronological approach to explaining the evolution of her cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural research interests. “My first book (revised from my dissertation) focused on nineteenth-century Istanbul (“The Remaking of Istanbul,” UC Press 1986),” she says. “The cross-cultural dialogues I identified there led me to look into the representations of ‘Islamic’ cultures in international exhibitions (“Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at Nineteenth-Century World’s Fairs,” UC Press, 1992),” an ACLS Humanities E-Book.

“The presence of colonies in the exhibitions triggered me to study colonial architecture and urbanism, centering on the highly charged case of Algiers (“Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers under French Rule,” UC Press, 1997),” she continues. “I then brought my interest in Ottoman modernity in the Middle East and French colonization in North Africa together by investigating them in comparison (“Empire, Architecture, and the City,” University of Washington Press, 2008).”

In a review published in CAA.Reviews, Nancy Micklewright of the Getty Foundation described “Empire, Architecture and the City” as follows:

[The book] belongs to a small but growing number of studies that situate[s] the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire as an imperial power driven by political and economic concerns not unrelated to those of their European imperial counterparts. In setting up a comparison that considers Ottoman empire building in their Arab provinces together with French empire building in North Africa, Çelik has enriched and deepened this new body of scholarship by bringing in both a range of material on the built environment not generally included and an important comparative perspective. At the same time, her work calls into question the traditional model of one-way communication and influence (from Europe to the Ottomans) that has dominated much of mid-to-late twentieth-century scholarship.

Çelik continues, “The interconnected nature of Ottoman modernity with archaeological research, which [the] study opened up for me, resulted in my next book on the politics of archaeology in the Ottoman Empire (“About Antiquities: Politics of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire,” UT Press, 2016). In a Journal of Islamic Studies review of that book, Marcus Milwright writes:

[T]his is a highly instructive book that opens fresh perspectives through an examination of an original and eclectic range of primary sources. Particularly important among these are the publications by Turkish scholars that reflect on the growing importance of cultural heritage in the formation of national identity. Çelik also brings in an international dimension through her telling comparisons of the activities of the Imperial Museum in Istanbul and the Metropolitan [Museum of Art].


A multidisciplinary exploration of colonialism and modernism

The “Perspectives on French Colonial and Late Ottoman Cultural History” conference — to be held at UCLA’s Kaplan Hall May 30–31, 2019 — will take a broad look at comparative colonialism and modernity. Çelik, who has sequenced the panels and recommended the speakers, notes that the presenters represent a wide range of perspectives, from social history to politics to literature, music, visual culture and architecture. In keeping with the tradition of the UCLA Giorgio Levi Della Vida Award, an edited volume of the conference proceedings will be published as part of a series after the conference.

Çelik’s keynote address, “Whose Modernity? Whose Imperial Order? Jerusalem between the Late Ottoman Empire and the Early British Mandate,” draws on her current research on the transitional period between Ottoman modernity and the French and British Mandates in the Middle East.

“I consider architecture and urban forms key expressions of societies and cultures and insist on their potential to open important questions,” she says, “above all, political questions. I take pride to be among the pioneers to study the modernization of architecture and cities in the Middle East and North Africa by scrutinizing nineteenth-century transformations.”

The Ottoman expert first spoke at a Della Vida Award conference 23 years ago, when art historian and archeologist Oleg Grabar received the award in 1996. As Çelik recounts, “To my innocent surprise, I was invited to deliver a paper in the symposium to honor him. The event turned out to be as impressive as I had imagined and I struggled very hard to deserve the place given to me. The whole affair was also collegial, friendly and a great deal of fun — thanks to the center’s and Renie Bierman’s* gracious hospitality,” she adds. “I remember Renie with admiration, warmth and sadness.” 

In May, Çelik herself will be the honored recipient of the Della Vida Award at UCLA, where she will be welcomed by the Center for Near Eastern Studies Director Ali Behdad, John Charles Hillis Chair in Literature at UCLA, former Director Susan Slyomovics, and many UCLA colleagues and friends.

“Since my graduate student days,” she remarks, “I have followed this award and used the associated publications in my courses and in my own work. The Della Vida Award seemed to belong to a level of achievement I could only dream of getting close to!”

*Irene [Renie] Bierman-McKinney, 1942–2015, was a professor of Islamic art and architecture at UCLA from 1982 through 2012, during which time she twice directed the Center for Near Eastern Studies.

This article was published on April 8, 2019. It was corrected on May 30, 2019, to indicate that Prof. Çelik spoke at a Della Vida Award conference for the first time 23 years ago, not 32 years ago.

image for printer

Published: Monday, April 8, 2019