Ali Tayar

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Turkish architect Ali Tayar remains loyal to the modernist foundations of his German architecture school training but his work ranges widely from residential projects in Beirut to the hip burger chain, Pop Burger. As a young student, he fell in love with the Rockefeller Apartments on West 54th Street, designed in 1936 and modernist to their bones and, in a dream-come-true sort of way, now lives in one of the airy apartments, which he has painstakingly restored.

Let’s start off with asking you about your design for Pop Burger – I went there for the first time with my son on his birthday and I knew nothing about the chain and wondered who had designed it. Had you designed any restaurants before?

I had done Waterloo. Do you remember Waterloo? It was the first Belgian sort of “young kid” restaurant.

I always wonder what goes through an architect’s head when they are thinking about what sort of buildings they would like to design, a burger restaurant, an airport, a church …

With a church, it helps if you believe. With burgers it helps if you love them. I love burgers! I grew up in Istanbul and the best thing I could imagine was to go to the Hilton snack bar and have burgers. My mother always said, this is not exactly the way you get them in America.

Southern light permeates the living room and dining alcove.
The entire apartment, down to the hardware, was stripped and restored to its pristine prewar state.

Looking across the custom bridge table into the living area.
An Alvar Aalto sofa is covered in a Knoll fabric.
The original mantel was replaced by one made out of aluminum boxes. Ali designed this pair of custom oak benches, upholstered in faux-suede for the nearby Pop Burger restaurant.
Floor lamps by David Weeks flank the aluminum fireplace mantel. A work by Bruno Augsburger, ’72 Days’ hangs above.
Four plywood cross-vaults form the base of Ali’s glass top Michael’s table.

Tell us what it’s like growing up in Istanbul.

It was beautiful … gorgeous. That Hilton was important for me because it was the first Hilton that was built after the war, and it’s this beautiful modernist building with a beautiful modernist interior. [The interior] has been completely orientalized and it’s now a completely wretched interior.

When you say ‘orientalized’ what do you mean?

You know like made-up vulgar [kitsch]… I have a dislike for things ‘oriental’ – not things from the Orient. I dislike the wholesale abuse of oriental motifs into architecture. I don’t do that.

Ali’s custom lacquered Calder coffee table stands atop his contrasting jigsaw-puzzle rug.
Looking toward the east wall of the living room.

So you saw these apartment buildings where you now live when you were a teenager and said to yourself, this is where I want to live.

It is one of the most beautiful residential buildings in the city. I was studying architecture and you don’t get that many great buildings. There isn’t actually that much great architecture here. All of this [building] is full of modernist detail. It is designed all the way to the signage on the door.

You talk about your training in Germany being a completely modernist training – you have been so loyal to it.

Oh yeah … very loyal. When I was studying it was really the height of post-modernism. When I go out the door on the other side, I see the AT&T building and in our first semester, the history of architecture professor showed the rendering of that building by Philip Johnson, to make the point that the history of architecture was making a comeback.

For the design Ana, a stackable shelving system, Ali reinvented dorm room cinderblock bookcases.

A favorite pair of Biedermeir-style chairs are tucked under a custom bridge table.
In the front entry, an oil painting by Nuri Iyem depicting a Turkish peasant woman, hangs above a console that combines a mahogany top with a carbon fiber base.

Are there basically two kinds of architects—the ones who are more drawn towards engineering and the other kind who are more into ‘expression’?

Ideally it should be a mixture of both but in the Renaissance architects sort of started separating themselves from the building master and [established] the idea that you can now just make drawings that get built by others. It was a bad trend, I would say.

Do you think sometimes the aesthetic appeal of a building or any design can be unintentional, like an electric power plant or something?

You know now there is this trend to find a beautiful piece of industrial textile and show it as a piece of high design … and yes you can go around declare everything to be designed … a beautiful cloud, a nail … but that is just simply not design. I would want to celebrate things where the person said, “Dammit, I am designing this!”

Southern views over The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) from the dining alcove. Ali’s Maryana table is surrounded by his aluminum and bentwood Rasamny bench.
MOMA’s sculpture garden—in the summer months when it is in full bloom the garden brings a bit of nature indoors.
L. to r.: Looking south and west from the dining area.; Tools of the trade on the Maryana table.

Was it your idea to have all the suggestive words on the wall in Pop Burger like “creamy shakes” and “warm buns”?

That was the artist, Ronnie Cutrone. The design was my idea. I wanted to laser cut words and I wanted to back light. I initially thought it might be a menu with fake numbers, like an old menu. But Roy [Liebenthal, the owner] knows Ronnie. And now McDonald’s stole that idea … I get furious every morning when I walk past it.

You’re now working on a David Hockney exhibition design in Copenhagen with the curator [and NYSD contributor], Charlie Scheips.

Yes, I’ve known Charlie for a long time but I didn’t know David Hockney. I always keep Hockney as an example of the kind of work I do, especially with respect to his investigations into mechanical reproductions and multiples. He has this subversive idea of undermining the art world and producing things that are ‘unsellable’.

The sliver kitchen was completely gutted and redesigned. Ali was inspired by Mondrian’s painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie, when designing the yellow and wood-faced laminate cabinets.

A view through the galley kitchen towards the dining alcove.

The work in this exhibition is all on the iPad, isn’t it?

Yes, just digital.

David Hockney seems to have enormous confidence.

He expresses himself confidently. He’s now doing these enormous canvases and they don’t look like anything he’s done before. He could have just stuck with pool paintings.

Stuck with his brand …

In thirty or forty years people will understand where things fit in his body of work. If you go to Richard Serra, you know what you are going to see, or Cy Twombly or Robert Ryman …

A partial view of the living room and bedroom from the front entry.
On the left wall, a bookcase built by Joel Deane is made out of supporting glass rods and mahogany-veneered Baltic birch plywood shelves.
A photograph by Mark Robbins hangs in the bedroom entryway.
Original bathroom fixtures were retained.

What was your impression of him when you met him?

Ohh … it was like stepping into one of his paintings … life seems better. He’s like a kid. He paints in these Savile Row suits … you know, he’s childlike. In the beginning I was so scared that I didn’t get out of my bed in his house … but after things [in the exhibition] started being built, we had things to talk about.

I was reading about what you were saying about New York, and you used the phrase ‘meat grinder’ to describe it … do you still love living here?

I love it … but I see all these young kids and they remind you of this guy and that girl because now I have been here for 25 years and I start to think, “How many of them are going to survive?” I keep thinking Manhattan is an insane asylum—you check yourself in and when you’re cured, you leave.

In the bedroom, Ali inherited an oil-on-canvas by Ibrahim Balaban. It’s displayed on a custom oak easel.
Standing in a corner of the bedroom, Nick’s Trivet, a table base designed by Ali, folds flat for easy storage.
Bedroom views.
A USM-Haller cabinet belongs to the same modular system used in MOMA’s offices.
L. to r.: ’Waldi’ the Dachsund mascot designed by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Munich Olympics, stands next to a Mexican ‘worry box’ given to Ali by friend and client, Larry Carty. Behind is a photographer of one of Ali’s current projects in Europe.; On the left, Lot-ek’s lamp is made from a laundry detergent canister.
Ali originally created the design appropriately named Roy’s Bed for the loft of restaurant owner, Roy Liebenthal.
The teak frame of the Rasamny side chair supports three sections of aluminum.

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