When Tuncel Toprak set out on the project that would eventually be Witt Istanbul, he came up against more than a little resistance from the older generation. “Some of my father’s friends, of course they have an old fashioned way of thinking. They said, ‘Okay, Tuncel, you need to have a hotel architect who’s experienced’,” says Toprak, whose father worked in the real estate business as a civil engineer. “That didn’t make any sense to me. We have 18 rooms, and I was thinking, okay, we are building 18 apartments. If an architect has good taste, he can do it, you know? What I needed was just taste.” Taste was what he got, in the form of then-up-and-coming Istanbul-based design duo Autoban, whom he gave carte blanche to transform a 40-year-old corner building in the Cihangir neighborhood into a bastion of smart 21st-century design.
Opened in 2008, the Witt Istanbul is in many ways a manifestation of Toprak’s independent streak. Geared toward the discerning individual traveler, rather than to the mass luxury market, the 18-room boutique hotel was unusual in Istanbul’s hospitality sector. Yet in another way, it was a project deeply couched in tradition. Toprak was first drawn to the Cihangir neighborhood because it reminded him of the Istanbul of his early upbringing.
“It has a feeling, just like my childhood neighborhood. You don’t see that too often now in Istanbul—it’s just big complexes, and nobody knows each other. When I was growing up, we knew everyone. So in Cihangir, that’s what I liked. Okay, this is a neighborhood, and people should see this side of the city.
Born and raised in Istanbul, Toprak grew up within walking distance of most of his relatives, and many of his friends today were his neighbors then. He became interested in real estate at a young age, when he would accompany his father to construction sites.
“I saw all the details, how a building is made, how the plans work, how they argued on a project,” says Toprak. “The best part about being on a construction site though is you learn how to speak to people. There are all sorts: engineers, the uneducated, everyone. That’s something very important that I learned from my father.”
After graduating from Rutgers University, in New Jersey, he returned to Istanbul, where he began working at AK Bank, one of Turkey's biggest financial institutions. A couple of years later he left the corporate world for the pet project that would become Witt. He contacted Autoban after reading about them in Wallpaper* magazine (which named the firm “best young designers” in 2004).
“I liked the fact that they were young. They were still passionate about new projects because they had to prove themselves. And also I liked the fact that they’d never done a hotel before, because it meant they could be open-minded,” says Toprak. “I’m very persistent in terms of following my own ideas.”
His first consideration was that the rooms be big. Each 50-square-meter room is outfitted with a king-sized bed, plywood Magnolia lights, a Corian marble kitchenette, and a French balcony or wrap-around terrace. Local company Vitra Istanbul collaborated with award-winning British designer Ross Lovegrove on the bathroom fixtures, which accompany sumptuous sculpted sinks of Marmara marble, the same stone used in Ottoman-era hamams throughout the city. The façade’s sandstone is the same used in Topkapi Palace, and all of Autoban’s custom-made furnishings were produced by local artisans whose shops dot Istanbul’s Beyoglu area.
“My life is Istanbul,” says Toprak. “When I’m buying food and other materials, my first choice is always the neighborhood shopkeepers. I feel very proud that I’m contributing to the neighborhood’s economy. That’s a nice feeling, and I’m trying not to lose that vision.”