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selected works/thesis project/
the reintegration of lost spaces in the divided city of nicosia

Readers - Benjamin Ibarra Sevilla, Georgios Artopoulos, Michael Holleran, Nikolas Bakirtzis 
Master’s Project 2018-2019


This proposal investigates how interventions in abandoned urban spaces within and without the buffer zone of Nicosia, Cyprus can be catalysts for urban regeneration. The project calls for the reactivation of key areas of the capital that would foster growth and gradual reintegration of the buffer zone into daily life. The work takes a critical look at the existing conditions of the de-facto border and suggests locations for street and architectural interventions that would revitalize cultural heritage sites and promote new uses in vital artery nodes. By strengthening the connection between the divide, the city center will once more be a vibrant social space, acting as a catalyst for community growth while also bringing much needed attention to urban fabric under threat of ruin.

figure 1 - Cyprus in the context of Europe and the divided
cities of Berlin, Belfast, and Jerusalem

1  Good fences make good neighbors

“The best solution to bringing down walls is to never build them in the first place.”

Lebbeus Wood; Divided Cities

        Walls exist as both physical and psychological constructs, a tool for order and the establishment of a collective - often based on the principle of separating ‘us’ from ‘them’. One often hears the phrase “Good fences make good neighbors,” but out of context its meaning is often misunderstood to imply that walls are a natural and necessary measure. Originally taken from Robert Frost’s poem ‘Mending Wall’, Frost questions the necessity of such divisions - that without the ritualistic upkeep from both sides, walls would simply fall apart; naturally eroded by nature. A point often ignored is that borders are a point of interaction and gathering for communities through the act of maintenance, that borders are not always about the physical and can be a symbol of understanding rather than difference. With this principal in mind, the following work examines the city of Nicosia, Cyprus - the “Last Divided Capital in Europe” – and proposes a new approach to deal with the infamous division that cuts through the island.

figure 1.1 - The infamous division and buffer zone of Cyprus

2  The Stepping Stone to the Middle East 

        Despite our “information enlightened age,” it is still easy for societies to hold on to ingrained convictions that are passed down through generations, resulting in fear, mistrust, and prejudice. With thirty years marking the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe is still dealing with a divisive physical border in Cyprus, a Greek and Turkish speaking island situated just off the coast of Turkey. Cyprus is the 3rd largest island in the Mediterranean and is cut by a buffer zone that separates the Republic of Cyprus (ROC) and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), with the no-man’s land monitored by the United Nations Peace Keeping Force (UNFICYP) - the longest running operation by the UN. The ROC is a member of the European Union while the TRNC remains unrecognized by the international community with the exception of Turkey. As the “stepping stone” to the Middle East, Cyprus has traded hands on numerous occasions, seeing Byzantine, Lusignan, Turkish, and British rule, from which it eventually gained independence in 1960. Unfortunately, modern history saw an ethnic conflict break out between the native Turkish and Greek populations due to radical nationalist ideals that led to the partitioning of the island in 1974 after Turkey intervened and invaded the island. The resulting division has created a border that is 180 km long and is defined by two cease fire lines which vary in width from just a few meters to over 15 km wide, engulfing within it acres of farmland and villages.

“Borders are a point of interaction and gathering for communities through the act of maintenance... (they) can be a symbol of understanding”
    Unlike other wars and sites of trauma, where the affected areas could be tended to after the conflict was over, the buffer zone is frozen in time, an exact moment that preserves the chaos of that period. The buffer zone is no longer a threat to the people, but rather a symbol of stagnant political action. The barrier is certainly an open wound in the topography of the island, but it has also become numbing for the inhabitants who simply accept it for what it is. In the last decades, the tension between the two sides has subsided significantly and unification talks have been actively pursued. However, a solution is still elusive as there are many obstacles, political and otherwise, for a unified Cyprus.

3  The Old City of Lefkosia/Lefkosa 

      Throught history, Nicosia was the capital of Cyprus and continues to be so for both parts of the island. Locally known as Lefkosia in Greek and Lefkoşa in Turkish, the city seen today dates back to the Venetian Empire which left the strongest influence on the urban fabric. Built in the vision of the “Ideal City,” the fortress of Nicosia forms a perfect circle that consists of 11 heart-shaped bastions and 3 gates – arguably the most sophisticated defensive architecture of the time. Unlike its predecessors, the city conceals its gates from the outside and the street layout is inherited from the former medieval city, resulting in an organic plan rather than a geometrical one with streets converging on a central plaza.

“Unlike Belfast and Berlin, there is no single wall dividing Nicosia. Instead it is a collection of barricades, concrete walls, and the city fabric itself”

    The original division that would define the buffer zone was known as the Mason-Dixon line, a barbed wire fence haphazardly erected by British troops that aimed to ease tensions at critical clashing points during the start of the troubles in the 1950’s. The division coincides with the old path of the Pedieos River that still floods the city during torrential rain and also marks the former market street that existed during Venetian and Ottoman rule. This line would eventually widen and turn into a permanent division after the Turkish invasion. While attempts at unification continue, the city is at a standstill with no solution in sight. In 2003, two checkpoints were opened in the western quadrant of the city, allowing people to see “the other side” for the first time in 30 years. Unlike Belfast and Berlin, there is no single wall dividing Nicosia. Instead it is a collection of temporary barricades made of sand barrels and barbed wire, dead-end streets with concrete walls, military outposts, and the city fabric itself. 

    Despite being my hometown, I wasn’t familiar with the old part of Nicosia, making it a pleasure to travel on two occasions to understand the topography and map the infamous division from both sides. This opportunity allowed me to walk the whole stretch of the buffer zone inside the city from either side, taking note to diagram the actual border and mapping the notable elements of the division. From first glance the city appears to be quite normal. As you enter the tight streets of the old city and meander further in through side alleys, you come upon the main market streets, encountering a variety of cafes and quiet moments - people shopping, children running and playing in the residential streets, friends eating and chatting away at restaurants. At certain points the streets open up and bring you to large gathering spaces – squares and plazas – until you eventually reach the edge of the walls again where moats are prominently used as parking, sports fields, and parks. However, despite the illusion of normality, Nicosia hides within it over four decades of division and as you walk away from the main streets you suddenly find yourself in a maze as you come upon a dead end.
    In stark contrast to the vibrant life of the rest of the city, the spaces trapped in the buffer zone stand desolate and silent. Much of the urban fabric is experiencing severe decay, with numerous roofs caved in and many walls on the brink of collapse. In some areas the zone is only a stone’s throw wide while other segments block-off multiple streets. The on-setting dilapidation and the steady takeover of nature place the urban fabric at great risk and just walking along the edges of this divide reveals the terrible condition these buildings are in. Much of what was lost is deeply imbued within this spatial memory of the buffer zone. While various municipal schemes have been put in effect for the restoration of the city, much is left to be done in returning even the adjacent spaces to the people and preserving the cultural heritage. Despite the creation of a number of checkpoints in the early 2000s, including two within the city of Nicosia, accessing the buffer zone is still forbidden and one can only steal brief glimpses inside from abandoned outposts, fences, barricades, peep holes, and crossings.
    What I’m not able to touch on in such a short article is all the points of contention that the ethnic conflict brought on. Needless to say, the Cyprus division is a wicked problem that for many people remains a non-compromise issue. The conflict has led to the displacement of people, loss of land, missing persons, and generational hatred to name just a few.

The walled city of Nicosia 

Ledra Street

4  A Sense of Belonging 

Despite everything, the current atmosphere is one of peace, making the division appear arbitrary and no longer relevant. A number of coffee shops and restaurants emerged over the years along the edges of the division, seeing the greatest mixing of the two peoples as both cross from either side for work and leisure. With goodwill very much present in the city, there are a number of initiatives present such as the Nicosia Master Plan (a bi-communal effort of both municipalities to work in unison on restoring the city) and the United Nations Development Program that continues to play a crucial role in restoring major cultural landmarks throughout the island. Examples of this include the restoration of facades in neighborhoods close to the border, restoration/conservation work for religious site, the creation of shared sewage and telephone grids rather than each municipality maintaining its own system, and support of bi-communal cultural events through the Home of Cooperation (a rehabilitated building within the buffer zone that offers a neutral zone for people to meet).

“The project focuses on reinforcing similarities and helping create ‘new memories’ in the lost spaces of the Buffer Zone”
    In this spirit of reconciliation, the intent of the project is to provide a vision of peaceful cohabitation that focuses on the things that unite the communities – reinforcing similarities and helping create “new memories”. The approach draws on the period of the 1930’s when the center of the old city was a vibrant market, allowing for the greatest mixing of communities. The heart of the city was full of people from all walks of life, with shop vendors, craftsmen, and food stalls filling the streets. The people of Cyprus share a deep kindness, close connection to family, and shared intangible heritage such as food, coffee, crafts, and language. By creating opportunities for people to interact in the lost spaces of the buffer zone I believe that these shared qualities can help ignite a renewed sense of trust and remove the fear of the unknown. As a start, the greatest potential for this would be within the crossings themselves, creating interventions in the streetscapes where there is a lack of interaction between people despite seeing the highest volume of people move through it. This first level of interventions would provide informal opportunities for people to interact and in order for it to be successful the city would need new crossings to help reconnect the city’s arteries and remove any feelings of entrapment. A secondary level of interventions would be more permanent, with the proposal identifying multiple buildings within the buffer zone or immediately adjacent to, for the creation of new cultural centers that would be structured around the various intangible cultural heritage items identified.

© michaelrahmatoulin 2023