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Palimpsest Architecture

Ismail Ömer Selçuk

Published Apr 14, 2021

The term palimpsest comes from the Greek word “palin,” which means again, and another word “psestos,” which means scraped (Merriam-Webster online dictionary). The Ancient Greeks used tablets, papyrus, and parchment for writing. Due to economic reasons, people were reusing them by a method of erasing through scraping off or washing. This process was called “palimpsest” (Lyons 2011). As a result of these techniques, the traces of previous writings could be seen together with the new writings. They contained the past and the present together, similar to memory.

Architecture is like a continuous process that contains past, present, and future. For example, the site of any architectural project consists of its natural habitat, which is already in existence. The site can also contain an old building. The architects must preserve these existing elements, memories and carry them into the future in their new designs. Therefore, palimpsest can be a very suitable concept for architecture.

According to Arbabiyazdi and Pisheh (2012), the concept of palimpsest in architecture was applied by Peter Eisenman in 1983 based on Derrida’s thoughts in the design of Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio where he introduced the concepts of “extraction and palimpsest.” He explained as “we applied the site like a palimpsest: a place for writing, erasing and rewriting (Six Concepts 1999).”

The concept of ‘palimpsest’ can be handled at two scales. It can be examined at the building scale, and the urban scale.

On the building scale, a palimpsest is usually seen at restored buildings, and these spaces preserve their old materials or their functions. In some cases, spatial growth through addition to the existing historical building may also be necessary. Today, world-famous contemporary architects like Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron have buildings in this category. If we look at their particular buildings like; Foster’s Hearst Tower, Hadid’s Antwerp Port House, Herzog and de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie, they have common qualities, as being built in relation to a historic building. The new building was designed to be different from the old building in terms of architectural form, material, and structure. In all of these examples, historic building defines the main entrance for the entire building. Moreover, the new building does not camouflage the old building; on the contrary, making it more distinct in various ways. As a result, the old building can be distinguished clearly from the new one in terms of material and structure, just like the ancient tablets that were written on the traces of erased writings.

On the urban scale, the city itself is a palimpsest. According to Kroessler (2015), a palimpsest is an ideal metaphor for the living city, a written tablet on which layers of messages were inscribed repeatedly, always legible, yet never been completely erased. The city is a living organism that keeps changing every day in terms of its built environment, its natural habitat, parallel to its society’s changing needs. These changes sometimes take place with the demolition of old buildings, mostly replaced by the new ones, or sometimes preserving the old buildings with new additions.

On the other hand, society is changing in terms of social structure, cultural characteristics, individual and communal activities. Technology has started to change the content of human needs a great deal comparatively. On the other hand, families got smaller with increasing individualization. For instance, Tanyeli (2013) writes about the collapse of the nuclear family in Tokyo. According to him, millions of young people living alone causes their dwellings’ becoming a single room unit, used almost exclusively in need of privacy like sleeping and for personal hygiene. Hence, all kinds of social and entertainment activities are carried out of the house. So, the number of private spaces decreased and got smaller, whereas public spaces increased and got larger as if the public space swallowed the private space in Tokyo. As a result, new public spaces are emerging from the ever-shrinking traces of residential buildings. As a result, individualization as a dominant global social change has already or will have apparent effects on the transformation of cities, and perhaps it will replace today’s architecture by treating it just like a palimpsest all around the world soon.

Ankara can also be examined as an urban example of the palimpsest. While it can be seen in the whole city, traces are especially visible in the Ulus region. When the Republic was established, and Ankara was chosen as the capital, Ulus was predicted as the new administrative center in the growing city for around fifty years in the city plans. Therefore, many administrative buildings, like the first and the second parliament buildings, as well as some bank headquarters, were built in Ulus.  However, the intense migration from rural to urban after WWII has significantly affected the urban space formation in Ankara. As a result, while Kızılay was becoming the new center of Ankara, Ulus has gradually started to lose its importance. (Biçer, 2013.) Today, Kızılay can be said to be the center of the city still, when there are many other sub-centers, and most of these mentioned buildings lost their original functions.

This paper is written within the requirements of the MIM 419 Development of Written Communication Skills course at the Department of Architecture at TOBB ETU instructed by Dr.Elif Mıhçıoğlu.


Arbabiyazdi, A. and Pisheh, M. Z., (2012). Context as Palimpsest. Journal of Basic and Applied Scientific Research [online]. 1632-38. [Viewed 05 March 2020]. Available from:,%202(2)1632-1638,%202012.pdf 

Biçer S., (2013). Geçmişin Modern Mimarisi: Ankara – 1 [online]. Arkitera [Viewed 05 March 2020]. Available from: Kroessler, J. A., (2015). The City as Palimpsest [online]. CUNY Academic Works [Viewed 05 March 2020]. Available from: 

Lyons, M., (2011). Books: A Living History. California: J. Paul Getty Museum. 

Merriam-Webster online dictionary. [Viewed 05 March 2020]. Available from: 

Six concepts in contemporary architecture: Collection of architecture and urban development articles (1999), sited in Context as Palimpsest (2012). 

Tanyeli, U., (2011). Rüya, İnşa, İtiraz: Mimari Eleştiri Metinleri. İstanbul: Boyut Yayın Grubu

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