View from SALT Galata
He had appeared out of nowhere, observing me with squinted eyes. He started waving at me, agitatedly signaling that I should follow him. The Turkish flatbread seller was not thin so his entire body wobbled. He trotted on, stopping every now and then to put his pushcart down and turn around to check if I was following him. He’d spotted me, a lone stranger, lost at the foot of the Atatürk Bridge, which connects the historic peninsula of Istanbul and Beyoğlu across the Golden Horn. He was pointing at a dark underpass.
I was in Istanbul for four days in July to pave the way for IDEAS CITY: Istanbul, the first international IDEAS CITY venture that grew out of last year’s Festival of Ideas for the New City. The four-day conference on October 11, 12, 14, and 19 will take place in conjunction with the ambitious new Istanbul Design Biennial by Joseph Grima (Domus, domusweb.it) and Emre Arolat (Emre Arolat Architects, emrearolat.com), one of Turkey’s leading architects, and the Audi Urban Future Initiative Awards 2012. During those four days, artists, architects, activists, urbanists, entrepreneurs, technologists, and academics, both international and local, will dig deeper into the 2012–13 IDEAS CITY theme of Untapped Capital.
As I was meeting with our potential Turkish partners, I followed the lure of a city on the move. The extraordinary beauty, ingenuity, and mystery of this city, that not only straddles East and West but layer upon layer, empire after empire, and conquest upon reconquest, leaves a foreigner guessing at all that lies between, underneath, and beyond. On a more pragmatic note, I also learned about the challenges and surprises of a city that has grown from 4.5 million to 15 million in the past thirty years and often looks like a string of wildly diverse villages that have been pushed together yet remain strangely disjointed. I couldn’t help thinking of Orhan Pamuk, who describes Istanbul in his eponymously titled book as a city “obsessed with urban renewal.”
Untapped capital can be many things: people, ideas, networks, raw materials, an inventory of varied resources, modes of communication. It can also be the transcendence of expectations. When in a new place and forced out of our routines, we are more vulnerable but also more open to recognize new possibilities. This is my hope for IDEAS CITY: Istanbul.
The two venues where the IDEAS CITY keynotes, panels, and workshops will take place, are two distinct examples of repurposing untapped capital.
Alber Elvasvili’s Hasköy Spinning Factory on the northern bank of Beyoğlu is a striking mix of a long bygone world and hyper-contemporary architecture. The huge factory halls still house the old machines that were run by several generations of his family until just a few years ago, when manufacturing was pushed out of the city center. Skeins of colorful yarn and fashion sketches are displayed near a huge water tower in the courtyard. Contrasting, or complementing, this are the clean exhibition spaces that will host the Audi Urban Future Award exhibition and the IDEAS CITY keynote and panels. They were reconfigured by the prominent Turkish architect couple, Melkan and Murat Tabanlioglu (tabanlioglu.com). The factory now serves primarily as a rental space for conferences and high-end promotional events, but the owner intends on turning it into a cultural center that also benefits the whole community. With plans for the Sabanci Museum by Zaha Hadid a few doors down, the speed and nature of the transformation of this former industrial and now sleepy working-class neighborhood remain to be seen.
SALT Galata, where the IDEAS CITY workshops will take place, is a cultural center that offers innovative arts programs, research libraries, and archives that encourage creative thinking. It is housed in a majestic nineteenth-century Ottoman building, and a former bank, on the southern tip of the hip Galata neighborhood, which is undergoing a rapid metamorphosis spurred on by enthusiastic young artists, designers, and architects (among them Superpool, the Turkish/Danish architect team who met at OMA and is participating both in the AUFI Awards and Idea City Istanbul panels, superpool.org). The energy is palpable. What’s impressive about SALT is how integrated and comprehensive the center is. “Salt” is a Turkish term for “just enough, simple, clear” that cannot be used by itself but only in context. A slight understatement, SALT Galata lives up to its name because of its deep understanding that art and culture cannot exist out of context. Besides exhibition and workshop spaces, SALT hosts an extensive library that offers public access to thousands of print and digital resources on Turkish contemporary and modern art, architecture, and economics. It also features an Open Archive where archival research projects are interpreted and discussed, a restaurant, a bookshop, as well as a unique view of the Golden Horn. Not surprisingly, the center is headed by Vasif Kortun, a visionary international curator.
But what does all this have to do with a flatbread seller?
I arrived in Istanbul with the impatience and sense of ownership over time and space like any seasoned New Yorker. What I imagined would be “racing from meeting to meeting” was not only slowed down by traffic jams in the company of cursing cab drivers but by moments of simply wanting to “take it all in.” In one such instance, I spotted the Atatürk Bridge, offering respite from the clutter of noise, traffic, and people as well as views of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque on one side and Galata on the other. I wanted to walk across that bridge.
After a short stroll from Kadir Has University along a jetty with fishing boats, I was stuck in front of a dizzying mess of roads winding and coiling their way across each other like wild snakes. There were no traffic lights in sight and cars just kept thundering towards the bridge—there was no way I could traverse this. I should have heeded the warnings of well-meaning locals saying it would be too dangerous. Here I was, with no one else in sight but a flatbread seller. I didn’t speak Turkish and he didn’t speak English. He was pointing at a dingy tunnel that seemed to end in a Byzantine cistern like the ones I had just descended into at Kadir Has University. The question was: Should I follow him?
I did. Not only did he guide me safely through the underpass, but also across a couple of spots where the traffic had slowed down just enough to nip across the road. He sent me off, walking across the bridge with a bright smile for yet another Istanbul experience. He, too, is untapped capital.