Yeni Cami (New Mosque) and Graffiti
How to write about an event in another city when my memory has been interrupted by a devastating event in my own city? Is there a connection between out-of-control urban transformation in Istanbul and an out-of-control climate in New York?
The workshops—our final events for IDEAS CITY: Istanbul—were held at SALT Galata, a cultural and research center in the heart of Istanbul. SALT was a crucial partner, inviting fifty local workshop participants, mostly young artists, architects, designers, urbanists, sociologists, and technologists who contributed in a meaningful way to the urban future of Istanbul.
During two World Café sessions—a method of “group sourcing” that mines the brains of participants in order to come up with new and dynamic concepts and assumptions—participants moved around three round tables that explored “Problems,” “Solutions,” and “Desires.” The workshops were lead by Lisa Phillips and Richard Flood from the New Museum, Vasif Kortun and Meriç Öner from SALT, Rosalie Genevro from the Architectural League, and Özlem Ünsal, an urban sociologist. The discussions gave our team a glimpse of the issues faced by a city that has grown from one and a half million to fifteen million in fifty years, and is trying to rebuild its mass transportation system after it was abolished in 1957 to counter “socialism.”
We heard it loud and clear at the panels, and it became even more apparent during the workshops: as much as Istanbul is on the rise as a global metropolis, it is also a deeply fragmented city. Ethnic, religious, and social groups do not interact, political discourse stalls along hardened lines, and homogenous neighborhoods push up against each other like tectonic plates before an earthquake. Add to the mix an inherent Turkish pessimism and the trauma of abrupt transitions—including thorough Westernization reforms—over the past 100 years, as Murat Germen, a professor of Visual Arts and Visual Communications Design at Sabancı University, pointed out. But what struck me the most after spending time in Istanbul was an almost fatalistic acceptance of top-down authority. Perhaps in a “culture of amnesia,” as Ali Taptık, an architect and photographer documenting urban transformation in Istanbul, describes it, forgetting is the only way to survive. It began to make sense that the adjective “byzantine”—as in complex, complicated—originated in this city.
Ömer Kanıpak, an architect and professor at Istanbul Technical University, said the main problem was that the elected officials were not representing the public and did not involve experts in the urban transformation process. According to the historian Orhan Esen, the city wants to get rid of mixed-use areas in order to “aestheticize” the city, often circumventing existing rules and regulations. It is what Burak Arıkan, an artist using data visualization to make hidden power structures visible, called “no projection of the future.”
Cem Kozar, an architect specializing in the preservation, transformation, and memory of the city, mentioned a project by the municipality to build barracks in a railway station. He and forty other young architects asked the mayor to halt the project until they came up with a more innovative proposal. The mayor went ahead and built the project without involving the architects.
However, it became palpable in this majestic Ottoman building overlooking the Golden Horn—which straddles hip Galata and the historical peninsula—that an increasingly self-confident younger generation with a can-do attitude is emerging and no longer willing to accept any top-down decisions. Perhaps friction and anger are untapped capital and sources of renewed energy, as someone pointed out in the panels.
The night before the workshop, I received a note from Yelta Köm, a young architect, saying that he wasn’t able to attend the workshop because he was participating in a demonstration in Taksim Square, the most important public space in Istanbul. The municipality was planning a major shopping mall without involving public or expert opinion. “This is a top-down progress,” he wrote. “Tomorrow, I have to be with my friends to announce our objection all together sic to the public.”
Eda Yücesoy, author of Everyday Urban Public Space: Turkish Immigrant Women’s Perspective, asserted that the architecture of public spaces is important in order to make them conducive to public discourse and gatherings. Taking over public space and reappropriating it in nonstructured ways is perhaps a silent protest by the disenfranchised. Gülsün Karamustafa, an artist from an older generation who was an activist against the first bridge in the ’70s, mentioned a green space that was built on the Asian side and soon attracted masses of people. In the beginning, there were clashes between the upper middle class living there and the lower classes coming in to use the space. Now they coexist; and Karamustafa’s take on it was that Istanbul needed the conflict to bring these strata together.
There is a connection between what we heard in Istanbul and what has just happened in New York with hurricane Sandy.
We need to create public platforms and systems to make the citizen’s voice heard, to mix the formal and informal, and blur boundaries. And we need to value our experts again—the architects, urbanists, designers, and scientists who know how to mitigate and reverse the problems facing cities nowadays: from extreme weather conditions, failing infrastructure, and population explosions, to inefficient traffic systems—in a sustainable, empathic, and holistic way.
The election last night gave us hope. As Obama said, it’s about citizenry.