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Istanbul: navigating the archipelago by Lucy Bullivant
Published in Volume, #22, December 2009/January 2010

A dynamic topography of steep hills, valleys and the Bosporus's sinuous curves shape the patterns of Istanbul's settlements, transport and ecology, but its unique distinguishing feature is not appreciated by the municipalities when drawing up regional masterplans or building codes: 'it's as if the city is as smooth as a blank piece of paper'. Topographical differences are either 'not taken into account or seen as obstructions to be overcome or erased', explained Omer Kanipak, founder of the Arkitera Architecture Center, at the latest Urban Age conference in the city in November. Urban Age's rolling cycle of conferences staged by the London School of Economics and the Alfred Herrhausen Society analyses issues confronting urban growth impacting at the level of top down policies and bottom up initiatives. The effects of global capital on the city soon to be European Capital of Culture 2010 had to be deciphered: the best speakers were the few who had already cracked the codes and found new treatments.


Turkey's diverse settlement typologies. Credit: Ali Taptõk

Accommodating at once centuries of history and an expanding urban modernity, Istanbul acts as a microcosm patchwork of Metaphorically the city is an amorphously shaped camouflage-patterned textile, felt Kanipak, one layer of which relates to the social strata, another overlapping with topography, a third to the characteristics of its built environment. In Istanbul, he observed, public space does not occupy a static square or plaza, but is defined as 'the axes where people move through and intersect in the city, for example, from high end residential Nisantasi, to the Feriköy-Pangalti district of apartment buildings for lower income groups in a rectilinear street grid, and the congress centre, five star hotels and cultural facilities of the lower end of the Taksim-Harbiye axis. This makes it impossible for the 'orthogonal zoning principles or other modes of gentrification' applied in western cities to successfully intervene in its urban fabric.

This sense of imposition without awareness or evolution of an urban language of its own, using Istanbul's inherent features and codes is something Asu Asoy, in charge of international project development at Santra Istanbul, a new international arts and culture initiative, also discerns on the level of Istanbul's public culture. The city is a worldly metropolis, but one with a precarious culture of openness, liberalism, pragmatism, democratic culture and global embeddedness. How public culture in the city develops is in turn central to the position that Turkey will adopt in the global world order. Asoy argues for 'a new perspective based on the notion that a different global model is possible', one requiring 'a prolonged process of negotiations, with an explicit agenda about the kind of globalization and openness that might enlarge public spaces of interaction, engagement and mutual responsibility'. As in many global cities, spaces and cultures of consumerism are forcing changes on the identity of urban space and public culture which unfortunately only serve to underscore growing social inequality and exclusion when imaginative alternatives to build community resources and reflect cultural difference need greater attention.


Haliç (the Golden Horn) lost its significance as a harbour, port and shipyard under changing political structures, but remains a major cultural and historical site. Credit: Paolo Rosselli

Istanbul, one of the densest cities in the world (in its central area, 20,116 people per km2, just behind Shanghai), is growing fast but spreading out with peripheral housing, it has issues of connectivity, access and 'typological fragmentation' as Richard Burdett, Director of the LSE Cities program, put it. Experiencing a very high level of rural immigration, from 2005-2009 has nearly doubled population. It has become an industrial powerhouse, and its industry is moving westbound or eastbound towards the outskirts of the city, disrupting its social and physical fabric. A challenge to be urgently addressed, pronounced many of the Urban Age 'guides' over the two day event, is opening up diversified, resourced social space for the growing population in a way that meets the city's evolving social needs, but isn't solely a narrative of gentrification. We nodded in agreement with Saskia Sassen, the grande dame of globalization theory when she said 'we know the neo-liberal project is devastating', leaving it for others to make spatial proposals to treat this illness.



The dilemma is how Istanbul - a city whose public authorities have had a limited impact on land use, with green land outside the city really appreciated - can develop adequate compensatory mechanisms against this tide of change brought by Turkey's national aspirations to be a global city. One by one, public spaces around the city are coming up for large scale privatization (Prime Minister Erdogan recently announced that his duty is to market his country) and development initiatives, for example, massive stretches around both the Galataport and Haydarpasa zones at the two major entrance ports from the Anatolian and European sides of the Bosporus river. Large scale urban regeneration programmes have been targeting neighborhoods with low quality housing or derelict but historically valuable properties, like Galata and Cihangir, or dissecting suburban villages like Göktürk by constructing gated communities. As one of eight spatial studies commissioned by Arkitera and Urban Age, young architects SO proposed to keep the forests at Sultanbeyli on Istanbul's northern edge free from illegal settlements by creation of boundaries between nature and the urbanized city for use as public spaces, with nodes with public facilities such as libraries, cultural buildings, community centers, health clinics, schools, religious buildings or kindergartens.


Suburban gated communities became a reality of Istanbul in the 1990's. increasingly rubbing against gecekondus and village-like neighbourhoods. Credit: Cemal Emden

There are other ways of countering neglect or privatized housing, and recalibrate the topography of the valleys at the same time. 8Arti's focus was the reclamation of a small valley from the Levent business district to the Kagithane area, clearing all buildings between sea level and 40 meters above the valley basin, and transforming it into a green public space. The proposal rehouses the displaced population in buildings to be reerected above the 40 meter lines above the valley basin, with settlements accommodating an equal population and more social infrastructure with a more efficient planning code and libraries, religious buildings, health and educational facilities.

This goes against the grain of commercial development in Istanbul, which has a wholly different agenda: the imposition of a new globalised cultural identity. Hashim Sarkis, Aga Khan Professor at Harvard GSD, pointed out that the UAE has tried to build towers bearing its name over the Bosporus skyline. The self-contained My World Atasehir residential project on the Anatolian side further entrenches NIMBY-ism, said Atsoy. Whilst the edge cities and gated communities cropping up 'have not yet overwhelmed this city's unique beauty and its ability to seduce', it makes for a world 'inviting and forbidding at the same time'. Tabanlioglu Architecture, the most successful architectural practice working in Istanbul and Turkey more widely, tries to nurture the past and the present in a more responsible way. While the practice's Galatea Port Project preserved its historic identity, their Istanbul Modern building opened in 2004 at Tophane on the Bosporus, offered a new stepping stone for contemporary culture as a way of life. 'We are against a plastic, rapid transformation', said partner Melkan Gürsel Tabanlioglu.

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Alejandro Zaera Polo of Foreign Office Architects, whose Meydan shopping center (2007) is in the residential district of Ümraniye on the Asian side of the Bosporus, asked whether newer developments were just generic machines to engage people in capitalism or whether they had a certain level of cityness? The center was designed with roof gardens intended for public access, like the undulating roof of the Yokohama Port Terminal, but in both cases clients had security issues. Istanbul is still a large marketplace for people to invest, he explained. Ideology has lost urgency in urban cultures, and he detected a move by commercial entities towards equalization and cheapness and a certain acceptance of the generic - perhaps at this point more readily associated with air travel and clothing - that could be seen as a surrogate for democracy.


Kanyon is one of Istanbul's first mixed-use design complexes, offering a quasi-outdoor shopping experience.
Credit: Izzet Keribar


This seemed to meet Richard Sennett's advocacy of privileging Istanbul's local inhabitability, not through over-determination of land, but through urban retrofitting with smaller works to enable the lives of citizens, including immigrants coming to Istanbul. Their own narratives of history are not represented in the new shopping centers or gated communities with high security increasingly being developed in the city. Istanbul needed to recover the notion of the ephemeral and the temporal - a more flexible and experiential approach to urban space - as a laboratory for studying the future, said Sennett, who was in close accord with Kanipak, who believes large scale masterplans for a mid-sized European country like Turkey can be difficult especially as the pace of commercial development is so fast, and population growth (from 2005-9 Istanbul nearly doubled its population, to 12,697,164 (2008 figures). Far better, he reckoned, 'for municipalities to focus on small sized areas to draw (up) a framework of principles rather than a total design for the whole city'.

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One plan - to turn the Golden Horn brown field area into a cultural center - is more locally controlled, but but the Municipality has allowed uncontrolled developments and Kanipak sees a lack of 'stable and coordinated master plan here to coordinate development'. PAB tackled this sit, proposing to extend part of the urban tissue into the green fields by the riverbank, to release pressure and create multi-use structures including housing, small offices and commercial facilities, which also act as visual and physical bridges to the residential areas behind the road along the coast.


Tahtakale, a neighbourhood with some of the best preserved urban grain, hosts dynamic commercial activity with goods coming from near and far. Credit: Ali Taptõk

One plan Burdett particularly hoped would reflect spatial planning privileging public space is Kartal-Pendik mixed use plan, a porous interconnected network of open spaces designed by Zaha Hadid Architects for a former industrial site along the Marmara shore on the Anatolian side of the city. But it 'seems to be ceased', explained Kanipak. The district mayor is from the opposition party and rejects the plan, while the Metropolitan Municipality lacks the funds for such an ambitious goal. It is unfortunate that the commissioning of internationally renowned architects for public projects has triggered mounting anger, 'with protestors posing the issue as a confrontation between local (read Turkish) versus the international (read outsider)'.

Istanbul apparently ranks 57th of 75 global cities in terms of liveability, and for 50 years has not been able to prevent the growth of gecekondus, illegal settlements on the edge of the city, even though now clean water, electricity and the sewage system reach almost the entire population. But since the neo-liberal revolution of the mid-1980s, many of these 'desolate concrete suburbs of extraordinary bleakness' (Burdett) have been converted to middle class standards through TOKI (Toplu Konut Idaresi, the Prime Minister's Housing Development Administration) and the housing cooperatives are losing power. Speculation can only be guided if legal structures for land and property ownership work well, as Hüseyin Kaptan put it, but Istanbul has inherited a very ambivalent situation regarding land use. The gecekondus also have a lack of coordination with the surrounding environment. TOKI has been given incredible powers to raise all gecekondus and come through with a new land regime. But in the post-gecekondu city when land has been commodified, the old resistance is no longer there, as citizens are being disenfranchised through the empowerment of new large scale developers.

A contrastingly localized reading of the city is strongly reflected in GB Architecture's spatial study commissioned by Arkitera and Urban Age. It breaks the spatial determinism following from the prevalence of free-standing multi-storey apartment buildings from the 1950s. Regulations introduced led to a dull urban pattern of generic blocks and TOKI's activities only serve to boost the proliferation of these now being built on the periphery of the city. GB argue that they are inappropriate for the city as it is evolving as they do not create enough public and semi-public spaces. Reinventing these as a new urban model without predetermining building codes, GB made a new masterplanning guide for an area near Kucukcekmece, with scope for alternative uses within the perimeter blocks. Superpool tackled the lack of planned and designed public open space at two sites, one in Karagumruk on the European side, and another on the Anatolian side at Namik Kemal, a newish settlement, currently dominated by parked cars. Their parking structures two minutes' away reclaimed the streets for public parks, playgrounds and small scale agricultural sites.


Urban Age Istanbul 2009. Credit: Ahmet B.Islam

But a major barrier to acceptance of ideas like this is that in Turkey, architecture is understood more as engineering than art, says Kanipak, and instrumentalised for political purposes. Reflecting a wider global scenario, 90% of construction is handled by muteahhits - developers who finance, design and build their own projects. At the same time, few young architects are encouraged to consider problems of urban planning and make proposals for actual alternatives to the development of different neighborhoods of the city. The irony is that their invisibility serves to fuel the resistance against some 'foreign' architects given prominence.

Any strategic planning is clearly complicated by the fact that the plan to turn the Asian side of the city into a financial center is dominated by decisions taken in Ankara, while the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality has little say in these decisions. Philip Rode, Urban Age's transport expert, argued for the combining of spatial agenda and transport infrastructure into one to make it more powerful an instrument. There were controversial plans for a third Bosporus Bridge and a road tunnel underneath, improvements in rail and sea transport, but lack of integration between these and urban plans inevitably perpetuate car dependency and a silo identity for schemes.

Kanipak intends to meet up with the relevant district municipality mayors to explain the projects in the hope that they will light a spark in their minds. They clearly contest Istanbul's planning orthodoxies on many levels, offering the city a vital chance to enter the 'lab' Sennett advocates and change the relationship between top-down instruments and bottom-up initiatives at the heart of Urban Age's enquiries. In Istanbul they are not synthesized. Arkitera can upscale its communications with the wider public including the local mayors, but will they take steps in the right direction?


Hashim Sarkis speaking at Urban Age Istanbul 2009. Credit: Ahmet B. Islam

The urban narratives of the proposals are seemingly modest but manifestly help to generate new identities of space and social inclusion in Istanbul. In doing so they counter the fast-track urbanization taking place in the city as it prepares to showcase on the global stage for European Capital of Culture 2010 and beyond. Stamping spatial invasions on the 'camouflage-patterned textile' without strategy beyond a DNA of entrepreneurial speculation and appropriation by global forces risks denial of cultural and anthropological readings of Istanbul and denies architecture's cultural agenda. If this is not irony enough for a European Capital of Culture, it gives way to the age-old zero sum game where a face emerges in which other faces essential to its future are lost.

This sounds somewhat doomladen and Darwinian, and while Istanbul's most influential figure in this situation, Mayor Kadir Topbas was not at the conference itself, he spoke with feeling at the Urban Age Award ceremony honouring community projects the day before. There, a new children's music centre project in Edimekapi, one of the city's most disadvantaged inner-city neighbourhoods beat 87 other submissions. Topbas heard the judges say that they hoped all the shortlisted projects would become models for others to follow. The conference presented a mountain of views, data, exemplars from other cities, insights and ideas from locals and international guests including a number of other politicians, especially from Latin America, the US and the UK. The atmosphere by the end of the week remained one of hope that bottom up initiatives would be given a higher status by political figures, privileging solutions shaped by local forces and participation in order to avoid a tabula rasa approach to development. The common wish was that politicians and locals would start to talk to each other more about urbanization in such a way that the unique, 3000 year old city could continue to develop an urban language of its own.


Lucy Bullivant  © the author, 2009

Lucy Bullivant thanks the Alfred Herrhausen Society for kindly hosting her trip to attend the Istanbul Urban Age event in November 2009.