Contested Spaces


7 December 2017

Just along the coastline from the historic centre of Istanbul, swaths of shorefront properties are currently under construction, veiled from public view by tall hoardings bearing signs reading “Şehir senin, deniz senin” (The city is yours, the sea is yours). In this rapidly developing megalopolis, where building projects both public and private seem to be eating up every last square metre of public space, these proclamations could signify bitter irony just as much as a promise of better things to come.

“This city changes so fast, it creates constant amnesia,” says Cem Kozar of the Istanbul-based architecture and urbanism firm PATTU. “When I go back to Antwerp, where I grew up, I know my school will still be there, the buildings where I lived will still be there – my memories are still there. But in Istanbul, these anchors for our memories are being constantly erased; it makes people feel like they don’t belong to the city any more.”

Given that Istanbul’s population has exploded from one million in 1950 to fifteen million-plus today, questions about who the city belongs to – and how it might be redesigned to accommodate its rapidly growing number of inhabitants – are nothing new in Istanbul. Turkish films from as early as the 1960s feature characters bemoaning the loss of “old Istanbul”, and a melancholy longing for the past suffuses the Istanbul-based works of Turkey’s most famous novelist, Orhan Pamuk. But the city’s long-running battles over public space and urban liveability have now been thrown into sharp relief by a decade-and-a-half-long building boom that has shifted demographics and living habits, and in so doing helped to inspire a new generation of architects, planners and designers.

“This economic boom has been seen as the end of Istanbul as it was, but people have also started to think more about the city,” says Sevince Bayrak of SO? Architecture and Ideas, an Istanbul-based design and architecture practice that won the international category in MoMA PS1’s 2017 Young Architects Program. “It’s created opportunities for architects like us to open offices, and has changed how the city is discussed in a positive way.”

There is perhaps no single space in Istanbul that has been more discussed in recent years than Taksim Square, a broad, graceless concrete expanse about 10-minutes’ walk north of SO?’s office. Situated at the fringes of the city in Ottoman times, the square was constructed in the early 1940s as a new heart for “modern” Istanbul under the young Turkish Republic. Since then, it has played host to regular protests and marches – some permitted and some thwarted; post-football-match celebrations and fights; a tragic May Day massacre in 1977; and endless selfies, retaining its symbolic importance even as the boundaries of the city swirl ever further away.

Taksim made global headlines in the summer of 2013, when it was taken over by anti-government protesters who briefly occupied both the square and the adjacent Gezi Park in what felt at turns like a political sit-in, a music festival and a utopian commune. Although the protesters had disparate political motivations, their occupation of Taksim and Gezi represented an unprecedented outpouring of grassroots urban place-making. Protesters set up dispensaries for free food and medical care, planted a communal garden, created an outdoor library, hosted free yoga sessions and concerts, and launched Wi-Fi networks that could be shared by all – until they were tear-gassed and water-cannoned out of the space by police.

Three years later, Taksim Square was occupied again in a very different way. After the failed military coup in July 2016, government supporters claimed the city’s preeminent public space for their own, thronging nightly in the flag-bedecked square for boisterous patriotic rallies. Unlike the Gezi protests, when metro lines were shut down and social media blocked to try and keep people from joining the demonstrations, these “democracy vigils” were facilitated by the government with free public transportation, free cell-phone calls throughout the city, official hashtags, and portable toilets and food carts set up to attend to participants’ needs.

In the year that has followed the failed coup, ground has broken on a large – and controversial – new mosque on Taksim Square. For decades this square has been an emblem of Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular ideals, as well as a landmark for the Beyoğlu nightlife district. However, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has now vowed anew to reconstruct an Ottoman-era barracks building in Gezi Park – the same plan that drove protesters out onto the streets against his government in 2013 – and to demolish the Atatürk Cultural Centre, a modernist icon on the square that has stood empty for years. With politics so polarised
in today’s Turkey, many government opponents see disaster in these plans. But except for brief interludes, such as the 2013 protests, Taksim has always been a place of top-down control, a symbol of how Turkish leaders have continually sought to remake Istanbul – and by extension, the country – in their own image, exercising their vision of who has a right to “public” space, and how they should behave there.

“In the early Republic, under Atatürk, the government in Turkey wanted to produce physical spaces that looked just like the ones in Europe,” says Bülent Batuman, the chair of the urban design and landscape architecture department at Bilkent University in the capital Ankara. “They had this idea of ‘modernity’ being men and women walking around together in public as a display of democracy – albeit in a very limited framework. But social dynamics don’t always correspond to the official desire to produce these ‘nice’ spaces that will generate what leaders see as ideal citizens. Real life never fits with these programmes.”

During most of the Ottoman era in Istanbul, there was little in the way of formalised public space, with the city’s streets and bazaars, and the courtyards around mosques, serving as the main places where urban dwellers interacted. Gardens were the private domain of the elite, attached to palaces and mansions, often occupying prime real estate alongside the Bosporus Strait. Periods of redevelopment starting in the mid-1800s, however, saw the emergence of public squares around some of the city’s grand new palaces, before the early Republic attempted to sweep away the city’s imperial and religious past by recentring public activities around “secular” spaces, including some European-inspired parks, with no links to palaces or mosques. Narrow streets that had been widened to accommodate horse-drawn carts were turned into broad boulevards for cars. Regardless of political leaning, subsequent governments tended to follow similar models, ordering grand projects intended to “clean up” or “modernise” the city, paying little heed to preservation or incorporation of its historic layers. The populist Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes was famously said to have ridden around Istanbul in the 1950s, pointing out of the car window to indicate the buildings he wanted torn down.

The current waves of redevelopment in the city are similar to what occurred in the 1950s but on a larger scale and in defiance of contemporary values, says Kozar. “We now have a different understanding of history and the protection of heritage, not just physical buildings but also the cultural characteristics of a city,” he says. “But in Istanbul, they are still doing the same thing that would have been done in the past, at greater speed. Today’s technology can demolish whole neighbourhoods quickly.”

Walking, driving or riding around Istanbul often feels like traversing a giant construction site, with roads being torn up and repaved, mammoth cranes towering overhead, cement trucks blocking traffic, gaping holes in the ground, dull thuds echoing through the streets and sidewalks walled off around skeletal buildings in the midst of being erected or torn down. While there are still – for now – vast forests on the outskirts of the city, green space is remarkably scarce in the central areas: by one estimate, just 1sqm per person (rising to about 6sqm citywide), compared to more than 25sqm per person in London and New York. It’s not uncommon to see entire families picnicking – portable grills and all – on landscaped central reservations.

As in the past, many of the changes affecting Istanbul have not been initiated by city officials, but by branches of the government in Ankara – today often in partnership with commercial interests, given that government-initiated building projects, lending policies, and allocation of public land have helped the construction sector become a dominant element of Turkey’s economy. Istanbul is currently home to 20 per cent of the Turkish population and accounts for such a sizeable proportion of national production and GDP – far outstripping Ankara on all three counts – that its urban sphere stands as a nationally contested zone, fraught with disagreement over the country’s priorities and ideology. “For every ruling government, Istanbul has always been the focus. It is Turkey’s centre of gravity – of its culture, its economy and most of its tax revenue – so it is very important to the state,” says the Istanbul-based architect Ömer Kanıpak. “Its public spaces are used as a tool by governing bodies as a showcase for their power, for example as places where pro-government demonstrations can be held.”

Previously, Taksim Square and the adjacent pedestrian thoroughfare of İstiklal Caddesi were a hub for protests and demonstrations of all kinds. Processions of banner-hoisting, chanting unionists and members of other interest groups were a regular part of the weekend throngs milling down İstiklal. Until recently, the street hosted a massive, exuberant annual gay pride march, one of the largest in the region. It was often hard to manoeuvre down İstiklal without someone trying to thrust a petition or a pamphlet into your hands. But following the Gezi protests, the failed coup attempt, and a wave of terrorist attacks that have shaken Turkey over the past few years, restrictions on the use of public space in the area have tightened. Armed police and military troops regularly patrol the area and amass in overwhelming numbers at the slightest hint of a protest brewing. One architect told me that she had been questioned by police as to whether she had “permission” to take her students on a walking tour of the area. Gezi Park – once again neglected – has fallen back into its previous state of disrepair: a deterioration some urbanists suspect is an intentional strategy to prime the public for its demolition. New seating areas installed in Taksim are unwelcoming slabs of concrete, unprotected both from the summer heat and the winter rains. And a large chunk of the square has been fenced off by the local municipality for a perpetual “festival” – filled with antique-sellers one month and craftspeople the next. The few permits that are allowed for demonstrations (mostly, though not all, pro-government ones) are generally granted not for Taksim, but for the large, open areas on either side of the Marmara Sea, in Yenikapı and Maltepe.

“Each corner of İstiklal used to provide a platform for voicing your concerns, now it’s either two million people [in Yenikapı or Maltepe] or nothing,” says Sinan Erensü, a member of Beyond Istanbul, a group of architects and sociologists working to achieve “spatial justice” in Istanbul. “The opportunity to see and be seen by others is a progressive value of urban life. Now the government is taking that side of urban life that’s open to creative solidarity and moving it to the edges of the city, where they can control it.” With large public gathering places tightly controlled and urban parks scarce, it would be easy to argue, and many do, that public space is fast disappearing in Istanbul. Others contend they are simply looking for it in the wrong place. “The thing that makes public spaces rich is how people behave in them,” says Kanıpak. “In central Istanbul, you see people using sidewalks very creatively: street vendors, people spending time in front of their houses, all creating very vibrant streetscapes.”

The architect Alexis Şanal of ŞanalArc has spent years studying one of the most creative, and ubiquitous, uses of streets as public spaces in Istanbul. Even as shopping malls multiply, more than 350 temporary street markets, or pazars, still appear on set days of the week in neighbourhoods across the city, covering anywhere from 4,000 to 40,000sqm. In an hour or two, a cadre of pazarcıs (market traders) creates, then deconstructs, the shopping area using a sophisticated, highly customisable network of tarpaulins, poles and ropes.“Pazars create a really rich use of public space by temporarily occupying residual land such as side streets and empty car parks,” says Şanal. “There’s a real trust-capital culture that goes along with people going to the same vendors every week, and in some of the older pazars, you can really see that this is a place where women can come out and socialise. Despite the advance of rapid capital, pazars are not going away. They’re valued enough by the community that they have continued.”

The enduring tradition of the pazars is just one example of how the same dynamism that creates a sense of urban amnesia and disconnection in Istanbul can also be a positive value for the city – or at least a way to cope with rapid change. Bayrak and her firm have documented the ways people have responded to the lack of urban amenities by making their own out of an unlikely source. “In the past few years, negotiating construction and security barriers has become a part of daily life in the Taksim area, but we started to notice how people were using these barriers as places to lean and sit and eat their lunches,” she says. “That’s how people survive – being insistent on keeping some power over daily life.”

Whenever parts of the Bosporus shoreline are separated from the water by construction, fishermen stand on cement pylons in the sea to cast their lines. Shopkeepers set up small kerbside gardens of potted plants to prevent people from parking in front of their stores. Someone with a tea cart and a couple of chairs sets up on a sidewalk and, voilà, you have a mini-café. Young people hop over the fences around flower gardens to lounge on their grassy areas at weekends, or bring cheap store-bought bottles of beer to sit on a dilapidated set of steps offering views as spectacular as those found in any expensive bar. “People in Turkey claim urban space by putting something out on the street,” says Birge Yıldırım, an architect with Okta Atolye. “Because the government doesn’t ask before it changes public space, people don’t ask first either.”

Kozar cites the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn estuary as another example of the phenomenon. “It was not intended to have commerce on it, but restaurants, bars and meyhanes (taverns) started to pop up on the lower level of the bridge and became part of the culture of Istanbul,” he explains. “In the 1990s, the city decided overnight to tear it down and rebuild it with designated spaces for shopping, but it was all fake and sterile — chain clothing stores and fast-food restaurants. They all quickly closed. Now you have what you see today, this row of touristy, mostly identical bars. It just goes to show that you can never plan or predict what will happen in this city.” Like the commercialisation of the Galata Bridge, some of the ideas generated at street level are eventually absorbed into the official fabric of the city. Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon is the dolmuş transportation system. What began with some enterprising automobile drivers offering shared taxi service to sprawling, generally low-income parts of the city not reached by public transit, has evolved into a nationwide network of minibus cooperatives plying set routes, though still at affordable prices.

The dolmuş is part of what the urban researcher Orhan Esen dubbed the “self-service city”, the urban phenomenon of informal development that predominated in Istanbul in the latter half of the 20th century. The opening up of Turkey to global capital, which started in the 1980s and has accelerated rapidly in the 21st century, has largely replaced informal housing with identikit apartment blocks, as well as bringing in new, controversial kinds of privatised space: shopping malls, gated communities and commercial entertainment complexes. Some of these new developments trade on their positive associations with urban public space while, critics argue, accelerating its decline by replacing organic, walkable, connected neighbourhoods with isolated, car-dependent megaprojects. One luxury housing development in the far outskirts of Istanbul was built around an artificial waterway and named “Bosphorus City”. Others advertise developments – in English, even to Turkish customers – as Central Life or My Town. One shopping mall is named Meydan, or square. Another has dubbed its food court Mahalle, the Turkish word for neighbourhood. “We dreamed of a neighbourhood like the ones we remember,” the city’s Nişantaşı mall website reads. “Whatever we had in those neighbourhoods, we wanted in Mahalle, too.” Meanwhile, the mall’s owner manages swathes of land around Istanbul, likely contributing to the general transformation of old neighbourhoods while still making money by evoking nostalgia for new residents.

In the former industrial neighbourhood of Bomonti, a shuttered beer factory has been turned into a modern entertainment complex, Bomontiada. It’s anchored by one of Istanbul’s best-loved clubs, Babylon, which had helped to revitalise Beyoğlu nightlife in the 2000s but then moved out of the neighbourhood in 2015 after being acquired by a large holding company, contributing – some say – to the area’s recent decline. “People want to feel like they are in a place like Beyoğlu, but in a more protected and segregated way. Demand and supply are shaping each other,” says Yaşar Adanalı, the co-founder of Beyond Istanbul. “Things are messy now. There’s a big perceived feeling of insecurity. There’s all this construction [in Beyoğlu] and then you have nice, public-looking spaces like Bomontiada. If you have money to spend, it’s a space you can enjoy.”

Concerns about safety, especially following the recent terror attacks; a fast-growing consumerist culture; grinding traffic and insufficient parking; a lack of urban parks and plazas; and poor pedestrian infrastructure in Istanbul are all helping drive a move toward shopping malls and other semi-private spaces, according to architects and urban researchers in the city. Many also express concerns that the homogenisation and segregation of city life is breaking down social capital and contributing to political polarisation. “Creating these gated spaces concentrates people based on their different identities, which is dangerous,” says Batuman. “Even though public space is a space of clashes, it also creates room for negotiating our differences.”

Some designers and architects are trying to re-envision development in ways that bring people together rather than splitting them apart. While large tower blocks would likely create a streetscape of off-putting uniformity, devoting these towers’ ground floors to small, individually owned storefronts “could trigger street life, making it more pedestrian-friendly, more self-reliant, more lively,” says Selva Gürdoğan of the architectural practice Superpool, which now proposes these kinds of design elements to clients building towers in the city. The firm has also lobbied for large developments – such as a 120,000sqm housing project designed with fellow architecture practice BIG in Umraniye district – to be set amidst shared public space rather than walling it off in the centre of a group of blocks.

A project sharing some of these ideals, albeit on a small scale, is taking shape 200km east of Istanbul, in the town of Düzce, where a group of residents who lost their homes in a devastating 1999 earthquake fought for 20 years to win the right to control the rebuilding process themselves. Their unique participatory design approach showed strong public demand for shared spaces, gardening plots, a community kitchen and marketplace, as well as courtyard access to the homes. “This community has become an inspiration for urban movements in Istanbul struggling against regeneration projects,” says Adanalı, who is also a voluntary member of the Düzce Hope Studio which is working with residents to build the homes. “It shows that another kind of design process is possible.” The architects of Herkes İçin Mimarlık (“Architecture for All”) are taking a similar tack, again often outside of Istanbul. As rural areas of Turkey empty out due to migration to urban centres, school buildings in small towns are often abandoned. Members of Herkes İçin Mimarlık talk to these communities about their needs before then holding collaborative workshops to design new uses for these spaces, carrying out renovations using local labour and local construction styles and materials.

Replicating this kind of creative, bottom-up approach in Istanbul won’t be easy: overlapping administrations, unwieldy bureaucracies, the city’s sheer size and poor opportunities for public input add to the power of politics and high finance in thwarting challenges to the status quo. Sprawling more than 100km from one end to another and covering a total land area of 5,300sqkm, Istanbul’s municipal footprint is one of the largest in the world. Many of its 39 districts could be cities in themselves, with populations of 300,000 to 500,000 each. Development plans are not well-integrated and a tangled web of authorities – at the district, municipal and national level – has the power to weigh in on city projects, particularly if they affect main road arteries, coastlines, public squares, historic districts or larger parks. Avenues for public input are limited and hard to access, meaning that city residents – and even design professionals – are frequently blindsided whenever development plans are announced for their neighbourhoods. “Design is just thought of as part of the paperwork, something needed to get permission to build, but not as part of the end product,” says Kanıpak. “The big projects often come out so differently from renderings that people don’t even ask to see these plans anymore.”

Investment in Istanbul is skewed towards large-scale projects that create revenue, prestige and political clout for government officials, according to Kanıpak and other architects. “The focus is on visible accomplishments rather than maintenance of urban infrastructure,” he says, citing the millions of dollars spent to plant and replant short-lived flowers around the city, while existing green spaces are left to fall into disrepair, sidewalks crumble and pedestrians are forced to dart across busy intersections because there are no traffic lights. When urban amenities are maintained, it is often done in a way that benefits capital interests rather than citizens, Kanıpak adds. “The renovation of public spaces is a continuous process because there is no proper design process,” he says. “You see that in Taksim and on İstiklal, where they rebuild endlessly because decisions are left to contractors, who choose the cheapest materials so that they can benefit by resurfacing these areas every five to ten years.”

While systemic obstacles are large, architects like Şanal, Gürdoğan, Kozar, Bayrak and others say making a better city also involves challenging the ideas held by members of the public and the design profession itself about the meaning and use of public space, as well as their own roles, rights and responsibilities in shaping it. In doing so, they hope to find ways to escape some of the seemingly intractable clashes relating to Istanbul’s present and future. Şanal believes there are valuable lessons to be learned from a clear-eyed look at Istanbul’s Ottoman past, which is usually either romanticised or vilified. She points to the külliye system, a self-supporting complex around Ottoman mosques that often included kitchens, schools, lodging, baths, fountains, market areas and landscaped courtyards – all for public use. “Because they included commercial spaces, they had an income base to maintain their quality of public services,” Şanal says. “They helped construct civic life because people were going there for leisure, for spiritual reasons and to meet practical needs.”

People who criticise the Bomontiada development as a quasi-public space don’t understand the way it is trying to adapt a version of the külliye model for a modern context, says Şanal, who designed the complex’s shared areas and sits on its creative board. With the Babylon nightclub and some large restaurants providing financial stability, the complex can allocate room for micro-businesses, a multidisciplinary art space, and free public events with the aim of becoming a platform for a creative design economy that spreads beyond Bomontiada’s walls and into the surrounding neighbourhood. “We have to change people’s perceptions of what high-quality public space is, and move away from naive models based on experiences people have had in Western Europe without understanding what tax base or other revenue source pays for that,” Şanal says. She cautions, however, that the blending of commercial interests and public space ought to incorporate small businesses – who “have an interest in the streets staying alive” – rather than current privatisation models in Turkey that generally give free reign to a single developer.

Part of the reason any commercial infringement on public space in Istanbul often draws vehement opposition is because it is generally not well regulated. “There’s a habit here that if you take an inch, you take a mile,” says Şanal. This applies atnearly every scale: large developers exceed the limits of their building permits, while small businesses tend to spread their tables and sales displays out over the city’s narrow sidewalks. Pedestrians must navigate a growing maze of illegally parked cars, café tables, vending racks and street trees in the middle of narrow sidewalks and uneven, poorly maintained surfaces, while most drivers still treat zebra crossings as meaningless decorations rather than infrastructure.

“Public space in Istanbul lies in the hands of invisible actors,” says Gürdoğan, who also co-directs the think tank Studio-X Istanbul. “And when we talk about public space, our articulation of the problem is also very vague. If we can articulate our needs better, and get more into the practice of negotiating together, perhaps we can reach a consensus.” To this end, Studio-X and ŞanalArc have developed a crowdsourced set of Imaginable Guidelines, a deck of cards for participatory planning. The aim of the initiative is to give community groups, civil-society organisations, municipal planners, private-sector representatives and other potential stakeholders – whose relationships in Istanbul are frequently combative at best – a shared language for discussing issues such as traffic calming, interstitial spaces and spatial variety. “We want to create a context for public input and constructive debate of values, to get people to rethink the experiences they have in public spaces and become more comfortable with new models,” says Şanal. Similarly, the Participatory Design Research initiative (which is known by its Turkish acronym TAK) works in two Istanbul districts in partnership with local municipalities to involve citizens in areas of urban design, for example through workshops where they engage residents in mapping neighbourhoods, identifying things such as the routes they take to work and where they like to relax, with an eye towards guiding future planning decisions.

Such models are far from the norm. “Architects, planners, engineers and other professions that produce spaces are as top-down as government bureaucracies; they’re not willing to give up their privileges and share their practices,” says Adanalı, who teaches participatory design at Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany, a subject he says has yet to make it to Turkish architecture curriculums. “From what we see, municipalities generally do want to satisfy people’s needs, but those needs are left unarticulated, whereas money and investment are always articulate, which puts citizens at a disadvantage,” adds Gürdoğan. “Instead, we approach the city with too many frustrations and sentimentalities.”

Efforts such as Imaginable Guidelines may mitigate this by creating ways to look at Istanbul as it is in reality, rather than through nostalgia- or ideology-tinged lenses. The city is no longer just its historic urban core, but also a far-flung network of new developments where urban communities, cohesiveness and liveability need to be fostered in different ways. The slowing economic boom and migration of capital out of older central areas like Beyoğlu may meanwhile provide opportunities for people, businesses and subcultures who were priced out of the neighbourhood to return. “We have to change the way we look at the city, especially as planners,” says Kozar. “We have to walk out of our offices and into the streets where the city is made.”