Speaking at a press conference at the inauguration of the Istanbul Design Biennial, the chairman of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV), Bülent Eczacıbaşı, presciently noted that in a country like Turkey, the need for good design is hugely important. “We need cities that are better designed,” he said. Between October and December last year, the city held the first-ever Istanbul Design Biennial. One of the central exhibits of the event, entitled “Musibet” (meaning “disaster” or “calamity” in Turkish), aptly explored the rapid and often problematic growth of Istanbul through thirty-two individual projects.
As curator Emre Arolat noted, “Things are changing very fast and at this speed it’s not possible to manage change well. This exhibition is not putting a solution on the table but it is asking lots of questions that are not being asked.” He added that “people are really excited about the transformation. We don’t have any economic crisis; construction is the main thing in the economy at the moment.”
Turkey is seeing unprecedented growth—in 2011, the economy grew by 8.5%—and the impact has been felt most strongly in Istanbul. In a bid to attract more investment and keep the economic engine of the country running, the government has given the green light to a mind-boggling number of infrastructure projects: the Marmaray rail tunnel running under the Bosphorous will connect the Asian and European parts of the city, a third bridge is being planned further up the river, and a third airport on the Black Sea coast will be the largest airport in the world. All these projects will cause terrible harm to Istanbul’s little remaining forested land.
Gentrification—or kentsel dönüşüm (urban renewal), as it is termed—is high on the agenda. Historic neighborhoods that sit on prime land have become targets of a gentrification process. This includes neighborhoods like Sulukule, which had for centuries been home to the Roma community, and Tarlabaşı, which is just off Taksim Square and houses a motley assortment of ethnicities, nationalities and economic backgrounds. This has led to residents being forcibly evicted and sent to soulless housing blocks far in the outskirts of the city developed by the country’s housing development authority (TOKI), away from means of livelihood and development. Last year, the government passed a disaster law that will identify high-risk areas in this earthquake-prone city. Residents will be given sixty days’ notice to vacate their premises. Even if individual apartments have strong foundations, they will be demolished in a bid to regenerate the entire neighborhood. Occasionally, Prime Minister Erdoğan remembers his promise to dig a canal akin to a ‘second Bosporus’ and add two new cities to the existing Istanbul, and declares that he will one day execute his vision.
When I first moved to Istanbul, I felt that the city was changing every day before my eyes. I often thought about what these changes meant for the city’s residents, especially when they often involved large-scale disruption and relocation. When a city is being remodeled as quickly as Istanbul, how does it affect the connections that its inhabitants have with the city?
While the trajectory of the city seems astonishing, the growth of Istanbul is not a new story. Although rejected as the capital by the republic upon its formation in 1923 in favor of Ankara, Istanbul started gaining ascendency again in the 1950s and 1960s. The introduction of democratic politics and Turkey’s membership of NATO in the 1950s opened the floodgates of the country to large amounts of Marshall Plan funds that led to a rapid urbanization of society. Industrialization in agriculture led to large immigration of peasants to the cities, Istanbul first among them, in search of new livelihoods. The newly built infrastructure only helped this mass rural-to-urban migration and contributed to Istanbul’s growth. Rural migrants arriving in the city exploited legal loopholes to build shanty houses—gecekondu in Turkish, literally meaning “a place that has been built overnight.” In a way, the process of people moving to Istanbul and the construction and expansion of the city has never stopped; it has simply acquired another dimension.
As the city has become a magnet for wealthy Turks and foreign investors, a top-down approach, rather than an organic one, has come to dictate who lives where and how. Ask a resident of Istanbul where they come from, and chances are they will name a particular neighborhood of the city. The residents of the city often form a more intimate bond with their immediate neighborhood, or their mahalle, than the city at large. It is unsurprising that entire neighborhoods of Istanbul are often largely made up of migrants from a particular village or town in Anatolia, and it is through that neighborhood that they interact with the city. This dynamic is now changing.
At the Istanbul Design Biennial, one of the most poignant exhibits was a video that showed a man with a wheelbarrow going through a demolition site and collecting memories—photographs, teddy bears, hair pins, clothes, furniture—that were left behind in the hurry to vacate. With these, he recreates a house that gives us a glimpse of the lives that were being lived here. In the exhibition hall hung bags of debris and concrete, each with a photograph attached to it, reminding us that each scrap of the city has some connection to the lives of its inhabitants. In turn, these scraps give the city its character, its life. The changes that Istanbul is witnessing also mean a large-scale destruction of the city’s memories. To an extent, the changes also mean that its residents have to reestablish their ties with the city and with its new neighborhoods in a manner that changes and challenges their conception of the city. Istanbul is no stranger to destruction. Its location near the North Anatolian Fault has made the city witness to hundreds of earthquakes, some brutal. Yet, I often wonder if what Istanbul’s urban environment is witnessing today might not be more harmful than an earthquake in the effects on its fabric.