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Your Right to the City at Santralistanbul

January 14, 2011

Sherri Cohen is a Fulbright English Teacher, Philadelphian, and all around awesome girl with great taste in music. Ms. Cohen clearly did not write this biography. She wrote this, and will hopefully be writing more here in the future.

Santralistanbul, arguably the freshest addition to Istanbul’s museum scene, debuted an ambitious and comprehensive look at the city last September with “Istanbul: 1910-2010: The City, Built Environment, and Architectural Culture Exhibition.”  The exhibit analyzes the effects of Turkey’s economic policies and increasing global presence on Istanbul’s built environment over the century.  With maps, video, and in-depth analytical text (in Turkish and English!) spread across three floors, “Istanbul: 1910-2010” was the intellectual equivalent of Ben & Jerry’s Vermonster: tempting, satisfying, but overwhelming.  By the time I reached 1950 (about 10 scoops in), I was suffering intense brain freeze.  So when I read that the 1950-2010 section’s run had been extended, I jumped at the chance for a closer look at the explosive growth of the city post-World War II.

The descriptions of “Istanbul: 1910-2010”, curated by various Bilgi University architecture and planning professors, as an image-based socio-spatial exploration of the chosen are spot-on.  The exhibit maintains an more-or-less even balance between text and graphics.  The models, charts, and maps help the visitor visualize the processes and progressions that shaped the sprawling city and sprawling time period, and they provide informative respites from the dense text.  At their best, the graphics illuminate the text; a comparison of industrial development divergence between Europe and Asia is accompanied by color-coded maps showing corresponding educational attainment levels and types of employment by neighborhood.  The interactive maps by the entrance are also helpful for specialized study (and really fun to play with).  But for every few accessible maps and data charts, there’s an equally obtuse statistical model that confuse the layman as well as the student.

The modern period is divided into two floors loosely based on Turkey’s two overarching economic policies: 1950-1983 analyzes the import-substitution period, whereas 1983-2010 recognizes Turkey’s emergence as a global city.  The exhibit does an excellent job of connecting how Turkey’s domestic industrialization policy led to factory and gecekondu sprawl on both shores of its main city, as well as how import substitution policies and rapid development of an industrial base shifted government funds away from housing and infrastructure programs.  Succinct recaps of ambitious master plans and public works projects (1963’s East Marmara Plan, 1971’s DAMOC Sewage Plan, for example) capture the ideas’ optimism and eventual collapse due to underfunding and economic and military crises.  But despite the seemingly perpetual fits and starts, the exhibit clearly maps a forward trajectory of city development, from the construction of 1.Levent to the gradual incorporation of gecekondu neighborhoods as formal entities (the gecekondu section is one of the most illuminating of the exhibit, providing clear definitions and outlining settlement and tenant/ownership divergence between Europe and Anatolia).  Although twenty years passed between the proposal and termination of the first Bosphorus bridge, ultimately it was built.  Things take time in Turkey, indeed.

Where 1950-1983 shines is in transportation, with the passage of Taksim from military barracks to public transport hub (captured in engrossing overhead depcitions), the development of intra- and inter-city bus lines, the triplefold (!) increase in dolmus trips.  Infrastructure-wise, city-supported projects constructed radial road networks to reduce traffic density, notably Barbaros Avenue and the E5.  Here is where the exhibit’s photographs and charts are better than words; it’s easy to note how road development follows, interrupts, and influences settlement patterns.

Overall, the feeling I experienced upon leaving the 1950-1983 floor was one of hope and excitement for a city on the brink of an explosion.  But the tone of the 1983-2010 floor took a turn for the dour postmodern through the lens of individual alienation, spatial polarization of economic classes, and environmental degradation in the emerging global city.  Here, the flow of information is divided into processes, actors, and sediments categories, lending the built environment an air of ‘nature gone wild’ and encouraging the visitor to connect current issues with their roots.  Rapid, poorly planned sprawl, much like an invasive species, alienates Istanbullus from their environment, ultimately handing control over to profit-minded developers and banks.

The shift from a domestic to an international economic focus in this period unraveled the pre-existing social norms and relationships.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in housing.  The exhibit notes that between 1950-1983, residential spatial divisions primarily existed between upper and lower classes; now, the upper and middle classes sequester themselves in sanitized, private gated communities while the lower classes attempt to make sense of integrated gecekondu neighborhoods and faceless apartment blocks.  Roadways previously hailed for better traffic flow now create semi-permanent barriers of segregation.  However, while the economic shift continues to affect social restructuring, Istanbul doesn’t quite approach the level of residential chaos and informality of, say, Rio de Janeiro.  And while the text stops short of outright predicting the construction of an Istanbul Alphaville in Tophane, it also doesn’t do much to dissuade the visitor’s imagination from heading in this dystopic direction.

The harshest criticism, though, is reserved for the city’s mayors, TOKI, and KIPTAS.  The text, which until the late 1980’s was relatively neutral, openly snarks on government agencies for short-sighted planning and lack of consultation with architects and planners, especially when it comes to controversial urban renewal projects.  If you concentrate hard enough, you can almost see the vein throbbing in the curators’ foreheads as internationally renowned architect Zaha Hadid’s plans to redevelop the abandoned industrial neighborhood at Kartal are once again stalled.  They also display a gem of a quote from Beyoglu mayor Ahmet Demircan in which he refers to Tarlabaşi as a diseased limb which needed to be amputated from his municipality.  But buried within walls of criticism of lie some praise, not surprisingly for Bilgi University’s Silahtaraga campus.  Bilgi is lauded for being among the few universities to not “turn its back on the poor neighborhoods behind them.”  Indeed, the campus and santralistanbul have received praise for their repurposing of the abandoned, historical power plant site.  But with prices at the on-campus branch of ottosantral café hitting more than 15 TL for an entrée, it’s difficult to imagine the area’s long-time residents popping in for lunch.  A more in-depth and nuanced exploration of urban redevelopment ‘successes’ would have been quite welcome; brief commentary piques curiosity but does little to inform.

Unlike the Ghost Buildings of Istanbul exhibit, “Istanbul 1910-2010” doesn’t invite you to imagine the city’s future beyond further spatial and economic polarization.  Recent news about Istanbul echoes the exhibit’s sentiments: while the city’s energy makes it an arts darling and propels it to the top of travel lists, cultural and economic gulfs erupt into verbal and physical confrontations around areas of gentrification.

But though ominous pronouncements about the city’s reaching its limits for population growth and development expansion dampen the visitor’s spirits, a parting “power to the people” quote from geographer David Harvey implores Istanbullus to take back the city, to make their voices heard in municipal governments (a sentiment echoed here recently by Hector Mendoza).  In an exhibit examining the built environment’s effects on its inhabitants, an affirmation of human power is reassuring.  After all, the driving force behind Istanbul’s explosive growth is people, whether recent arrivals from Anatolia, expats, or long-time city-dwellers.

Ultimately, “Istanbul 1910-2010” is an exhibit for educated, concerned city residents.  Its comprehensive scope includes problems beyond the interest of the casual tourist and the dense, academic text primarily discusses neighborhoods distant from the tourist-heavy historical center (santralistanbul itself is well off the beaten path).  In fact, the exhibit only really mentions the Sultanahmet district as an example of a Disney-fied tourist center created by an “historical heritage industry.”  Given the exhibit’s widespread media attention and extended run, it clearly made an impact on the greater museum scene and helped further discussions of a permanent city-centered museum.  And while the exhibit’s pronouncements of a dystopic, divided future may be tinged with melodrama, I can only hope Istanbullus heed the curators’ call to arms and demand their say in their city’s future (like, say, the Sulukule movement) .  Catch the last weekend of this exhibit while you can.; free shuttles from Taksim Square every half-hour

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