Istanbul is, indeed, the place for identifying with the beauties and stupidities of different worlds simultaneously. A timeless cliché, but true: Istanbul is a cradle of dualities. Here, not only East and West but also informal and formal, tolerance and clash, centre and side-line, nature and culture blend effortlessly.

Informal and Formal

The rural exodus into the rapidly industrialising post-war Istanbul is the main dynamics shaping the city today. This uncontrollable influx has raised the city’s population from 4 to 14 million in the last 25 years. This meant that inhabitants of Istanbul, poor and rich, had to compose their own city. And gecekondu is the key word the visitor needs to know; it means ‘landed by night’. Settlements built by night are the reality behind many of Istanbul’s neighbourhoods, even in today’s affluent legal areas. The city authorities have tried prohibition, rehabilitation and legalisation processes, and developers have transformed settlements into dense city fabric with multi-storey apartment buildings in districts of the city that are open-to-speculation.

Worth a visit is the cosy green oasis of Karanfilkoy (Carnation Village), a magically preserved gecekondu settlement next to the financial district of Levent. Or a day trip to Gulensu, an informal hilly neighbourhood with great views of Princess Islands in the Asian periphery of Istanbul. With its scenic terraces and earthquake-proof soil, this settlement is feeling gentrification pressures initiated by local government. In 2004, the politically active community halted the ‘urban transformation’ plans of the municipality with over 7000 petitions. With the help of volunteer academics and students they even started imagining the future of their neighbourhood. As you the stroll along steeply inclined streets, you may bump into Riza, one of the neighbourhood activists, who will explain how urban agriculture can become the future of his urban village.

The city’s planning may have been disorganised and complex in the past, but planning processes are now starting to shape Istanbul. Current plans include large-scale infrastructure projects such as Marmaray, a third bridge over Bosporus, grand renewal schemes for the former industrial boroughs of Kartal by Zaha Hadid and Kucukcekmece by Ken Yeang. The best physical representation of this ongoing process today is the office of IMP, Istanbul Metropolitan Planning, in Beyoglu. The workplace is one large underground space filled with planners and designers who are working non-stop with AutoCad on the future of Istanbul. Take the trouble to find the place, which evokes office scenes from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

4 Istiklal avenue
5 protestation Saturday Mothers

Tolerance and Clash

Planning is not the only field experiencing extremes. Istanbul lets you taste radical opposites in the political, religious and economic realms. The city boasts the largest Jewish community – they were either expelled from 15th century Spain or fled from right-wing regimes in the 1930s –  in an Islamic country. Kuzguncuk, Fener, Balat, Ulus and Galata are the most well konwn neighborhoods. These districts are easy to visit and are just a 10-minute-walk form the unavoidable Istiklal Avenue. Istiklal is Istanbul’s 24/7 throbbing heart for young and old, rich and poor, foreign and local, tourist and immigrant, educated elite and unemployed peasant. After these examples of tolerance, it’s difficult to avoid the painful reality of conflict represented by the square of resistance located right on Istiklal. This square in front of Galatasaray College was home to Saturday mothers who demonstrated against the state to find family members who have disappeared in the country’s political conflicts.

The growing number of gated communities reflects Istanbul’s economic discrepancies. Kemer County, Optimum or Bahcesehir are good destinations if you fancy exploring Istanbul’s nouveau riche. The last of these is an interesting case when considered in its larger context. The underlying process is simple. An expensive and exclusive neighbourhood first emerges, followed by a second and third wave of urban development. The second brings in middle- and higher-middle income groups in communal-looking housing blocks that we see in Esenkent. The third wave involves highly marginalized informal and illegal districts like Altinsehir. What Bahcesehir and Esenkent have in common, apart from the motorway infrastructure connecting them to downtown, are abundant shopping malls, bodyguards and the cleaning ladies from Altinsehir.

6 shoppingmall Meydab, a design by FOA
7 Kanyon in Buyukdere
8 Dubai-towers
9 design biennial on the historic floating Galata bridge

Centre and Sideline

The rarely discussed but rapid urbanisation is bringing Istanbul to the attention of investors from the Gulf Region, Western Europe and America. After a century of relative stagnation and patiently waiting beside the prosperous West and the ‘axis of evil’, Istanbul is about to take off. In its ‘Emerging Markets 2008 report’, PricewaterhouseCoopers refers to the city as the India of Europe. Figures from Mercer research place it in the top 20 most expensive cities in the world. For evidence of this trend check out the Meydan shopping mall in Umraniye by FOA or the Kanyon on Buyukdere by Jerde and Tabanlioglu.

A tour through the districts of Cihangir, Galata, Asmalımescit and Haliç will give you a good idea where foreign investment ends up in Istanbul. To complete your gentrification tour, stop off on French street (Algeria Street before 2004) to sip a French coffee with cognac. And next time you visit Istanbul maybe you can watch Dubai Towers rising, a 500-million-dollar investment by Sama Dubai currently waiting for approval from the city.

Nature and Culture

Despite all the chaos of unstoppable migration, global investment and complicated politics, the beauty of Istanbul is still visible. This may sound emotional, but there’s an objective explanation. First of all, the topography. Istanbul is built on a three-dimensional landscape of small and sometimes steep hills. Besides providing amazing vistas at unexpected places, that also influences the general architecture of the city. Stairs and rooftops occur as inherent urban elements in true Istanbul style, i.e. improvised, maintained and repaired by the citizens themselves. For an ultimate experience, check out Leb-i Derya on Kumbaraci Yokusu (inclination), a rooftop café open until you decide to leave the place. And secondly, water definitely is a strong factor in opening up this dense and sometimes tiresomely vibrant city. And yes, there are more than enough ways of interacting with the Bosporus – a walk through the old docks, a teahouse in Besiktas, a terrace in Ortakoy under the bridge, a boat on Bosporus (miraculously, the city’s only well-organised public transport system), a fish restaurant on Galata bridge, a design biennial on the historic floating Galata bridge, or the beaches of the Princess islands for a quick escape from the traffic and the crowds…

And last but not least, don’t miss reading about Istanbul before arriving. After all, this is a city more about stories than appearances:

‘What I feel now is the opposite of what I felt as a child and a young man: for me the centre of the world is Istanbul. This is not just because I have lived there all my life, but because, for the last 33 years, I have been narrating its streets, its bridges, its people, its dogs, its houses, its mosques, its fountains, its strange heroes, its shops, its famous characters, its dark spots, its days and its nights, making them part of me, embracing them all. A point arrived when this world I had made with my own hands, this world that existed only in my head, was more real to me than the city in which I actually lived. That was when all these people and streets, objects and buildings would seem to begin to talk amongst themselves, and begin to interact in ways I had not anticipated, as if they lived not just in my imagination or my books, but for themselves. This world that I had created like a man digging a well with a needle would then seem truer than all else.’ (Orhan Pamuk)