Istanbul played host to the 22nd UIA Congress from July 3 to 7. (UIA stands for Union Internationale des Architectes, a NGO that represents architects throughout the world through national architectural associations ) Under the title 'Cities: Grand Bazaar of Architectures', pluralism was highlighted as an indispensable condition of the new century. Many would agree that there's no better city in which to reflect on such a theme than the Turkish metropolis with its long history as a place where different cultures come together. It also boasts a famous, vast and colourful marketplace teeming with persistent and sometimes obtrusive vendors.
Yes it was 'grand', as the chairman of the Turkish Chamber of Architects boasted during the closing session. Besides numerous lectures, workshops and discussions, several idea competitions and no less than 160 exhibitions took place both within the 'congress valley' and around the city. The organisers proudly welcomed over 10,000 participants, a third of whom were Turkish.
The magnitude of the event in Turkey itself was celebrated with unprecedented media coverage. Three different TV stations broadcast the proceedings live. While on one channel you could listen to Charles Correa talking about his recent work, you could zap to another channel and hear a debate between Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, Zaha Hadid and Peter Eisenman. One of the biggest-selling newspapers published a special edition every day featuring the full programme, interviews and discussions about architecture.
And yes, it was definitely a 'bazaar', a marketplace devoted to architecture. Anybody and anything related in any way to architecture was there. A commercial architecture fair was held right beside a session that featured highly theoretical papers presented by academics. Over fifty halls and rooms were used for keynote speeches, debates, and other gatherings. In attendance of course were the world famous architects along with the 'star aura' that follows them everywhere. 'Please do not flash lights at Charles Correa!' 'We kindly ask you not to request an autograph from Tadao Ando!' The latter was the UIA Gold Medal winner for 2005. Meanwhile, an exciting competition between Durban and Tokyo was staged to decide which city would host the 24th UIA Congress in 2011. The 23rd event will take place in Turin in 2008.
Then there was a whole range of exhibitions, both indoors and outdoors. You could jump from a show of architecturally expressive black-and-white paintings about 'The Spirit of Balkan Capitals' to a presentation on environmental pollution in Denizli called 'Beware! Your Environment is Threatened'; or from a display of the results of the competition 'Design for a European Embassy' to a project by a Finnish Senegalese NGO called 'Jigeen yi Mbooloo - Women Together'. Though sometimes unexpected or difficult to understand, the exhibitions definitely contributed to the architectural variety of the marketplace. Examples of other events in this souk were workshops on children and architecture, and an exercise that involved colouring in an A3-size view of Istanbul with 'Marshall' wall paints. The event was intended as a way of engaging the people of Istanbul in the congress.
Even the illegal street vendors, strategically located across from the main congress venue with the latest architecture and guidebooks on their stalls, could be counted as an unplanned yet natural part of the whole happening.
The 'Grand Bazaar of Architectures' no doubt came about thanks to the eager organisers. After the Eurovision Song Contest and the Champions League Final, Istanbul again showed it can handle a major event. To see so many different architectural goods - material and immaterial - from all corners of the world right next to one another was amazing. Furthermore, thanks to the media, architecture was brought into the living rooms of ordinary people. Turkey welcomed architecture for four days and celebrated it to the full in Istanbul.
But really, what was it all about? Usually in a bazaar you not only hear the cries of the vendors, but you can also bargain and discuss whether to buy or not. Maybe this is what was lacking at the huge virtual architecture market. What will remain once the crowd has departed? Will the voices of the vendors really make a meaningful contribution to the profession or outside world, or will these cries end up as an incomprehensible jumble?
In the end, almost out of the blue, The Istanbul Declaration was presented. This document in nice big words focuses on global and local politics and their effects on cities and architecture. Referring to the reason the UIA was founded - in 1948 in Laussanne - the Istanbul congress called for an end to the current war that is demolishing cities in Mesopotamia (read Iraq). Moreover, the gathered architects pleaded for a production economy that prevents poverty, and a consumption economy that doesn't destroy our lives and environments. 'We need peace, and an architectural and environmental discourse that can enhance cultural identities and societies. This is the only way to re-unify architecture and cities.' Sure, that sounds very relevant, although it's true for all times and places. But it also sounds like the result of a completely different happening - definitely not the Grand Bazaar of Architectures that I experienced.