Modernity in Rapid Motion

Architect Cem Ilhan was the Berlage Institute’s ‘Istanbul agent’ for the recent Talking Cities lecture series. Ekim Tan, an Istanbul architect currently working at Delft University of Technology, attended Ilhan’s presentation and reflects upon a changing city.

The Berlage Institute describes this lecture series, which examines the effects of global forces and local realities on the contemporary city, as ‘part of crucial research’. In reality, however, every lecture turns out to be a surprise. One speaker talks about nothing but his own projects, the next is able to balance his practice and the local urban context, and the next gets lost trying to cover the entire history of the city. In discussing Istanbul, Ilhan did not explain his own works, but his overloaded lecture was not always focused on a defined theme.

This particular ‘talking city’ relinquished its 1600-year-old identity as a ‘global’ capital city during Roman, Byzantium, and Ottoman Empires when the Turkish Republic came into existence in the early 20th century. The new republic chose Ankara as its new capital, and a quieter period awaited Istanbul. It was only after World War II that the city’s ‘delayed industrialisation’ got underway. A period of immense growth followed. The population of a million reached 5 million by the 1980s and has since risen to 14 million. Today Istanbul looks like it’s ‘catching up’ with a world that’s spinning faster and faster.

Local and national realities, such as the large flow of immigrants from rural areas, have had irreversible effects on Istanbul. However, global forces seem to have become more influential over the last few decades. It’s easy to recall the old discussions prompted by western urbanisation, only now adapted to the Istanbul context along with all the ironic contrasts. And it’s all occurring at the same time in the same city.

Istanbul today

Once littered with 'gecekondu' (Turkish squatter) settlements , Istanbul is now covered with Corbusian-style modernist housing schemes that cater to the needs of middle and higher income groups.¹ But it’s pointless to look for any utopian 'Park City' ideals behind these schemes, most of which are produced by big private developers and bear hip, commercial names such as Mashattan or Olympiakent. Neighbouring these International Style modernist blocks are gated communities, some even designed by New Urbanists from the US (such as Bahcesehir), and magical urban design schemes polished with post-modern Ottoman residential architecture. And next to those you shouldn’t be surprised to come across a poor  'gecekondu' in the form of an endless Anatolian settlement.

Then again, especially with the rise in tourism over the last decade, the ‘new industry’ discussion is taking off. Istanbul is aiming for ambitious recreation projects. A Formula 1 complex, museums of modern art and galleries have all opened for business. While new investment is flowing into organised industrial zones, the transformation of old industrial harbours is also starting. For that, local municipalities are inviting star architects. The unavoidable Zaha Hadid, Massimiliano Fuksas, Kisho Kurokawa, MVRDV and others pop up with supermodern urban design schemes for Istanbul, leaving the city to discuss whether they can be built or are the right answers to right questions.

Ambitious large-scale business centres are also on the way. The latest hit is Dubai Towers, planned to become Europe’s tallest skyscrapers, in the middle of the CBD. A heated discussion has started about foreign investors, about the infrastructure inadequacy of the city, and even about architecture. Are these towers ‘architectural wonders’ or ‘kitsch monuments to bad manners’?

Intensive mall development is another hot topic. Both within the city core and elsewhere in the urban sprawl, new shopping malls are appearing almost every month. Last weekend, John Jerde opened a new theme development called Kanyon whose motto is a ‘city-within-a-city’. It’s a mixture of housing units, offices, shops, restaurants and entertainment facilities.

The picture of changing Istanbul can be completed by mentioning current ambitious infrastructure projects: a new third bridge across the Bosphorus on the northern side of Istanbul, an underwater rail connection called Marmaray on the southern edge of the city, and the completion of new metro lines and connecting together of existing metro and light rail lines.

Can Istanbul be planned?

Witnessing this dizzying pace of urbanisation makes one think that the issue is not whether or not Istanbul is a global city, but how Istanbul deals with those inevitable and fast changes generated by global forces. How can the city welcome globalisation by understanding and sustaining existing qualities? And, very curiously, where do planning, urban design, and architecture fit into this story? This was also one of the questions put forward by Ilhan.

If we look at the history of urbanisation in Istanbul, we can see that there has never been a master plan or strategic plan that has defined a clear vision for the city. (Except for the ‘Henry Prost’ plan from 1939, yet this became irrelevant because of Istanbul’s population rise within one decade.) Today, unprecedented for the city’s history, an independent organisation called the Istanbul Metropolitan Planning and Urban Design Centre (IMP) which employs 600 professionals from different universities has been established by the ‘architect’ Mayor of Metropolitan Istanbul. In the Mayor’s words, this centre is the project he wants to be remembered for later. Criticised by many as a top-down institution, the centre is currently busy drawing up a master plan for the city. However, before the plan is released, large-scale projects such as ‘Dubai Towers’ and international competitions have already been organised and decisions taken.

All in all, Istanbul today is a city where the planning and design disciplines seem to be more visible than ever before, but the free market is still so fast and powerful that it’s almost impossible to control development. And there is a mentality of so-called ‘eastern fatalism’, which has expressed itself in years of non-planning and letting things simply run their own course.

How shall we read Istanbul? As a place where optimistic, modernist infrastructure projects and large-scale modernist housing schemes have been realised, just as they were in post-war Europe. Or as a booming city subjected to market forces with numerous uncontrolled satellite towns and malls, like in LA. Or as a city with an Eastern mindset and never-ending squatter neighbourhoods. To me, Istanbul is none of them, and Istanbul is all of them.