Istanbul rising

Istanbul is enjoying a new kind of growing interest which is coming not only from conventional mass tourism channels but from many different directions in many scales. Cruise ships bringing European and American tourists, had increased both by number and in size. Besides you can see many tourists coming from Middle Eastern countries as well while strolling on the streets and shopping malls. However, increasing foreign visitors for touristic purposes is not the only explanation for this interest on Istanbul. More and more academic circles are discussing the Istanbul especially in urban discourses. Moreover, Turkey is gaining more attention in the economic global turmoil which surprisingly managed to keep itself isolated from this crisis.

However I would like to discuss “the rising Istanbul” not from a metaphorical point of view but rather with a more literal sense. When I say Istanbul is rising, I really mean the increasing heights of the new buildings and the ones which will be built afterward.

The shape of the built environment in Turkey has a very direct humane motivation behind: the lack of trust between people or between individuals and institutions. Certainly this argument needs more space to be explained in detail but a short look at how the urban land is fragmented to be used as a property, the current mechanism of land development, short-term profit based building productions, the greed of land owners to gain more building permits and in most cases violating the laws to build more square meters… they all show the corrupted panorama of a country which relies its economy on a single industry: the land development and construction. It is corrupted because none of the individuals involved in this panorama – practically every citizen- trust the government, the municipality, their sub divisions or any other institution which regulate the life. This mistrust is further scattered down to the relations between small units of the society in every scale and in every sense of the daily life which creates a chaotic living condition. Tourists coming from European countries with strictly regulated life standards enjoy the physical appearance of this chaotic situation in Turkish cities but only for a short period. Living in an environment where trust is lacking severely damages the individuals and eventually the society.

In recent weeks Van, a city on the eastern of Turkey, experienced a major earthquake which destroyed several buildings and left more than 600 people dead. It is one of the biggest earthquakes Turkey experienced after the devastating 1999 Izmit earthquake which killed more than 20.000 people. Passing years between these two natural disasters showed clearly that Turkey is not capable of taking necessary precautions for possible cases and develop a working mechanism for creating sustainable and healthy urban conditions. This case also increased the level of mistrust of people to the government and municipalities.

This mistrust embedded in the genes of the society resulted the fragmentation of the urban land into its most tiniest piece for years. The lacking of private housing corporations in Turkey may be explained by the lack of trust. Even the housing department of the government do not keep the flats they produce and form their working system on selling the units. Today this fragmentation had reached to its limits which new buildings can be built upon them. Thus cites in Turkey, especially Istanbul is lacking large lots on which new housing projects can be built against the approaching earthquake threat. Many new housing projects -by the way all of them are gated communities- had to be built on the perimeters of the Istanbul which created accessibility, environment and other problems. The increasing demand for the lots inside the city skyrocketed the land prices but municipalities ignored the developing situation for years and new building regulations couldn’t be developed. The pressure to renew old building stock with the existing building permits create a new situation nowadays. Fragmented lots unite to create larger lots or old industrial areas are handed over to the property developers to build either shopping malls or residential towers. If the current building regulations do not change in the short term period this tendency will create higher buildings in larger plots in an increasing number. The result will be more highrise buildings with wider gaps in between. This may seem to be a more favorable environment compared today’s congested urban pattern of Istanbul. However, since this is not a regulated, foreseeable and managed process by the government or municipality its effects will also be chaotic. The large gaps between the buildings will be non-places surrounded by walls and fences guarded by private guards. The daily urban life will be stuck between these walls on the old street network which is not integrated into this process. Moreover the highrise blocks will create new adverse situations like disturbing the natural air ventilation over the city, blocking the sunlight on open spaces or creating intensified traffic knots on certain locations.

Turkey does not have a good reputation on creating new industrial actions which are sustainable. For many years the country boasted to be one of the seven countries in the world which is capable of feeding its citizens with only its own agricultural products. Today agriculture fields and forests are being opened for new property development initiatives. From 1980’s till the turn of the century textile industry prospered which created a new business class of its own. Nowadays we are seeing  many textile industrialist becoming property developers. Since 1970’s Turkey relied heavily on the construction industry which actually created many large scale contractors operating in surrounding countries. The scale and speed of construction in Turkish cities is unbelievable for many foreigners. Achievements of the contractors, material producers, designs of the architects are admired in many spheres. However, lacking organizational capabilities and trust based social codes, Turkey unfortunately couldn’t manage to create a working mechanism to regulate its leading industrial field for years and the result is chaotic, harsh urban environments that are fragile and lethal in natural disasters. So Istanbul is rising both metaphorically and literally but this may be the starting of a steep decline.

BIO | After taking his Master’s degree from MIT School of Architecture, History Theory and Criticism department, Ömer Kanıpak founded Arkitera Architecture Center in 2000. He held his position as the general director of the center until 2011. Currently he is a freelance architect working on various urban and architectural research projects. He is also a part-time design studio instructor in architectural schools of Bahcesehir and Yeniyuzyil Universities. He frequently writes on various national and international publications, and provides consultancy for related institutions and architectural offices.

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