Istanbul’s construction frenzy: not everyone’s cup of çay

Istanbul’s construction frenzy: not everyone’s cup of çay
Istanbul's famous architecture is coming under sustained pressure by an unprecedented construction boom in recent years.
By Carmen Valache in Istanbul February 3, 2016

“‘Life can’t be all that bad’, I’d think from time to time. Whatever happens, I can always take a long walk along the Bosphorus,” Nobel-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk famously wrote in his memoir “Istanbul: Memories and the City”. Nowadays, millions have come to echo his feelings about the continent-bridging metropolis: the 14mn inhabitants, 50mn transit passengers a year and 12mn visitors a year, to be exact.

For the latter, Istanbul likely conjures up memories of old Byzantine architecture, Ottoman-era grandeur, of lively shopping districts, sunlit ferry rides on the Bosphorus Strait to feed the seagulls, of colourful spice markets, charismatic restaurateurs and hoteliers, haggling over prices in larger-than-life bazaars, sumptuous Turkish baths, friendly stray cats and dogs, delicious and seemingly omnipresent food and tea – and of the relentless, around-the-clock traffic. Tourists, adventurers and investors, from Germany to Russia and Saudi Arabia to Malaysia, have fallen head over heels for the former Ottoman capital, turning it into the fifth most visited city in the world in 2015, one spot above New York City.

But far away from its touristy quarters, the city’s residents are dealing with a markedly different reality: the unprecedented construction boom in recent years has been a source of discontent that reached its nadir in 2013 during the worst protests in the country’s recent history.

“Foreigners might not understand why Turks would protest because of a park,” Nisan, a 30-something architect, explains to bne IntelliNews, referring to the Gezi Park protests in 2013 that began over government plans to replace the park with a shopping mall. “But we were frustrated at how quickly our parks were disappearing, replaced by malls, skyscrapers, and roads. There are such few green spaces left in the city... People think of our ruling party as a religiously conservative party, but they do not realize that the neoliberal component in its ideology is as strong as the religious one, and this can be seen in the type of construction projects that are commissioned nowadays.”

The type of construction projects to which Nisan is referring are high-rise office buildings, shopping malls and, for residential purposes, gated communities comprised of four building units and a park in the middle. “The main rationale for this type of developments is to attract capital and to support economic growth. The quality of [residential] projects tends to be low; developers build unimaginative and repetitive constructions fast, sell them as quickly as possible, make a profit, and move on,” she complains. “Besides, such developments are not limited to Istanbul, you see them all over the country, in the largest cities and towns – Izmir, Bursa, Ankara, Gaziantep, Antalya, Adana. The same repetitive construction projects that are homogenising urban areas, overriding their different historical and cultural heritage.”

Nisan’s complaints are echoed elsewhere, and reflect the tensions and conflicting interests at play in the former capital’s urban development.

On the one hand, the city council is struggling to provide a decent quality of life for its fast-growing population. Aside from the absence of early planning, a high propensity for earthquakes, the city’s numerous hills and the lucrative but disruptive Bosphorus that effectively cuts the city in two, make the job of urban planners all the more difficult.

Building a subway system in Istanbul was quite a feat, while the two existing bridges over the Bosphorus are jammed with traffic seven days a week, sometimes even 24 hours a day (yes, there is traffic at 3:00am). Because the European side of Istanbul is home to the business district and has prohibitively high real estate prices, most residents choose to purchase homes on the Anatolian side and to commute daily. At peak times, the daily commute across the Bosphorus can last two hours. Things are so bad that the satnav company TomTom ranks Istanbul as the worst out of 146 global cities for congestion. Marmaray, an underwater rail connection launched in 2013, alleviated commuters’ plight ever so slightly, as did a notoriously crowded Metrobus system.

But Istanbul is not only overseen by the city council, for the central government has the upper hand on important projects in the city. That is because Europe’s most populous city accounts for an astounding 22.5% of the Turkish economy, or $180bn in 2014. Economic policies are devised with Istanbul in mind – tourism development would be impossible without it, as would retail growth, capital markets, logistics and many other sectors. To (non-beach) tourists, Istanbul is Turkey. To business travellers, Istanbul is pretty much Turkey. And to real estate investors, traders, manufacturers, industrialists and developers looking to make quick profit, Istanbul is Turkey.

A native of Istanbul himself, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his administration are behind a $100bn investment drive in construction projects in Istanbul, which include, but are not limited to: the world’s largest airport that will be able to host 150mn passengers a year upon completion, a third bridge over the Bosphorus, shopping malls, luxury hotels, entertainment venues, party islands, highways, motorways, causeways, a monorail system, an undersea highway, and hundreds of mosques.

“The Turkish government makes the ultimate decision about city planning, especially when it comes to projects like the new airport and bridge,” Gregers Thomsen, co-founder of architecture firm Superpool, explains. “There is a master plan for the city, but the design is rough, at a scale of 1:50,000, and it has been amended several times. So the plan might designate certain districts as touristy or business areas, but it allows for a great deal of freedom on a finer level. That is perhaps why the city appears to be haphazardly put together.”

Observers contend that the central government has influenced Istanbul’s development in more ways than one. In addition to deciding on large-scale projects, the government used policies such as zoning regulations to forcibly remove the predominantly Kurdish, Romani and immigrant residents of Tarlabasi neighbourhood in the historical Beyoglu district in order to give the neighbourhood an architectural (and demographic) makeover. The manner in which the evictions took place was questionable, Thomsen opines, but the move was necessary, for prior to its gentrification Tarlabasi had been a rundown neighbourhood right in the heart of the city.

Istanbul’s medley of old and new is part of its charm, but also adds to the challenge of designing liveable spaces. The narrow, winding and steep roads in some of its most popular districts like Beyoglu, Kadikoy and Sisli lend themselves to pedestrian and traffic jams, and to an invasion of cars onto the limited pedestrian space. Despite being so crowded, Turks covet these prime locations; those who are lucky enough to inherit properties there hold on to them, and those who can afford to buy, jump at the opportunity. 

“Turkey has a weak retirement pension scheme, so Turks see real estate as an investment opportunity that can provide a livelihood into old age,” Thomsen says.

Meanwhile, gated communities are the solution for those who want a quiet respite from the metropolis. “I cannot blame people for wanting to live in a place with green areas, and where their children can play outside safely,” he contends. “Besides, owning a home in such a place is part of the Turkish urban middle-class dream, and goes hand in hand with owning a car.”

Supercool future

Yet the downhearted architect Nisan concedes that there are some rays of hope for Istanbul’s architectural panorama, such as the quality of recent architecture graduates and their appetite for experimentation.

Founded by a Danish-Turkish duo, the architecture firm Superpool is a good example of the kind of architects that Nisan might have in mind. “When we came to Istanbul in 2006, I was new to the city and my Turkish partner had been away from it for seven years, so we naively tried to discover it,” Thomsen reminisces.

They started by building a map of Istanbul’s dolmus minibus transport system, which was an accomplishment in the pre-Google Map era, not least because of the high level of informality in the dolmus system. According to Thomsen, “the dolmus works very well, but has a significant social component to it. In order to find out how to get from point A to point B, you simply ask a driver and he will give you directions about which route to take. The system works well for Turks. If you don’t speak the language, it’s completely opaque.” 

Nowadays, Superpool has an impressive portfolio of projects that include co-designing the 2014 Istanbul Design Biennale; multi-functional urban laboratories like Studio X that foster research and experimentation with urban spaces; maps for cycling routes in Istanbul; renovation of residential areas in Beyoglu; and numerous architecture exhibitions. “As an office, we stay away from projects that are solely for-profit, because it is hard to do anything interesting by taking on such projects,” Thomsen explains.

Superpool’s experimentation with urban spaces is not everybody’s cup of tea at the moment, but Thomsen claims that their niche market is large enough for them to make ends meet. “We have a small team of ten people, and the turnover is enough to keep the firm running,” he says. Superpool lives off of innovation even when innovation prevents it from winning projects.

Take for instance their design for a high school in the upscale Sisli district, which was made to seamlessly integrate the building with its hilly surroundings using terraces. The alternative would have been to level off the hill and build on top of it, but Superpool works with geography, not against it. “We did not win the tender, but we received an honourable mention from the jury, who told us that they knew that this was the future, but that they were not there yet. And to us, this makes all the difference. We are not so concerned with the number of square metres we build, as we are with designing something meaningful,” Thomsen explains, surmising that “we are not there yet” perhaps means that [the jury] did not have the courage to use such designs yet.

At the moment, Superpool’s largest project is not in Instanbul, but in the Anatolian municipality of Aksaray, and consists of an underground car park that doubles as a city park on the surface. “It is an interesting project for us because it also serves the public. It will take ages to build, but we are optimistic about the result. We may want to explore other parts of the country in the future...There is so much pressure in Istanbul, so many conflicting interests for every square metre, that it is hard for a niche firm like ours to compete here,” Thomsen concludes.