Istanbul :: cultural heritage in a changing city
by Linda Carroli
Arts Hub, March 2011
Graffiti in Beyoğlu, Istanbul
During the opening remarks of the Sea of Marble Symposium at the repurposed warehouse Antrepo 5 in Istanbul, one of the speakers declares “the city is being erased right now”. This conversation, which addressed considerations of culture and the sea, repeatedly folded back into anxieties about the state of cities, particularly their waterfronts and ports, encroached upon by ‘neo-liberal’ reclamation of the land for privilege and profit in the name of urban renewal entangled in the rhetoric of creative cities. As another speaker asserts, this idea of the ‘creative city’ is false because the powers that drive these forces of change “steal our imagination”. Istanbul’s mayor, Kadir Topbaş, has said, “Istanbul should shed its industrial profile ... Istanbul should, from now on, become a financial centre, a cultural centre, and a congress tourism centre.” Reflecting the wintery sky, the waters of the Bosphoros, buoying a chaotic flotilla of fishing boats, tankers and freighters, are like liquid steel lapping against the shores of the walled city. In the parks and crevices around those walls, the city’s homeless and destitute gather.
Teeming with nearly 13 million people, there is unsettlement in this city that seems perennially jostled in the tensions between destruction and creation, past and future, east and west. Napoleon once said “If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital”: a sentiment echoed by Gustav Flaubert some time later. Istanbul is a city of cities - like no other, yet like all others. It is allegorical, eternal and enviable. No newly arrived visitor could hope for a more specific summation of a city that has endured for millennia, was a seat in successive empires, and seems tremulously poised for another phase of dramatic development, while precariously teetering on the cusp of a disaster at any time. The next earthquake is predicted to claim the lives of one million of its inhabitants. The city was reminded of this possibility – inevitability – when a 4.4 tremor shook it in October 2010. In the 2009 Urban Age Conference, Istanbul was recognised as a city of intersections. Istanbul is not at the crossroads, it is the crossroads. Movement is constant, seismic, contoured and layered.
Collapse and resurrection
Ruined building in Sultanahmet, Istanbul
In a City Journal article, journalist Claire Berlinski (Autumn 2010) described Istanbul as a ‘Weimar City’: “a city rich in history and culture, animated by political precariousness and by a recent rupture with the past, vivified by a shocking conflict with mass urbanisation; a city where sudden liberalisation has unleashed social and political imagination – but where the threat of authoritarian reaction is always in the air.” This city explicitly and resoundingly speaks about uncertainty and the tensions between old and new. Istanbul confidently rises from rubble, contends with overwriting, liberalisation and revision, stokes its cultural and creative fires, and haughtily rebukes snubs and sniping by the European Union. As the citizenries of states around the Middle East challenge autocratic and authoritarian rule, calling for democratisation, Turkey’s path towards openness offers stability and possibility. Forces have been released here and, like the stray dogs that roam the city’s parks, those forces are marking out and contesting territories and trajectories.
Istanbul both struggles with and celebrates its heritage; its slow poetries grate against the acceleration of capital and competition. The historic areas of the city, representing 8,500 years of human history, are listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Register and 2010 saw the largest program of restoration works ever undertaken as well as representation to UNESCO to remove the heritage listing. The city has repeatedly received negative reports from UNESCO because its material heritage is threatened due to inadequate preservation measures. It remains vulnerable to redevelopment, decay and neglect. Even with the city’s cultural heritage so prominently featured in the Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture (ECOC) program, it is at risk due to planned developments and revitalisation. Despite the seemingly shaky engagement with heritage, these projects included building restorations as well as conferences and symposia, museum development, community involvement in archaeological digs, and social history projects. As a legacy for future generations, the heritage projects are also major drawcards for tourists. For all its endurance and persistence, some parts of the built environment in Istanbul seem provisional: not if, but when. The forces of redevelopment prefer a clean slate so heritage can be regarded as hindrance not asset. Late last year, fire broke out in the Haydarpaşa Train Station, destroying the historic building which was at the centre of a masterplanning initiative. The Hurriyet reported that, for many, the fire symbolised broader concerns about architectural transformations, planning and redevelopment in Istanbul. The sight of derelict and charred building shells is uncomfortably common with the legacy of vernacular timber buildings having gradually waned or, rather, been reduced to ash. With reports of shonky restorations, excessive bureaucracy and stealthy demolitions, redevelopment and demolition works regularly do not cease when archaeological material is discovered on construction sites. The protection process is apparently time-consuming and bureaucratic with archaeological findings often destroyed before documents are processed and the site can be inspected. If such intervention does happen in a timely way, then construction projects can be delayed while heritage assessments or management plans are developed.
Stories and connections
Mosque restoration, Istanbul
Despite an overt awareness of decay, threat and hardship, the city is chaotic, swarming with movement. There are signs, also, of resurrection and momentum, with Turkey having been recognised as one of the MITSK (Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey and South Korea) growth markets and a partner in the Levant Quartet which founds a Middle Eastern common market. In one of his commentaries, President of Istanbul 2010 ECOC Executive Board, Şekib Avdagiç issues a call to Istanbulites: “Let us rediscover Istanbul in 2010”. A challenge could be to ward off the ‘huzun’ (social melancholy) that Orhan Pamuk described in 2005 as threatening to descend on the city, dragging it into a malaise steeped in longing and loss: Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memory and the City opens with gentle musings about a self caught in the midst of Istanbul’s state of decay. For the cultural tourist, there are untold pleasures in sharing this rediscovery and shaking off that malaise – in sharing a sense of wonder and curiosity for this heavy giant with its sad grandeur. Pamuk also writes of the city’s power and energy which stands in contradiction to the general mood. This landscape, etched in 2010 by ECOC programming, makes for rich pickings and gleanings. Many visiting writers have sought to apprehend this city, prise it open through the nuances of language, only to discover they cannot: Gustav Flaubert, Alberto Manguel, Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco, among others. For sure, orienteering in the city is a challenge – there’s no such thing as an accurate map of this maze of laneways – and getting lost often results in the discovery of hidden treasures, like an abandoned forge in Tophane amid new boutiques and galleries, and tragedies, like gutted buildings, poverty and ruins. And that parts of the city that few people would venture into: urban theorist Deyan Sudjic describes “desolate concrete suburbs of extraordinary bleakness, urban terrorism, and a rootless, dispossessed underclass struggling to come to terms with city life.”
My own cultural tourism began virtually, as an itinerant meandering through literature, image, art, media, travel writing/guides and social networks, then proceeded into ingestion from the menus of various Turkish restaurants and assimilation from Australian market stalls selling imported nazar, ceramics and apple tea, and then drifted into mimicry (appropriation perhaps) through cooking and craft. While visiting and perusing the titles at ‘Bookshop’ on Divanyolu Caddesi in Sultanahmet, a major foreign language bookseller in Istanbul, I speculate that my new literary fixation may well be Turkish literature – or at the very least Pamuk’s collected works. Here, I encounter Serdar Ozkan’s The Missing Rose, a poetic fable-like narrative notably compared with The Little Prince, which is a contemporary work that subtly traces mythopoeic traditions and entwines us in the story of a girl whose search for her lost twin culminates in a rose garden in Istanbul. The allegory can be stretched to consider this a commentary on a city – or nation – that is searching for and confronting itself among its own jewels, that is excavating and revealing lost and new stories and connections.
I also encounter the photographic works of Ara Güler, who documents a half century of the city with grounded acuity, and writings by Yaşar Kemal, Adalet Agaoglu, Elif Shafak and others who inscribe new perspectives about gender, identity, faith, politics and history that unsettle those who would uphold ‘the official history’. Suspicious and sideways references to ‘the official history’ abound in cultural corners and gatherings and, in The Hurriyet, a researcher of oral history, culture and art is quoted as saying “official history is so imposed in Turkey that chaos erupts when something different is told. Turkey has experienced volatile processes in its recent history. Democracy is newly built. Turkey is now in a process during which it will confront itself.” In works that explore national character and historical identity, Pamuk, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature has tested the limits of freedom of expression in the Turkish nation casting a shadow across the path of liberalisation, having been charged with insulting Turkish armed forces and insulting ‘Turkishness’ after commenting on the massacre of Armenians during the late Ottoman era. While the charges were eventually dropped, his comments provoked book burnings at rallies and a possible assassination plot by an ultranationalist group. The weight of history and the rifts of nation clash against shifting and diffused cultural identities; such themes were enmeshed in the ECOC program.
An exhibition project led by architect Cem Kozar, History and Destruction in Istanbul - Ghost Buildings/Tarih ve Yıkım - Hayalet Yapılar, documented 12 buildings that no longer stand. Some are in ruins and others have left no trace outside the archive of collective and cultural memory. The Turkish title features a doubling of meaning – ‘Hayalet’ means ‘ghost’ while ‘Hayal-Et’ means ‘imagine it!’ The project recounts the circumstances of each building’s destruction as well as presents speculative urban possibilities had those structures withstood their particular cataclysms. Narratives of destruction unfurl: fire, earthquake, social unrest, population movement, architectural fashions, political collapse and economic decline. There is a multimedia installation in the exhibition that simulates an earthquake shattering the walls. Incidentally, Berlinski is actively involved in Jor El Istanbul, a group that will not allow the city to be destroyed and advocates for earthquake readiness. Describing Istanbul as “rubble in waiting”, this group designs and implements high-tech, grass-roots solutions to mitigate the seismological risk to the city through better building, code-enforcement, household preparation and neighbourhood emergency planning. Other than its location on an active fault, Istanbul’s risk is exacerbated by inadequate building standards, high density and poor planning, which makes people and heritage highly vulnerable.
Walking around the city, there’s a sense that it never fully recovered from the devastation of the 1999 earthquake, even though there are pockets of gentrification and renewal. Using Facebook as an organising platform, Jor El’s members actively organise and communicate. There are posts on a blog – Learning to Fight – about a planned ‘earthquake drill’ as part of Istanbul’s Twestival. It has all the hallmarks of a multiplatform game. Using heavily coded keywords so as not to alarm other citizens, the intention was to test Twitter as a platform for earthquake response, crisis mapping and coordination. Perhaps this seismological uncertainty also contributes to the ‘Weimar’ feel that Berlinski identifies. The sense of urgency and necessity is palpable with recent events such as a bomb blast in Taksim Square (in October 2010) and an industrial explosion in Ankara evidencing the state’s lack of preparedness to respond to disasters. These realities are inflected in the cultural fabric of the city and dramatically mark its heritage – that which continues to stand has not only endured, it has withstood, it has persisted.
However, as the curators of Ghost Buildings note, “nothing has affected the city as drastically as the modernization efforts that started in the 18th century and intensified during the 20th century, and the constructions that followed these modernization movements.” With the heavy hand of modernist planning, destruction was supplanted by erasure. Charged with masterplanning the city in 1936, the French planner Henri Prost was responsible for ushering in modern infrastructure; such initiatives often come with heavy losses where the new crushes and overwhelms the old. The stories of lost buildings are felt even greater as a loss when the project asks “what if the building or its ruins still stood?” Using this question as a platform, speculative scenarios – fictions - are developed that trace alternative social, cultural and economic development trajectories. Presented as an exhibition at Cumhuriyet Art Gallery in Taksim Square, Ghost Buildings also featured a series of site specific installations at the sites where the buildings once stood, entreating viewers to toy with other urban improvisations and to participate in collective memory and imagining.
In his introductory catalogue essay for Ghost Buildings, Professor Turgut Saner, scholar in the Faculty of Architecture at Istanbul Technical University, says, the intention of the project is not to slip into nostalgia but to consider the opportunities that current reconstructions and restorations present for the city and to freely and fearlessly engage in conversations about the city. However, such intent can be woven into all urban development because history and memory can serve the needs of the present and care for the future. Hope takes shape through the dimensions of change and, as architect Sevince Bayrak notes, “the crucial issue is how and in what forms this change takes place”. Clearly there are tensions in negotiating this change, how it translates as spatial and strategic planning processes and what it means for the city’s culture in the face of accelerating urbanisation. While decaying historic buildings across the city undergo restoration behind billowing white tarpaulins pegged to scaffolding, people are brought into dialogue with their past through projects like Ghost Buildings and grassroots networks that reposition and reclaim urban history in the face of growing levels of global capital encroaching on the urban space. Despite frustrations – even trauma - about the changing urban environment and the morass of destruction, there is a sense that the fault lines and intersections that draw the city may also shape the contours of new imaginings in ways that mean this cultural heritage presents opportunities for public engagement in living urban culture.