This weekend we visited two gated communities in the outer zones of Istanbul. First, was Venezia Mega Outlet, the “Venice of Istanbul” if you will. Aren’t lofty titles one of the aspirations behind such projects? (Let’s call it #1). You may question reality while crossing the canal’s bridges and spotting gondolas. Where am I? Unless you’re thinking of what to eat; Pide and Kebap restaurants remind you that you’re still in Istanbul. What aspirations drive these culturally devoid utopias?
Venezia is across the road from a prison, so close to it that the balconies of Venezia’s apartments can work as extra watch towers. Living in a transported Italy, you need to have an Italian view, no? (Aspiration #2). Probably if it’s placed near other such projects, like Lavasa near my hometown in Pune, which imitates the Italian village of Portofino. It would fit there perfectly. Maybe that’s for the future, but for now, the buyers of some such exclusive projects in Istanbul, have been promised that the surrounding gecekondus (informal settlements) will disappear soon. How can you view incrementally-built, rickety homes of the urban poor from your pseudo Italian home?
Besides the brand value held in the name “Venezia” (Aspiration #3), the project is captioned “mega” outlet. In fact, all mega projects boast their mega-ness in full glory, god forbid you overlook it if the scale doesn’t catch your eye. We were told that it was first meant for the creme de la creme, but there haven’t been enough takers and the milk may go sour, hence the target has shifted to the middle class. Even so, many flats are still waiting be to be sold.
Next, we visited Turkey’s first “themed” gated community, which commenced in 2005. I thought of “Inception” on reaching Bosphorus City, which as the name suggests, imitates the Bosphorus and is flanked by villas and apartments. A dream of a mini, exclusive Bosphorus within the city whose history was shaped by the blue strait connecting two seas, and is now wielded by ferries, tourists, crowding homes and even more mega projects. The water of baby Bosphorus is such a sparkling emerald green, is it algae, dirt or the color of the tiles, I don’t really know. If you live there, your villa or apartment block will have it’s own separate pool anyway. The baby Bosphorus is just to look at.
This kind of development is not new, and Turkey is just one of the countries on the bandwagon of such imitation-development. China seems to be leading the “duplitecture” race, with examples much larger in scale like Shanghai having a “Thames Town” and Hangzhou having a “Paris”. In her book titled “Original Copies”, Bianca Bosker talks about the Chinese history of copying architecture as affirming power, skill and capability (Aspiration 4). So by imitating, you convey your ability to match up or even surpass what you perceive as competition, seems like natural human tendency. Except it converts the opportunity of creating a contextual, sustainable and stimulating urban habitat to that of a consumable commodity. The authors of “Whose City is that“, elaborate on themed development as non-place, having no time-space and cultural relation to its environment. Further, they call it a “heterotopia” in its attempt to represent something in the form of an illusion, by excluding the reality of what is being represented.
Examples of such projects are plentiful in my country, India. If not literally aping elements, they may even just adopt the name. Pune has a Boston, Orange County, Manhattan and more.Beyond the physicality of the project itself, every idea that imitates a Paris, Rome, London and so on, reinforces those models as desirable and further undermines the plurality of one’s own environment. Moreover, such a vocabulary of terminology and planning, frames notions of what it means to be “developed” and thus perpetrates existing inequalities by demanding that the gecekondu view is razed. Effectively, it strengthens the divisions of “us” and “them” (Aspiration 5).
The above rests within the limitations of language and of a single visit to these sites. I’d like to thank Sinan for his patient translations during the visit. While trying to scratch the surface of these projects, the dominating observation was how this constructed reality simply felt so discomforting. It just feels so out of place that the unease sets in even before your understanding of the issues. Similar to the oddity of telling a rickshawala in Pune, “Bhaiya Prabhat Road par Boston jaana hai”. And it is probably this same feeling of bizarreness that is perceived by many as unique and exclusive, if that floats their boat. Or Gondola.