Urban Inception

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 Mega Outlet


Gondola rides


Shopping under blue tarpaulin skies

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?

Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/italy/liguria/portofino/ http://www.lavasa.com/play/the-waterfront-shaw.aspx

Left: Portofino, Italy. Right: Lavasa, India

Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/; http://www.lavasa.com

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.


Venezia advertising

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.


The Bosphorus and Bosphorus City

Source: https://uk.pinterest.com/; http://www.evrenolarchitects.com



Private waters – Bosphorus City

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.






Istanbul – same, same but different

It’s been three weeks since I moved to Istanbul from Barcelona. Signs of the change in context were already visible on the way home from the airport. I had a long conversation with the girl next to me on the bus. Striking conversation on public transport was not usual through my time in Barcelona, and especially not in Germany! All the taxi guys tried to con the “tourist” and the footpaths kept disappearing. Near Taksim Square, corn, chestnuts and shwarma were being sold on the really crowded street of Istiklal. Where was I! It felt so familiar.

I learnt that a C is pronounced as a J. There are special characters like ğ, which is silent, but stretches the vowel before it. Then ç and ş are ch and sh. There is also “ı”, an i without a dot. Seems like it’s pronounced as “uh”. I replaced gracias with Teşekkürler, salud with çok yaşa. It was a confusing first week. From one foreign language that I’d just gotten comfortable with to a brand new one.

In this city I can ferry across to another continent in 20 minutes and feel an almost triumphant – hey I’m in Asia, closer to home! Now there exists a time difference with Spain while it has reduced with India. I’ve moved some steps towards home, much more than geographically. I am amazed everyday by how similar and yet how different it is from my country, especially in the stage of its urban development. Everything is between what I know as home and the places I recently got to call home.

In my neighborhood in Istanbul, the municipality’s garbage bins don’t have lids, but the unsegregated waste is in little plastic bags. So you see the waste but you don’t really see it overflowing, it’s contained. The glass is collected in separate bins. Did you know in Germany and Austria they have separate bins for green, brown and white glass? Whaaat? There are a few scrap dealers with a mountain of cardboard loaded on their bicycles. But I am not sure who is segregating the organic from the plastic, metal etc. and who has the monopoly for the segregated scrap. Are they wastepickers? You don’t see them. Middlemen, big bosses? I hear that a few years ago they detected ecolli in the waters near the city, although in recent times, massive water treatment was carried out and you can at least swim near the islands. Last weekend we went down to the islands near Istanbul and swam in the Marmara Sea, from where you get an idea of the expanse of this city. Stark white and steel grey high-rises have conquered the hills of Istanbul; these contrast with large chunks of much smaller rickety and sombre blocks, some of them single-storey homes – these are most probably “gecekondus”.

Gece = at night kondu = to be placed/to settle.

Gecekondus are the informal, or in many cases technically “illegal” settlements of Turkey. I’ve had a chance to visit three very different Gecekondus till now. One had little cottages with gardens, almost invisible being tucked away in a hill near the Olympic Stadium to the west of the city. Another had gated communities with apartment blocks. With jhopadpattis of India you refer to “jhopadis” (shacks), but the word gecekondu does not indicate the physicality of the homes, but about how it was built. A basic gecekondu dwelling could be self-built, possibly with the support of the community, and from there the physical character of the gecekondu keeps changes incrementally. It maybe a shack, or a “villakondu” with gardens, or an “apartmentkondu”. Thus it is not uncommon to see different economic classes in one gecekondu. With Istanbul’s mad growth (around 15 million out of Turkey’s 80 million citizens), evicting gecekondus to make way for “development” has been commonplace. But now some of the earlier gecekondus that were evicted and relocated in the past, face eviction threats yet again since the earlier peripheries are new centers. The scale of these carried out evictions can be understood here.

In India’s burgeoning metropolises and in Istanbul, the shanty towns are heavily stigmatized. In both contexts a “slum free” vocabulary is evident. Or if it’s not slum free, the least you can do is hide the slums, like Delhi did for the Commonwealth Games in 2010. With a colossal scale and thirst for development, evictions are accepted as the natural trajectory for face-lifting pockets across the city. (For example: Istanbul’s Megacity projects and India’s Smart City Mission). This calls for solid slum-rehabilitation/upgrading policies, which protect the inhabitants’ right to housing alongside their social fabric, acquired through years of community living.

Keeping in mind the difference in the size of the country and the whopping difference in population: India ~ 1.25 billion and Turkey ~ 80 million, I am intrigued by the differences and similarities in the gecekondus of Turkey and the jhopadpatties of India. Besides the obvious and large differences in scale, density and services (most gecekondus have access to services like water and sanitation), there are questions on the legal framework for slum rehabilitation, the housing typologies, land tenure, the degree of risk they face in terms of eviction and disaster resilience, and finally how communities confront these threats. More on this, coming up.

121) Gecekondus of Güvercintepe in the west of Istanbul
Source: Author

352) Mahmud Şevket Paşa Gecekondu in Okmeydani, Istanbul
Source: Author

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 1.22.04 PMScreen Shot 2017-07-03 at 1.23.46 PM3) Above: Mahmud Şevket Paşa, Okmeydani, Istanbul
Below: India’s most known slum, Dharavi, Mumbai
Source: Google maps