Dechipering Istanbul

It’s hard to evaluate a city in which you have resided for years. You get too accustomed to every detail that makes it beautiful as well as evil. As a resident of this huge organic mechanism, you know which things don’t work well but you are also aware that it has its own characteristic features that make it unique and interesting, almost personifying it.

A member of the global megacities league, Istanbul is counted as one of the major business, transportation, cultural and tourist hubs in Europe as well as the Middle East. Like any megacity, its exact population cannot be determined; even the official number fluctuates between 12 and 14 million, a figure greater than the populations of 40 European countries. It is a metropolis so large that it extends more than 100 kilometres across and almost joins with Tekirdag and Izmit, the cities of the two adjacent provinces, to form the Northern Marmara megalopolis. Since the rural exodus in the 1950s, Istanbul’s rapid population growth has caused problems with illegal settlements (gecekondu) which in turn have triggered deforestation, and transport, health care and education challenges among other urban issues.

Istanbul currently lacks a strategic masterplan to coordinate development between the elected 39 municipalities. Even so, foreign investors are continually looking to enter the city’s thriving property development market. This is partly because Istanbul remains a magnet for new residents from within the country and from abroad, as well as for global companies opening their Eastern European and Middle Eastern headquarters. But Istanbul is not counted as one of the most liveable cities in the world. Quality of life in Istanbul falls well below that in Vancouver, Copenhagen or London. According to the 2008 Mastercard Worldwide Centres of Commerce report, Istanbul ranks 57th of 75 cities compared for liveability, despite having one of the lowest crime rates. And for over fifty years, Istanbul has not been able to prevent illegal settlements emerging on the outskirts of the city, although clean water, electricity and the sewage system reach almost the entire population, including these illegal settlements. So what is working in Istanbul has still not been answered convincingly.

One of the most obvious of Istanbul’s unique features is its geography. Topography is the strongest factor in Istanbul differentiating it from other global megacities. Steep hills, valleys, and the sinuous curves of the Bosporus dramatically shape the city’s urban pattern: its settlements and transport and even the ecology of the city. In Istanbul, the terrain creates the notion of orientation, almost inscribing a mental map of the city in the minds of its residents. Living in Istanbul one is constantly aware of water, a presence always in close proximity or just within view. One knows that the slopes of the valleys lead to the Bosporus or the Golden Horn. It is this presence of water straits and the city’s rising topography which make the scene anomnipresent feature in the everyday life of Istanbul’s citizens, an urban feature accessible by the majority without any social or economic class differentiation. And it is not a single scene but a collection of scenes from numerous vistas thanks to the dynamic topography of the city.

The ability to experience the city with the visual senses creates an awareness of the whole, as if the whole city were an enormous stage or collection of screens. This is possible without an Eiffel Tower, a London Eye or similar iconic structure. So we can easily assert that topography is the major factor which makes Istanbul unique, even though it creates many problems for mass transportation. However, this distinguishing feature is not quite appreciated by the municipalities when drawing up the regional masterplan or building codes; it’s as if the city is as smooth as a blank piece of paper. Where building height restrictions are linked solely to the plot area, topographical differences are not taken into account or are seen as obstructions to be overcome or erased.

Another unique aspect of Istanbul is less obvious and harder to explain. In order to analyse the city, I offer a metaphor which may at first seem awkward: Istanbul is a piece of wrinkled cloth pinched in the middle by a blue string. From a distance this cloth appears to have a homogeneous pattern and colour of its own. However, upon close examination one realises that it is not a simple sheet of cloth but an assemblage of many different textiles, each with slightly different colours, hues, textures and shapes. Yet, it is not a patchwork of similar orthogonal shapes, a metaphor frequently used to describe any metropolis where diversity is a defining feature. It is more like a cloth that has a camouflage pattern, where the shapes are amorphous. One of the layers of these amorphous shapes may correspond to the social strata of the city, while the other overlaps with topography, and yet another corresponds to the characteristics of its built environment. These layers and shapes do not have a specific rule. Against these expectations, Istanbul becomes a surprising and dynamic city.

At the northern end of the Taksim-Harbiye axis, for instance, is one of the city’s most exclusive areas. It borders the Nişantaşı neighbourhood, a predominantly residential area featuring high-end shops for luxury foreign brands. Steps away in the adjacent Feriköy-Pangaltı neighbourhood, located on the slopes of the Dolapdere valley, are rows of apartment buildings and a rectilinear street grid which differ greatly from the interwoven streets and built form found elsewhere in the city. The social pattern of this area is also marked by lower income groups and strong neighbourhood relationships. And yet, at the lower end of the Taksim-Harbiye axis sit the congress centre, five star hotels and cultural facilities – the ‘jewels of the valley’. The same kind of juxtaposition can be found in any part of the city; in the gentrified urban grain of Cihangir, located near the low-income residents of Tophane and its neighbouring coastal business district. It is the relatively short distances between these unique areas that make the city unpredictable in every sense. The changing architectural styles, street patterns, topographical features, neighbourhood sizes and densities do not adhere to a rule that can be aligned to the social and economic characteristics of the inhabitants of these regions. Perhaps that is why the city lacks a strategic masterplan: until recently, analysis of this camouflage pattern has never been considered by the municipalities.

The widely accepted western urban terminology proliferating in academia is not sufficient to explain the Istanbul condition. For instance, it is commonly argued that unlike Italy, Istanbul lacks squares which can be efficiently used for public spaces. However, the notion of public space in Istanbul is different from what it is perceived to be in western terminology. In Istanbul, public space does not occupy a static public square; it is defined as the axes where people move through and intersect in the city. The orthogonal zoning principles or other modes of gentrification applied in western cities cannot successfully be applied to the urban fabric of Istanbul.

Instead, Istanbul should develop an urban language of its own. And it should do so using its inherent features and codes – the elements which have not yet been comprehended or critically analyzed. Deciphering the camouflage pattern is a crucial investigation, one which can only be accomplished through the coordinated efforts of many disciplines brought together. This research should not be left to urban planners or architects alone; the built environment is just a fraction of the whole of the experience of city making. Sociologists, economists, and even psychologists should work together to analyse how these seemingly incongruous neighbourhood patterns may live side by side: not only the tones or textures of different regions but the stitches that bind these areas together are important. The tension between the amorphous shapes and different shadings of the social, economic, architectural and topographical strata is the binding force of this camouflage-patterned textile called Istanbul.

* Essay written for the UrbanAge Istanbul book.