Continuation of Orhan Ayyüce's interview with George Brugmans, Executive Director of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR).
PART 2 Arnavutköy, Istanbul
Orhan Ayyüce - As I was reading the Istanbul section of your catalog, I noticed some very important urban design and planning questions and issues such as: Repairing Urban Metabolism, the Alliance of the Realms, City-Water-Agriculture, Exemplary Edge Conditions, and, most importantly, setting up an IABR Atelier to carry out some design strategies and building some pilot projects relating to these issues. You have also aligned the implementation part of the pilot projects with the local election time. Was this planned strategically? Is this part of building political alliances, however risky that might be given the volatile nature of local politics? How “tactical” is IABR?
George Brugmans - When we think about how to best fine tune the instrument of the sabbatical detour, and how to get as much as possible out of the transitory overlap of the cultural and the political realm, being aware of the political cycle is paramount. We all know the four-year cycle is a main hindrance to sound long term planning, and we all know that right after he’s been elected is the best if not the only moment for a politician to do something that is not risk averse.
Again we’re learning form São Paulo. Our Brazilian friends were great collaborators in the 4th IABR while in the 5th they got distracted a bit because of the impending elections and because of the polls that didn’t look good for the ruling party, the Social Democrats. So other stuff became also important and it got mixed up a bit in the process. There was less open thinking, less time to sort it out; and it was a bit more about having to prove something and leave a legacy. And indeed, last October the Workers Party won the local elections in São Paulo and Fernando Haddad will be the new mayor. We were to loose all our existing contacts. But the good news is that Haddad has asked our 5th IABR local curator, the Brazilian architect Fernando de Mello Franco, to make the move from design to politics. As of January 1 Fernando is the city’s new Secretary of Urban Development. We’ve been lucky and there may well be a new and even more interesting cycle of cooperation.
So are we tactical? If you want to come to an agreement with a municipality to ‘make city’, you’d want to do it right after the elections. Then you have three to four years to do the work. So yes, we try to align our project ateliers with the local political cycle as much as possible. This makes sense for both sides. After all, this is about a real partnership. If a mayor or municipal government is willing to take it out on a limb by committing to the IABR’s sabbatical detour, it is only natural for the IABR to commit to deliver when elections are up. In that sense the detour dances on the rhythm of democracy.
It was what I factored in when we were setting up the Atelier Istanbul with the Municipality of Arnavutköy, a 500 km2 area in the northwest of the metropolis, on the Black Sea. The Atelier, which started in 2011, is geared towards delivery in the last months of 2013, right before the local elections in March 2014. We work in stages. The first phase, when we developed a Strategic Vision and Action Plan and proposed pilot projects, had the exhibition in Rotterdam as its deadline, i.e. the spring of 2012. In the second phase the design offices developed the pilot projects and these have been exhibited in Istanbul in the autumn. And the third phase –the implementation process of the first pilot project– has to be finished before the elections in 2014.
OA - You are in Istanbul now. What do you see from your hotel room? Government there is forging ahead with major and symbolically political projects that might change the face of the city but so much more importantly, imposes the decisions made by certain interest groups in non-transparent ways. On the one hand you have an organization, IABR, with a potential to influence some of these decisions and on the other hand you have political forces who will only pursue what benefits them. The city is a most visible political animal. In it, there are huge financial interests whose idea of built environment is very different from an urbanist biennale.
How in that political cash priority environment we can make better cities or intelligently bypass these half full ideas, construction contracts? Of course the same question goes for other cities.
GB - There are only two views in Istanbul, one is where you get to see the Bosporus, the other is where you don’t. I’m good. From my room I have a view of the Bosporus. The earliest known settlements here date from 6.700 BC. So what I see is a very old city, which right now is facing yet another decisive moment in its long history. Istanbul is at the crossroads, it’s got to choose, not between growth or no growth, but between wild growth and smart growth, between rushing ahead and become a typical dysfunctional 21st century major metropolis, or planning ahead and become an attractive metropolis that, unlike the Mumbais, Jakartas and Nairobis of this world, stays ahead of the game and manages to turn itself into an exemplary city that succeeds in finding a proper balance between ongoing urbanization, good living standards for all and a healthy environment.
So here’s the issue as I see it: is Istanbul the next metropolitan nightmare, or will it become an inspiring example? Will everyone get to see the Bosporus, so to speak, or will a few only?
Exactly as you note, there are deep and longstanding connections between the ruling political party, the AKP, and big money and construction. One way to understand what is happening in Istanbul now is to see it as a project that keeps this incredibly forceful alliance in business and in power, but can only do so as long as it keeps forging ahead. The prize is “2023”, when the current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wants to end his second term as President and to be lifted to the status of Ataturk II. That’s the plan I think. It would be a kind of ‘Putin act’; the premiership is traded for the presidency, or the other way around, so one can stay in power without loosing the aura of democratic legitimacy. Istanbul is part of the machine with which Erdogan wants to realize his plans. So the city has got to relentlessly press ahead to be able to constantly deliver, and it may not falter because when it does the magic fades.
So you’re right, it’s extremely powerful, it’s not transparent, and it’s not necessarily about making this the best possible city for its inhabitants. Yet I can’t help but also note that Istanbul is in an enviable position, for it can still opt for the second path. The knowledge, the resources and the landscape conditions are in place. There’s a lot of space, there’s a lot of drinking water, there’s a lot of green. If the new, ambitious infrastructure plans – a third bridge over the Bosporus, a new airport, a new highway, a new canal, new cities for millions of people located on the Black Sea coast – are simply parachuted onto Istanbul’s geography, the nightmare scenario will unfold. But if these massive investments are recognized as an opportunity to use them, in part, to promote the advancement of the qualities of the metropolis as a whole, this can safeguard its environment, its quality of life and its appeal to domestic and foreign investors for years to come. In the long term such a policy would save the Turkish taxpayer a lot of money.
Seen in this light, the next several years will be decisive for the prosperity and the welfare of future generations of Istanbulites. And we think it can be done the smart way. We don’t think that these ambitious plans are necessarily detrimental to ecological interests. We therefore propose that the line initiated by the IABR Atelier Istanbul for the Istanbul Municipality of Arnavutköy, in which seemingly irreconcilable conflicts between urbanization and preservation of the water basins are harmonized in a productive and ultimately beneficial way, be taken seriously as a model of what is concretely feasible in this city.
We wrote a declaration to that effect to be published here in Istanbul and to be discussed in the public domain. It’s signed by all the curators of the 5th and 6th IABR, and by Emre Arolat, the Turkish architect who curated Musibet, the exhibition that presented the Making City Istanbul exhibition, and that was part of the first edition of the Istanbul Design Biennial.
From my hotel room I can also look down upon scores of satellite dishes on the roof of the Russian consulate, and to the right, across the Golden Horn, there’s the Topkapi Palace where the Ottoman Sultans lived during the first 400 years of their reign. Putin was here two weeks ago to meet with Erdogan. The two powers differ over Syria of course, but what really counts is trade. Russia has become Turkey’s top trading partner, two way trade is expected to triple to about $100 billion in the coming years, according to The Economist. So yes, I do realize of course that in terms of what’s going on here, and what this metropolis is a hub for, we are a very, very small player. But working in close collaboration with the Municipality of Arnavutköy, taking it further step by step, and thanks to its mayor, Ahmet Hasim Baltaçi, who has been very supportive, we are now close to getting the first pilot project up and running. It’s a beautiful project, designed by H+N+S Landscape Architects from Holland and 51N4E from Belgium. A part of the Bolluça stream, that causes floods regularly, will be protected so that both an urban park and an ‘eco-corridor’ result. It’s a very concrete product of the “sabbatical detour”. And not the last I hope. Other municipalities in Istanbul are now inviting us, they like what they see we do in Arnavutköy and what it might mean for the further urbanization of their part of the metropolis.
Another reason why we’re here now is to push our agenda further together with our Turkish friends; to talk with different parties and with the media, give presentations, raise support. We’re meeting with ISKI, the Istanbul Water Authority, and with the Ministry of Urbanization and Environment to make a case for how the approach developed for Arnavutköy could work for the complete northern section of Istanbul.
So can we tangible contribute, add our two cents? One of the five main headings of the election program of the reigning party, the AKP, in the 2011 elections was ‘Creation of Livable Cities’. We therefore proceed on the assumption that the powers that be recognize that a great political leader’s legacy is ultimately decided by the resilience and sustainability of his projects, and that therefore we have something valuable to offer.
OA - If you like I want to bring a brief talk on Palestine. Where we are dealing with a unique situation with an unprecedented political systems and territories. Would IABR dare to deal with this nebulous but incredible potential out of the box place in terms of making city? Let's say in West Bank where we have hundreds of Swiss cheese islands. Is it too politically explosive for IABR?
GB - We will cross that bridge when we get there, and so far we haven’t. It would of course very much depend on the alliance we’d be working with, as always.
Is it high on our list of priorities? Not really. And this is not because the situation is politically explosive, but because it is a very very specific situation. One of our main tenets is that cities can and should learn from each other, that the exchange of expertise and common creative brainstorming that we want to be a platform for is essential for finding the best possible solutions. That presupposes common ground. All cities are different but they have to share more or less the same questions to be able to commonly examine specific local answers. The Palestinians however are currently facing very specific issues; extremely important issues for sure, but not necessarily easy to work into the kind of project the IABR is.
But who knows, maybe we can use Istanbul as a basis for other projects in the Middle East. Our 4th IABR Istanbul based project Refuge had input from and connections to Beirut, Amman and Cairo. So there’s a precedent.