Modernization in Turkey has many aspects to analyze, some of which have escaped the interest of scholars and are still unrevealed. Dam construction is one of these aspects, and can be considered an example of social engineering starting in the early days of the Turkish Republic, particularly in Ankara, the newborn capital city in the shadow of an imperial capital, İstanbul.
SALT Galata has dealt with the issue with a remarkable approach. As a continuation of the project “Modern Denemeler” (Modern Essays), the exhibition “Modern Denemeler 5: Aşı” (Modern Essays 5: Graft) brings into question how modernism grafts certain notions onto existing conditions through creating and transforming the geographical and spatial character of cities and regions, using the example of Turkey.
Having studied the concept of dam construction since the late 1990s, architect Aslıhan Demirtaş presents a documentary panorama of dam construction in Turkey. “In terms of modernism, this is a trend that had already emerged all around the world by the 1930s,” says Demirtaş. “The idea of conquering and dominating nature prevails in this period as it is still discussed today. So we started this project with the Çubuk Dam and the story of the construction of the Çubuk Dam with the news and photographs in the media. What is interesting about the Çubuk Dam is that it was celebrated as the ‘Bosporus of Ankara' in the media as we can see headlines like ‘Ankara residents freshened at shores of Marmara,' talking about the ‘seas' and ‘shores' of Ankara.”
According to Demirtaş, this situation can be interpreted as the grafting of the deserted İstanbul geography onto Ankara's barren land to create a new cultivar. “To make a graft you need a plant with roots and another plant with desired characteristics. We cut a branch of the first plant and insert the desired plant into the slot and thus create a nature produced in absolutely artificial ways,” explains Demirtaş. “Thus the grafted plant is somewhere in between the natural and the artificial.”
However, the grafting may not always provide the desired result. “There were some recreation and social activities formed around the Çubuk Dam and the Atatürk Model Farm as an early republican project. Today, the Çubuk Dam in particular has become a modern derelict property. Such projects produce their own spatial practices and these practices may either develop or die in time.”
Taking a look at the timeline in the exhibition, in the 1950s regional development planning starts in Turkey when the cultivar of the Ankara dam was re-grafted all over the country, and on the riverbeds of Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, the cultivars transformed and mutated into a wild species of “unnatural” nature. “Today, there are over 700 reservoir lakes in Turkey,” notes Demirtaş. “And we wanted to emphasize the scale of this grafting project. We also wanted to create a platform for discussion on how this project was implemented and how it developed.”
In this respect, one of the most significant aspects of the exhibition is the database prepared and displayed at the exhibition space. “This is actually a very long-term project,” notes Demirtaş. “You can see the family tree of every dam on this database and it will be broadcasted online after the exhibition.”
Using the scheme of the database as a reference, Demirtaş explains that a vast state mechanism was required to implement such a project. “We can see how variable this state mechanism can be,” says Demirtaş. “Ministries have changed, departments and institutions have changed throughout time. The authority to construct a dam belongs to the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works but the affiliated institutions continuously change and we wanted to show this mess on this database as well. This is because an artificial nature does not only have physical impacts but also social impacts like the production of a culture, and the state mechanism plays a role in this process. This is why we conducted an interview with the former president of Turkey, Süleyman Demirel, who was known as the ‘King of Dams,' that is also displayed at the exhibition. We also tried to present all perspectives in this process, like those of institutions and political leaders as well as grassroots movements opposing the construction of dams.”
Demirtaş notes that the trends in dam building in different countries are not totally independent from each other; however, timing may differ. “The 1930s mark the period when the damming process had started as an icon of modernism in the world. In the 1950s, this was considered as a must and Turkey also felt that it had to catch this train. But this process was discussed in different countries at different times. For example, today the engineers once constructing dams in the United States now seek to dismantle the dams. On the other hand, China is the world champion with over 20,000 dams and it continues to construct new dams. In Turkey, for instance, the focus was the Southeastern Anatolia Project [GAP] in the 1980s, while it is the Black Sea region today.”
The exhibition is on display at SALT Galata, in İstanbul's Karaköy neighborhood, until Aug. 26.