A new cityscape is being born in İstanbul, generally happening by completely ignoring the regulations or circumventing them, experts agree, saying the major transformation should be conducted taking the mistakes of the past into consideration.
The danger that awaits İstanbul came to public attention as a result of a construction project called “Onaltı Dokuz,” meaning 16:9. The project takes its name from the international standard format of state-of-the-art televisions, which provide a wider picture for viewers. The towers built as part of the project were photographed behind Sultanahmet Mosque, sparking nationwide outrage on the grounds that it damages İstanbul’s cityscape. Although officials obtained permission for the construction and argue that the towers can only be seen from locations at least 40 meters in height in Üsküdar, the permitted building height has been lowered in İstanbul districts where such buildings could potentially affect the famous city skyline.
It seems a plan drafted by the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB) with the aim of protecting the city’s cultural heritage, the İstanbul Metropolitan Plan, does not prevent the building of giant skyscrapers. The envisaged construction density of the plan is said to be commonly ignored when it comes to “prestigious” projects. While owners of land located in the middle of the city are convinced to release their property after being told that hospitals will be built there, following a prearranged plan, major construction projects begin. While it is technically not permitted to erect buildings in some areas, corporations relying on the state authorities get what they want. The result is increasing traffic congestion and gradually decreasing quality of public services due to excessive demand.
All the buildings are intended for people. The question is, to what extent do they really serve the people?
Oğuz Öztuzcu, head of the İstanbul Freelance Architects Association, believes that the construction of such buildings, and urban transformation as a whole, does not focus on the wellbeing of city-dwellers but rather solely on financial interests. An experienced architect, Öztuzcu is disturbed by the fact that everything is reduced to numbers, while humanistic values and culture of life are undermined. He argues that architecture is not all about money; there will be a time when material wealth will not satisfy people in Turkey, as has come in the West.
Urbanization and the construction attendant upon it is a practice of numbers and measurements, Öztuzcu argues. “We are at such a time when the marketing techniques of the buildings address quantity. They don’t talk about which school children will go to, or where an old woman can spend time outside the apartment,” he explains in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman.
“İstanbul is the most important city in the world,” Öztuzcu declared, adding: “You cannot treat it like you treat Dubai, which is a desert. The value of a city like İstanbul is reflected a bit in Rome and a bit in Jerusalem. They still look a bit rural when compared to İstanbul.”
Öztuzcu is sad that all these materialistic changes with the potential to erode the traditional lifestyle are taking place in the time of a conservative government that claims to preserve Turkey’s cultural values. “It is dangerous for Turkish society and İstanbul. The city is being vulgarly devastated,” Öztuzcu says; Turkish society has a lot to worry about.
Öztuzcu believes that İstanbul -- which has recently been referred to as “Ecumenopolis” (city of the whole world) following a documentary about the city of the same name, “Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits” -- in practice no longer has a master zoning plan as the city’s borders are ever-expanding.
Deals behind closed doors
According to experts, including those who were involved in drafting the Metropolitan Plan, attempts to make İstanbul a more comfortable place to live fall down at the city council level. In many cases these councils are charged with issuing the necessary permits for construction.
Architect Ulvi Günpınar, a member of the İstanbul Metropolitan Plan Center (İMPM) –- which drafted the plan -- told Sunday’s Zaman that the designed plan has not been enacted wholesale; items have been added to permit elements of construction previously prohibited. The biggest problem, Günpınar believes, is the changes to zoning plans. Thousands such changes were done, paving the way for the building of bigger and taller buildings since 2004.
The İstanbul Metropolitan Plan, accepted as the architectural guidelines for the megacity, states that the population density of the city is 0.7 person per square meter, a density also found in Shanghai and Mexico City, and that the population increases by 300,000 every year in the city. The plan envisages that the population will rise no higher than 16 million. According to Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) today İstanbul is home to 13,483,052 people. The plan essentially aims to create more than one city center, dividing the city into regions and sub-regions, each region being sufficient in itself. Reservoirs and fields for agricultural production are to be protected, according to the plan.
Öztuzcu questions the transparency in the approval process for construction projects, amidst the work that is under way to accumulate more concrete in İstanbul. The projects are passed “behind closed doors,” according to Öztuzcu. “İstanbul is undergoing an excessive construction boom, and it continues that way,” he adds.
The Metropolitan Plan stopped the construction of shanty houses. What about giant towers and skyscrapers? The city accommodates many tall buildings that exceed zoning regulations in the city. The Maslak and Levent neighborhoods in particular are reminiscent of Manhattan in the US, which is famous for its towering skyscrapers. Tayfun Kahraman, from the İstanbul office of the Chamber of Urban Planners -- part of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects -- does not believe that erecting tall buildings in İstanbul is problematic in itself. Kahraman claims that the thing to be careful about is to take care of the city’s skyline, and infrastructure systems such as transportation.
Head of the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality Construction Commission Sefer Kocabaş says that among the reasons leading to the construction of tall buildings is that multiple state authorities are authorized to issue permits and make other decisions regarding construction work. “It is not good that İstanbul has more than one planner. If only İBB had the authority to grant construction permits, then there would be fewer tall buildings that are eyesores.”
Kocabaş noted that changes to city zoning plans are often achieved on the basis of incentives, with construction companies making use of a municipality’s need for hospitals, schools or tourism facilities to obtain permission to build above the height limitations of a particular zone. “Concerning changes to zoning plans, we earlier decided to support investments in health, tourism and education,” he says, adding: “A city receiving tourists means it integrates with other countries. This means an increase in trade and marketing for the city. We always gave incentives in the hotel and tourism areas.”
[İstanbul’s construction adventure]
Megacity İstanbul’s illegal houses
Among İstanbul houses, 38 percent did not have a building permit, while 67 percent do not have habitation certificates despite being resided in. Seventy percent of the buildings are erected without engineering services. And while 50 percent of the buildings are not built in line with their registered plans, 22 percent of them do not even have a plan. Only 35 percent of the buildings have earthquake insurance. Materials used in 90 percent of houses do not comply with safety standards as 64 percent of all buildings suffer corrosion. Meanwhile, 16 percent are old enough to pose a safety hazard and 2.5 percent face risk of collapse due to the ground they stand on. Only 8 percent of all schools in İstanbul have been reinforced while 1 percent of İstanbul hospitals have undergone reinforcement to date. Roughly 6 million people are occupying shanty houses. Forty percent of squatter settlements are between 75 and 100 square meters. Fifty-one out of 100 shanty houses have one storey, while 31 have two and 18 have three storeys. (Source: State Planning Organization of Turkey)
Architecture affects behavior
Professor Fehmi Kızıl of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University tells Sunday’s Zaman in an interview that the issue of cultural identity is not addressed in Turkish architecture. While emphasizing that a unique identity cannot be achieved only with exterior design or style, Kızıl says: “With the impact of the West, unfortunately, we lost our own identity. Our lifestyle, which is shaped by our own traditions, customs and beliefs, must be reflected in the architecture. This is not all about style.”
“Once settlements which allow us to lead our behavioral patterns comfortably are not produced, behavioral patterns change. They are transformed into a shape allowed by the settlement. Our culture and belief suffer from erosion,” he added.
Senior architect Ulvi Günpınar, who has been in the business for 45 years, emphasized that the official bodies that issue building permits do not have ethics boards. Noting that traditional architecture has never been discussed in Turkey, Günpınar said: “Every city has a plan. Everybody contributes to it. When a building is planned in a city, the planners don’t ask the opinion of the locals of that place. Democracy does not function in the construction businesses.”
Urbanization awareness low
Architects say that the current situation of İstanbul, which looks like a mess of concrete in some places and is home to scattered crooked settlements in some other places, is the consequence of poor urban planning. Professor Fehmi Kızıl of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University tells Sunday’s Zaman that the current appearance of the metropolis of İstanbul is the result of politics and culture. According to the professor, environmental and urban and aesthetic awareness were poor in the 1950s, while a gradual improvement was seen starting in the 1980s. İstanbul saw an immigration wave from other parts of Turkey in the 1950s, when economic development started with the arrival of the multi-party era. Architect Sefer Kocabaş says this wave was followed by even larger population settling down in İstanbul between 1960 and 1970.
The slum settlements continued to grow as residents believed that their houses would not be demolished despite being illegal, which turned out to be true, and they continued to receive public utility services from official bodies. It was a win-win situation since residents would get services and officials would get votes in elections.
The 1960s witnessed the death of private Ottoman architecture. Construction regulations allowed division of the land on which Ottoman mansions sit, and it led to the destruction of historic buildings due to the building of multiple small residential houses.
Constructions serve as lifeguard
Tayfun Kahraman from the İstanbul office of the Chamber of Urban Planners at the Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects’ Chambers (TMMOB) says Turkey relied on the construction business whenever financial troubles emerged. Kahraman recounts how amnesty dropping the illegal status of buildings -- granted by the military government that came to power following the 1980 military coup, and later by former President Turgut Özal, who served as president from 1989 to 1993 -- let many families stay in their shantyhouses. According to Kahraman, the amnesty came at a time when the economy needed a boost, and it helped by providing a stimulus to the construction industry.