Professor, author leads the way on all matters of culture, design and the city

Şebnem Gökçen Dündar

January 25, 2012, Wednesday/ 18:37:00

When I first had the pleasure to meet Professor Şebnem Gökçen Dündar on the occasion of a speech she delivered about the concept and importance of the “Creative Cities” concept a number of years ago in İstanbul, a mutually beneficial process of cooperation and networking began.

This resulted in a number of articles I had the opportunity to write about culture and the city, and several extended discussions about İzmir, its urban planning efforts, the city’s fascinating history and many other aspects of her work as a professor at Dokuz Eylül University’s (DEU) Faculty of Architecture.

I recently went back to the department of city and regional planning where she teaches to conduct an interview to allow our readers both near and far to learn more about her work, her research and a number of other topics, including whether gender imbalance is an issue in Turkey at the moment. I am grateful for the time Şebnem Hanım spent with us on this visit to DEU’s Tınaztepe campus, located on the outskirts of what is best described as “İzmir, gateway to Turkey and beyond.”

Born and bred in the city

Born in this bustling port city, she told me that her childhood was surely not perfect, but after having grown up and entered academic life, living in İzmir became a real option. Dr. Dündar explained: “Here I had the opportunity to go to one of the best high schools in not only the city, but the entire country -- the American Collegiate Institute. İzmir has always been a cosmopolitan city that offers modern ways of living, and it fulfills all my needs. Living in İzmir makes me happy indeed.”

Reflections about the state of academic freedom in Turkey

We then spoke about an issue taken from the list of a few “usual suspects” asked of Turkey’s leading academics. Şebnem Hanım said: “Looking at Turkey through the lens of İzmir alone would perhaps leave out some of the existing problems in terms of academic freedom at [Turkish] universities. But as far as I can see, the only major problem pertains to the unsteady policies of the Higher Education Board [YÖK] of Turkey, which makes policies for a wide range of academic issues. For instance, in the last several years the prerequisites for academic promotion have been repeatedly altered, leading to unjust considerations from one academic term to another. And then there is the problem of economic matters. The existing structures of universities do not provide financial support, but ask for research to be done, national and international publications to be made and more and more students to be taught and professionally guided. [At private institutions of higher education] I observe that the boards express special demands that do not conform to the educational principles of the school.”

Her students hail from all across Turkey

Professor Gökçen Dündar said her students come from many different cities, especially from eastern and southeastern Turkey, which provides them with the opportunity to go back to their home towns and work there. “A recent survey of our graduates showed that they are doing pretty well, professionally. The recent legislation about urban development and management in Turkey has given many of our graduates the chance to work in broader fields, ranging from public institutions engaged in planning issues, to all types of municipality jobs, from real-estate development to design-related private practice. There are also some who chose to pursue a career in politics, for instance as an İzmir deputy.”

The glass ceiling: myth or reality?

I learned from Dr. Dündar that in her profession, and in the design professions in general, it would not be true to say that women face problems reaching top positions in Turkey. She explained: “To the contrary, the number of female academics is higher than the number of male academics in my school. It is also mostly women who work in the upper tiers of management at our school. But of course I can say this only in terms of the academic environment. In Turkey there is another problem which indeed is much more pressing than reaching top positions. As the number of women who earn their own money increases, the number of men who cannot overcome this threat against their absolute power, and turn to violence, increases. I think our national media should focus more on this issue, and social and cultural policies should respond to gender problems and provide the necessary support.”

The pros and cons of İzmir, if there are any

“There is a belief that İzmir was the western gate of the country, but it was so western that its cosmopolitan look conflicted with the rest of the country. This is due to its characteristics from its past as the major Ottoman port city, attracting many different international populations. After the creation of the republic, however, this character has caused the city to be purposely left at the periphery of the country. This peripheral position causes it to be distant from major national investments, most of them infrastructural. So it would not be a mistake to claim that everything that goes on in the urban agenda is mainly the result of the city’s own initiatives and the local government. The former mayor of the city, Mr. Ahmet Piriştina, who passed away before completing his mission, was particularly influential in opening the way for the new urban vision. The emphasis on urban identity (public design projects), and the increase in public events and sports organizations, have contributed to this vision. İzmir has also accomplished much related to culture and the arts, including international festivals such as the 2005 Summer Universiade, an international university summer games event; receiving the nomination for Expo 2015, the next scheduled Universal Exposition; and bidding to host Expo 2020. İzmir has done well to emphasize the importance of cultural heritage, encouraging historical renovation projects and urban regeneration projects to support the excavation of archeological sites around Agora. All of these are examples of İzmir’s recent successful endeavors,” said Şebnem Hanım.

Her work as co-editor of ‘Urban Historical Stratum: From Smyrna to İzmir’

Her co-edited book “Urban Historical Stratum: From Smyrna to İzmir” was actually the outcome of an international workshop. Şebnem Hanım elaborated: “In 2008 our school gathered university students from Germany, Poland, Italy, France and other cities in Turkey, and hosted a workshop in the Agora of ancient Smyrna. We questioned the theme of ‘urban historical strata’ from the perspective of the multi-story parking lot nearby. About 70 graduate and undergraduate students came together to study with around 30 academics for one week. Our event was also supported by the Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey [TÜBİTAK].”

Work for İzmir’s elementary school children

“This year we also received the support of TÜBİTAK for another project aimed at elementary school kids. The title of our project was ‘Journey to Smyrna: İzmir Urban History Workshops.’ Municipalities and governmental institutions took part in our project as partners. Our intention was to raise civic pride by telling fifth grade children more about the story of Smyrna. We showed them a graphic novel and we played games, etc. It was fun working with them. We are also working on similar projects for other kids of varying ages. We have connections with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to this end.”

Before concluding our fruitful exchange of viewpoints which allowed me to better understand her manifold academic and extracurricular activities, Professor Gökçen Dündar told me: “With my colleague, architect and Assistant Professor Dr. Zehra Ersoy, I have formulated an initiative called ‘7/70 culture and arts.’ The numbers stand for ages, meaning that our target group is quite wide. The main goal of our initiative is to offer different age groups knowledge of culture and the arts -- that was, or is, neglected by formal education. Our topics vary from the history of art to biographies in culture and the arts, from civilizations in general to the Ottomans, from national cultures to city cultures.”

While parting ways, Professor Gökçen Dündar let me in on one of her personal dreams: “to one day collect my essays and poems in a book. It is a nice dream to think of indeed.”

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