Turkey’s long-serving prime minister has described his third term as that of an “usta,” or master, borrowing the term from the celebrated Ottoman architect Sinan in reference to the pinnacle of his career after apprenticeship and graduation.
But master of what, exactly? Erdogan never said. Politics? Governance? Conspiracy theorizing? It’s impossible to know for sure. Maybe he was referring to urban planning.
Istanbul is undergoing a slew of major projects that will change its very face in the years to come. Yet it is doing so without a master plan. Or rather, it has a master plan, but officials have decided to ignore it.
Going by his recent comments, Erdogan, native son and former mayor of Istanbul, believes he has a masterful understanding of urbanism and city design and is more than capable of remaking this city on his own.
“If we change our habits, the country, Istanbul, the environment and families will be able to mutually benefit,” Erdoğan said last week, pointing out that 350,000 new cars take to Istanbul’s already congested roads every year. “I hope that you will reconsider your relationship with your vehicles. A modern city is not one where the transport is mainly carried out by private vehicles, but one where it is operated by public vehicles.”
The government is implementing a series of billion-dollar projects that will very likely add to Istanbul’s pollution and sprawl and severely reduce its green spaces. The third Bosporus bridge, the new airport, a canal linking the Marmara and the Black Sea, and satellite cities on the Asian and European sides, for instance, all of which helped inspire the Gezi protests earlier this year.
The usta’s solution to over-population and urban sprawl is to build horizontally. “We have to attach importance to aesthetics,” he said in April. “You will tell me that 40 or 50 storey buildings can de aesthetic, too. They can, I won’t deny it. But humans should live near the soil.”
This must mean that Istanbul Sapphire, opened in 2011 and at 54 stories and 238 meters the city’s tallest building, doesn’t count. Nor does the vast sea of 12-story towers the government is building as part of the Kayabasi housing project.
“In many places, we consider the construction of tall buildings to be a talent, but I don't see it this way,” Erdogan said in a speech at the Justice and Development Party’s symposium on Livable and Aesthetic Cities, back in March. “People are becoming distanced from the land. Horizontal architecture should prevail."
He spoke of “stone and concrete” cities without “soul and direction.” “Now children cannot live their childhoods properly,” Erdogan warned. “We're building childhoods on concrete grounds. Let’s build them on grass.”
The prime minister then asked a pointed question. “Can a generation that has a relationship with nature only through books and cartoons and documentaries have a healthy spiritual view of the world and the future?” Erdoğan wondered. “People don't shape cities. On the contrary, cities shape people.”
There are the words of Tayyip Erdogan, urban planner, and they generally ring true. This Istanbullu just wishes the prime minister were able to put his money where is mouth is.
“Misguided urbanization has been a part of daily life since early years of the new republic,” writes Today’s Zaman columnist Bulent Kenes. Actually, it goes back much further, to the days of Constantine and Theodosius. Istanbul seems to inspire visions of planning grandeur in its leaders. Great for them; not so much for residents, or the city itself.