Istanbul Studio // Publics and Polis – Liquid Cartographies

This 4th year undergraduate Urbanism and Design studio critically and creatively investigated the city of Istanbul as a fluid intersection of tradition and modernity, and in particular how the history, nature and use of public space and urban development has transformed, and continues to transform, this constantly evolving megalopolis. A city of over 15 million people, Istanbul is fracture-critical, always on the edge of some change – cultural, social, geopolitical, urban, infrastructural. Recently characterized by a slew of massive urban development projects (and equally grandiose rhetoric), the city is the anticipatory site for a new Bosphorous Canal – named “Kanal Istanbul” (dug out of the European side of the city) and described, by the Prime Minister as a “crazy project,” [1] the (planned) largest airport in the world, designed by Grimshaw and  currently in construction north of Istanbul, near the Black Sea, and the recently completed Sultan Selim Bridge (“The third bridge”), that links the European to the Asian side of the city.

The city is characterized by change, sometimes glacially slow and sometimes hyper-speed quick. Whether the slow change of cultural and social change (so beautifully articulated by the writer Irfan Orga in his Portrait of a Turkish Family), the rapid shifts of modern day geopolitics (the attempted putsch of July 2015), the city endures, characterized by its unique and fractious urbanity, and always, by its relationship to water: to the Bosphorous – where Jason and his Argonauts fought the clashing Sympleglades, the Golden Horn – where Byzantines threw their wealth to prevent Ottoman theft, the Marmara – the Propontis that Herodotus described as “five hundred furlongs across and fourteen hundred long,” [2]  and the Black Sea – the Euxine of Ancient Greece, where the Amazons, somewhere, made their home.

The modern city was inaugurated, arguably, by Henri Prosts’s plan for its modernization. Corbusier lamented the loss of Istanbul’s dust, just as the modern Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, lamented that the Bosphorus is the only source of joy in the city (although he loves the melancholy of ruin [3]) and more forcefully recently when he declared “they have killed the Istanbul that I loved.” [4]  Recent developments have accelerated this transformation – like the mega-projects of airports, canals and bridges.  Add to this, tunnels and metro-expansions, expanding urban development, contentious housing developments administered by TOKI – the housing administration arm of the government. Through all this, Istanbul becomes something different, another version of the thousand versions of itself, of Byzantium, of alRum, Constantinople, of Konstantiniyye. And although this change is constant – a reality of modern living and modern lives, there are constants: the water that give it its liquid infrastructure, its frenetic urbanity, it’s history as tradition in transformation. Irrespective of its many names, always, though it has been Eistan Polis – “to the city;” a verb that bring us out into the civic.

These, then, became the organizational themes of this studio: Water, Cities, Equity.  The studio was also supported by a 10 day field study in Istanbul in February of 2018.


[1] “Route of Contentious Kanal Istanbul Project Finalized,” in the Hürriyet Daily, December 6, 2017.

[2] George Rawlinson. The Histories of Herodotus, Vol III (London: John Murray),  p. 77.

[3] See Orhan Pamuk. Istanbul: Memories and the City (London: Vintage), 2006.

[4] Orhan Pamuk. “They Have Killed the Istanbul that I Loved,” in The Hürriyet Daily, October 16, 2017.

[Header image by Ian Dayagbil and Charles Dery]