Imagine a developing country in the 1970s undertaking one of the most ambitious public works projects in its history: a cross-continental bridge connecting the two halves of its largest city. Upon completion, the public institution in charge of the project gets to keep the now-idle construction site at one end of the new bridge, and decides to transform it into an institutional complex comprising employees’ residences, training facilities, and a late-modernist office tower block, built with the latest technology. Completed in 1980 at a height of 53 metres (13 storeys), the tower came to be dubbed the country’s first skyscraper and has been engraved as such in the public memory thanks to its being featured as a range of corporate headquarters in various films and soap operas. Over the quarter of a century that followed, as the country is increasingly integrated into the global neoliberal economy, the tower block actually turns out to pioneer its numerous counterparts mushrooming along an axis northward from it. This trend, which has transformed the area into a business powerhouse, returned to haunt the building that triggered it in the first place. The state sold the tower block and the entire complex to a nationwide conglomerate. In turn, the new owner has developed a luxury residential and retail project for the premises, commissioning one of the most renowned architects in the country. The architect argues that his design is predicated on the principle of creating a new “public space.”1
In this historiette of the Zorlu Center, the Turkish architect Emre Arolat’s recent project in Istanbul, the adjective “public” features four times, as signalled by way of italicization. Although the meaning conveyed in each of these instances is not identical throughout, the first three can all be considered to refer to ideas of ownership. Financed by and serving the public, “public works” and “public institutions” are both supposed to indicate the “public” as their patron. Although in a more intangible sense than the latter, the expression “public memory” also points to a process involving participation in the reproduction, filtering and, ultimately, ownership of the past—albeit in fragments. Still, none of these ideas of ownership necessarily guarantee the alleged owners’ right of use—or, more simply, access to—the physical spaces that the adjective “public” might be taken to characterize in each instance. But what about the fourth instance, Arolat’s proclamation to have created a new “public space” under the auspices of private ownership? What sort of publicness might the architect be speaking of by using the adjective “public” in such a way?
These questions have long preoccupied the critics of privatization, all the more frequently since the 1990s, when neoliberalism’s impacts on societies reached salience. Often listed among these impacts is a physical-spatial blurring between the concepts of “private” and “public”, which unfolds in both directions between the spaces that each concept is conventionally thought to indicate. The first direction is one along which the private is engulfing the public—a “colonization of public space”2 by businesses and the “privatization of the town square”,3 which results from the activities of multinational brands and chains opening up shop in urban centres across the world. The second trajectory is the opposite of the first; one along which the idea of “public space” is argued to increasingly envelop privately owned and operated space. As Naomi Klein has suggested, “[p]oliticians, police, social workers and even religious leaders all recognize that malls have become the modern town square” and “[t]he town square concept has recently been picked up by the superstores, many of which now claim that they too are providing public space.”4 However, this development is not without contention:
[U]nlike the old town squares, which were and still are sites for community discussion, protests and political rallies, the only type of speech that is welcome here is marketing and other consumer patterns. Peaceful protestors are routinely thrown out by mall security guards for interfering with shopping, and even picket lines are illegal inside these enclosures.5
While it is possible to take the Zorlu Center for granted, as being just another example of this second trajectory, the project’s important connections with the first trajectory indicate that the case might deserve further exploration. The premises where the project has been built was initially a publicly owned and funded space but inaccessible to the wider public. Although an extreme example, this contradiction reminds us that the concept of “public space”, even when conventionally understood, does not apply to every context in the same way and thus is very difficult to take at face value as inherently more democratic than its private counterpart. Even when accessibility is not an issue, restrictions on certain social rights such as freedom of speech and public protest may exacerbate the difficulty, even prompting some to argue that, in certain cases, “malls appear more public and democratic than the streets.”6
Therefore, rather than dismiss outright the idea that privately owned and operated space can be spoken of as “public”, this essay seeks to understand and, more importantly, to architecturally qualify, what the proponents of such an idea might exactly mean when they argue to have created new “public spaces” through private investment. To this end, the essay focuses on the case of the Zorlu Center, and is based on a research visit to the recently built development and a structured interview with its architect Emre Arolat.7
Questions around the publicness of architectural space are crucial in socio-political contexts such as that in which Zorlu has been built. Turkey is a setting where the governing authorities’ strong endorsement of the construction sector as per a localized neoliberal agenda of no-holds-barred development has seen it transform into the major force driving the country’s alleged “economic boom.” This has led to the built environment becoming overtly politicized, culminating in what was the largest wave of public protests in Turkey’s history in the summer of 2013. As the protests were triggered by an urban-architectural project seeking to redesign the main town square (Taksim) of Turkey’s largest city (Istanbul) and the adjacent public park (Gezi), the contentious concept of “public space” was once again put under the spotlight. The authorities’ reaction to the massive scale of the protests involved not only law enforcement and judiciary measures but also architectural ones: two new “rally grounds” were designed and built in Istanbul, each spanning several hundred thousand square metres... Whenever the authorities receive requests for permission to hold demonstrations in Istanbul’s streets and squares, such as those held on the occasion of May 1st, they now not only respond negatively but also point to the admissible alternative: “you are free to use the new rally grounds for Labour Day.”8 Meanwhile, those intent on exercising their rights to gather on the street continue to do so, only to face heavier use of force by the police from one attempt to the next.9 But security measures on the ground have also begun to involve the built environment in more direct ways than before, as evinced on May 1st 2014, when a so-called “steel-wall”—an extra-strong barrier system custom-made for the Turkish police to be used in urban settings— appeared in the capital Ankara’s streets.
A “steel-wall” barrier system. Courtesy of Vatan newspaper
If the governing authorities have now begun to not only place bans but also point to admissible alternatives, what sorts of alternatives can the dissidents themselves create? Could such alternatives be created by countering the status quo on its own terms, by playing the game according to its rules together with exposing and instrumentalizing its weaknesses—by seeking ways of what the editors of this issue would call “subversive opportunism?”
It is this kind of socio-political context that has compelled architectural protagonists such as Emre Arolat, who might otherwise be labelled as “figures of the establishment” for being popular among Turkey’s private investors, to be vocal about some of the most pressing issues in Turkey. Arolat himself outspokenly criticized the project seeking to redesign Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Gezi Park—the project that in June 2013 triggered the wave of street protests across Turkey. He organized a series of talks on the issue, inviting speakers across the socio-political spectrum ranging from activists to policy makers, and it is again in this sort of context that he has come to frequently proclaim that among the primary principles governing his designs, one such principle is to create new “public spaces.”
A rendering of Konuralp’s iconic tower block can be seen to the right. Courtesy of EAA
But what does this emphasis on “public space” exactly entail in practice? In order to begin answering this question, it is necessary to revisit the introductory historiette of Zorlu Center and fill in some of its blanks. The state institution that owned the land where the Zorlu Center now stands is the General Directorate for Highways, which had commissioned the architect Mehmet Konuralp for the institutional complex which is now replaced by Arolat’s project.10 At the time of purchase by the Zorlu Group, one of the largest conglomerates in Turkey, this was the country’s most expensive piece of land: 100 thousand square metres at a cost of 800 million dollars. Furthermore, the land enjoys the most premium location in Istanbul; it stands at the crossroads of the city’s business and cultural centres, in addition to providing some of the best views of the Bosphorus. Therefore, it is not only the transfer of a state-owned (i.e. publicly funded) land and complex to private hands, but also the specific positioning of the land with respect to the larger city and the broader impact that the architectural project is likely to make as a result of this positioning that has been among the causes for criticism. As the project consists of four towers, each with a height of 100 metres, its impact on Istanbul’s skyline has been scrutinized.11
In a time when the country has just witnessed protests to protect a public park, the project’s introducing of tens of luxurious brands and hundreds of million-dollar flats onto state-owned land, and the environmental and logistical effects likely to result from this, have also invited much contention. What the project has had to offer to address such criticism, and thus to also give substance to its architect’s claim of having created new “public spaces”, includes green slopes, several piazzas (called meydan, the Turkish word for “town square”), a terrace sweeping around the second floor, and uninterrupted pedestrian access into, out of and through the whole complex. These physical components have also been advertised frequently and on various platforms to such an extent that visitors to the area today can encounter rumours about the very publicness of the Zorlu Center even at street level—as one cab driver remarked: “anyone will be able to have barbecue parties on that green slope, right?”12
My visit to Zorlu threw much of this anticipation into disarray; when I tried climbing up the green slope, security guards stopped me: “That’s not allowed!” But a more informative interaction happened when I took out my camera and started taking photographs. A guard approached me and asked what I was doing. “I’m an architectural researcher working on Zorlu,” I explained, “and I’m taking photographs of buildings and spaces of architectural interest, such as the piazzas.” “That’s subject to permission,” the guard responded, in turn to suggest that I speak with the staff at the information desk to resolve the issue. Upon visiting the desk, however, I learnt that they are not entitled to grant such permission. “You have to email this person,” the staff members explained, handing over to me the email address of someone from Zorlu’s PR department. I confirmed that I would email this person about the issue, but also asked what the exact rule regulating photography in Zorlu Center was. The staff members replied thus:
You cannot take pictures of the public and common spaces; you can only take photos of yourself and the people you’re shopping with.
Having heard this, I went out and continued my documentation of Zorlu Center’s architecture in the form of selfies [I have since also emailed the PR person several times and even have sought help from one of her colleagues whom I also happened to know, all to no avail].
My documentation of Zorlu Center’s architecture in the form of selfies
I believe that there is much more than just irony to the explanation that one “cannot take photos of the public and common spaces.” I find this an informative exchange, not least because it invokes a point raised by Agamben regarding the relationship between public space and the individual’s body. In his renowned theses on biopolitics, Agamben has charted the several centuries-long process in which the individual’s body has come to be placed at the centre of political authorities’ demonstrations of power through violence. One problem of contemporary relevance resulting from this argument, according to Agamben, is that “[t]he models by which social sciences, sociology, urban studies, and architecture today are trying to conceive and organize the public space of the world’s cities without any clear awareness” of the idea that at the centre of this “space” is the human body stripped down to its “bare life.”13 The prerequisite that you have to have your body in the picture in order to fully and practically realize the publicness of Zorlu Center echoes Agamben in suggesting that the boundaries separating what is taken to be “public space” from the “bare life” of the individual’s body have greatly blurred, or perhaps that the final remaining public space is nothing but the body as such itself.
Zorlu Center is but one project where Arolat has spoken of his effort to create new public spaces. Others include a luxury retail complex extension to a marina in southwest Turkey (in Yalıkavak, Bodrum) and a university campus in the country’s east (Abdullah Gül University, Kayseri). In my interview with Arolat, he spoke of such projects as the results of an “opportunity” (in a way which reminds one of the focus of this issue, “subversive opportunism”) that contemporary Turkey offers—an opportunity brought about by the construction sector’s role as the driver of the economy. The opportunity, argued Arolat, is for architects to be involved in shaping the social and cultural affairs of a country whose cities are being redeveloped at a dizzying pace and, in turn, whose long-established sociocultural boundaries are fast becoming blurred. For him, “a similar opportunity arose in the 1980s and 1990s but was largely missed by Turkey’s architects at the time, not because they did not get involved but because they got involved in the wrong way.” The wrongness had to do with how most architects then opted for the “gated community” rationale in their designs, thus precipitating a physical segregation that contradicted the sociocultural mingling taking place on the ground. According to Arolat, even when they did not build gated communities in the strict sense, these architects frequently employed various forms of walls, gates and entrances to deny access to the larger public, and importantly, did so not only in residential complexes but also in those serving retail, educational or various other purposes where such forms seem most superfluous. What, then, is Arolat’s own response to this problem? He replied thus:
I especially value the concept of ground-level permeability. In cities like London and New York one can speak of such a permeability or continuity—in fact, not just at ground-level but even a level both above and below that. However, in Istanbul the separation of private and public space and the segregation of different social classes always take place on the plane of the plan, in other words, in the second dimension—in the shape of, say, a wall. This is what underlies segregation. To a certain degree, segregation is of course inevitable and exists in all societies. But in cities like New York and London, it takes place on the cross-section plane, in other words, in the third dimension, and the ground-level is open to all. This is most vital for a city: that you walk the city through and through, and access all spaces at least at ground level—unlike what happens in Istanbul. On paper, every new project in Turkey is asked to leave about 25-30 percent to public use, which never gets to happen in practice because of various obstacles, walls, gates, etc. The opportunity that comes along with the construction boom is to rethink these obstacles. . . . Of course, in a culture that depends so much on property ownership and on showing off, it is not easy to provide a clear-cut definition for public space. If you make it too public, then riot police and their water cannons arrive. I know people say that “Zorlu Center is not public space.” But what is public space? Is Taksim Square public space? If you engage so critically with it, you may well say that public space as such has never truly existed. If you define it so rigidly then you cannot find public space anywhere on earth. . . . But what I say is, let’s first open things up. That is what I strove to do for seven years: to convince the owner of Zorlu to do away with walls and to welcome everyone in there. And I managed. But now there are not only those who criticize Zorlu Center for being not open enough but also those at the other pole who say, “I do not feel comfortable here, it’s not secure enough, we were not searched on our way in.” Once a journalist told such things to Mr Zorlu when I was next to him, and he replied, “look, we tried to build a neighbourhood here.” To get him to reply in this way has not been easy. I convinced him by way of the Potsdamer Platz example. I told him, “please sir, visit and walk around Potsdamer Platz.” We avoided walls in Zorlu thanks to Potsdamer Platz. I know there are people who say “that place hosts Gucci, Prada, etc. and I don’t care whether it’s open or closed; damn that place.” But for me the most important issue was to make Zorlu Center physically permeable. . . . In general, all I care about is to make Istanbul a walkable city.
When he argues to have created new public spaces, Arolat is therefore speaking of a publicness defined in terms of walkability and ease of access—in other words, the uninterrupted circulation of bodies. Defining publicness in terms of the individual’s body, however, introduces its own set of problems, as indicated not only by my visit to Zorlu but also by scholars such as Jacques Rancière. Public space, according to Rancière, is where one is able to stop, inhabit, speak out, and articulate demands, rather than just where one is able to pass by and move through:
The police say that there is nothing to see on a road, that there is nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation. Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’ into a space for the appearance of a subject: i.e., the people, the workers, the citizens: It consists in refiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein.14
Therefore, if individuals’ bodies are to be at the centre of the idea that spaces initially funded by, but closed to the public, can be opened up to the latter through privately funded projects, then architecture ought to be prepared to rethink those bodies as not just a statistically significant volume in constant movement but as a conscious collectivity wishing to dwell in the space and in one another’s habitus.