Participatory Architecture: Opportunities and Traps
For the last five years, we have been witnessing an upheaval in participatory architecture practices in parallel with the prevailing social role of architecture. This process inevitably brings about a variety of tendencies, new experiments and several perspectives. Such global disposition has naturally influenced our local practices. On the pretext that the Architecture of Solidarity Exhibition opened in Istanbul Metropolitan Branch of the Chamber of Architects of Turkey a few months ago, we decided to discuss the topics which we, as the XXI crew, have long been concerned about. We invited Bengi Akbulut, Ferhat Hacialibeyoglu, Merve Akdag Oner, Sait Ali Koknar, Senem Doyduk and Sinan Omacan to have a comprehensive talk about why participatory architecture became a main topic again, what sort of urban practices might be possible, how these might be expanded, whether such an expansion fits the nature of the practice, and what sorts of deviations might be possible in the process.
Hulya Ertas: Participatory architecture, or social architecture in a broader sense, is very exciting, and it attracts so much attention both in the world, and naturally in Turkey. Especially students and young designers are so enthusiastic about it. However, just like the green architecture and sustainability, I am concerned about the risk it has, that it might disappear soon after being all the rage, before its self-critique is generated. Thus, I would like to start a critical discussion on it while we still are practicing it, before it becomes mainstream and commercial. It seems to be a good idea to me to start with urban space and the participatory practices in it, while the recent exhibition “Architecture of Solidarity” at Istanbul Metropolitan Branch of the Chamber of Architects of Turkey is still in our agenda. In my opinion, participation is one of “architecture of solidarity” methods defined there. On the other hand, there are some experiments and examples in the recent history of architecture, such as the works of Hassan Fathy, Lucien Kroll, etc. What is the story of participatory design, and why has it come up again?
Sinan Omacan: Let me start with the theoretical conception of space. The early theoreticians of space were mostly Marxist, probably because of that, it has not been considered as an issue of superstructure, and it has never received the deserved importance in the theory until very recently. Nobody thought that space might be a point of departure for main socio-political topics. This also was the case for Turkey until 1980s, when Orthodox Marxism dominated the zeitgeist. Political conflicts such as environment and gender were all considered to be deferrable matters. The main conflict was considered to be the conflict between labour and capital, and all the others were its subordinate. However, Lefebvre dramatically changes such conception of space. He was a Marxist too, but he thought that space was not an issue of superstructure, on the contrary, it was an element of relations of production. His writings on this in 1960s-70s echoed in Turkey after 90s, together with the introduction of gender, nature, environment, right to the city issues in the political agenda.
Architecture was already a topic of political debate before 1980, however it was discussed as in such a fashion that urban space and architecture itself were considered at most as representation. Urban space has recently been conceived as a main force of production which is worth a political struggle, even in academic circles. We have been getting to the point in the last five years that we should think politics, humanities, architecture and urban space together, and of course leaving the room for their haecceity. If they are not thought out together, it is incomplete. This is so obvious in the urban space, at least in Istanbul, and you do not need an academic background to see it.
As for the Architecture of Solidarity exhibition, it sprang from many events and talks which took place last year. These groups –The Architect Assembly, Plankton, Kuzguncuk and Yedikule Gardens initiatives, Düzce Workshop for Hope, Architecture for All, An Other Workshop- have been publishing, giving interviews in journals, organizing exhibitions. They are well-known. We came to think that these all should become together, and this collaboration might be significant and effective in local and global architecture circles. In the forthcoming period, the mainstream architecture will not include a monolithic structure as it did in the last twenty years, and collaborations of this kind will probably constitute a powerful trend. These groups take voluntary professional action in cases concerning architecture, right to the city and urban struggles. In the preface I wrote for the exhibition catalogue, I tried to explain the context of the exhibition and its relationship with the contemporary architecture scene. The last twenty years, which may be named as “the period of star architects”, or “the period of spectacle buildings”, infected the architectural scene intellectually.
When we think of the discussions in architecture before 1980s-90s with the interventions of Eisenman, Krier brothers (the German postmodern architects), and Rossi’s work on cities a bit earlier, we see a sort of variety. The medium of global mainstream architecture included a platform of discussions away from being monolithic. And, comparing to the recent one, it was rather naïve. That fertile ground of discussions has gradually been destroyed in the last twenty years, and the period of star architects and spectacle buildings (this naming also needs to be elaborated) eroded the intellectual capacity of architecture. It imposed its legitimacy supported by the forces of international socio-economic context upon all fields from education to media. This is obvious when you remember what happened before, for instance, the architecture journals in Turkey before. This domination is now diffusing. A variety of approaches will eventually emerge. In the last twenty years, we also have seen the works of Zumthor, Murcutt, Shigeru Nan and the like, the architectural production of whom were not of an easily marketable kind, although they were examples of private architectural practice focused on the question of construction.
Merve Akdag Oner: The starting point of this discussion seems to be the diffusion of modernism or postmodernism, doesn’t it? Fifty or a hundred years ago, people used to produce the urban space, the architecture, the neighborhood, the village, or the slums in a collective fashion, in solidarity. In Turkey, the number of the star architects increased and the basic way of architectural production became monopolized, hence the terms “participation” and “solidarity” became fashionable. Do you think there is a correlation here?
Sinan Omacan: Certainly, to a large extent, or more precisely, with the change in the socio-economic field, and with the decline of star architecture, the search of a new architecture emerged. The transformation which occurred in the last twenty years is not a transformation that can be analyzed solely from an architectural perspective. A giant portion of economy runs in the real estate market, in which architects have an important role. The construction rush changes the social life a great deal. They all are related. From a city dweller’s point of view, this can be understood, however you cannot understand it solely through an architectural perspective. The architecture circles of the last period forgot all the discussions raised by Rossi and etc. in 60s, and reduced architectural practice to the advertisement of construction sector, totally focusing on the building. The same happened in academy and architecture journals. It became an autonomous and almost automatic means of domination. In this sense, since it is a part of socio-political transformation, the architectural point of view is not enough to grasp it.
From 2005 to 2014, in ten years, construction licenses had been taken for one billion six hundred million square meter land in Turkey. This has never happened before. This is four-five times more than the highest averages in the history of the Republic of Turkey. This rush is a process so destructive, and there exists a resistance to it, but not in the architecture circles. This down and dirty process tired the architecture field out. Moreover, it was not possible for the world of architecture to correspond to this process, neither intellectually in the academy, nor in terms of professional accumulation enough for that amount of construction. The amount of construction in the last ten years does not correspond to the architectural accumulation in the last eighty years. The weariness of such a fact creates reactions of various sorts. Tending towards the social issues, developing an architectural thought based on participation, solidarity, right to the city, etc. can be considered as one of those reactions.
Ferhat Hacialibeyoglu: Participatory design, in my opinion, is marginal in terms of the general working of design processes, and it should remain marginal for some more time. The discourse that invites everyone to think about and produce participatory architecture has the risk to destroy its nature, and consume its realism. There used to be some examples in the past, while theoretical experiments were studied in the academy, independent experiences were practiced in operational fields. I think, these experiments never had the vision to dominate the field. Take 60s, for example. Social change had an influence on almost everything, including the sciences that focused on human subject and had an impact on the space. I may refer to Hassan Fathy, Christopher Alexander and the like. I can also refer to Sanoff, who had huge amounts of architectural production. They all did some independent experiments, and probably unaware of each other. They learned by experience and transferred this knowledge to others. Experiences of this sort have always been marginal, and in my opinion, they should remain so. The crucial point is what they can learn from each other and how they can become the rings of the chain.
Hulya Ertas: Why should they remain marginal?
Ferhat Hacıbeyoğlu: I attach scale so much importance. Scale is directly related to applicability, feasibility, and sound operation. There is a big difference between the outcomes of our little touches in the micro scale and those in the large scale. In macro scale, it is possible to dismiss the conceivability and local communication network. Thus, participatory architecture should improve upon the outcomes of micro-scale experiences. This is possible in architecture, however, in planning, so-called participatory processes mostly are not how they ought to be. If factors such as personal interest and financial expectations intrude, the process fails. The process, in which common interest is aimed at and personal interests and pragmatic approaches are eliminated, necessitates voluntary action in the urban space.
Bengi Akbulut: Are you referring to voluntary action of thearchitects?
Ferhat Hacialibeyoglu: Voluntary action of all agents, shareholders of the local communication network, I mean. The decision process is not reserved for designers only. And designers cease to be solely designers in the decision process. They become the designer of the action; the architect as a directing, listening, intermediating, data gathering, interpreting, re-distributing agent. Many disciplines come together. Each agent leaves their own standpoint to join the process of collective production and learning. The disciplines must improve themselves and learn from each other. Otherwise, it might become a pseudo-participatory process in which some agents impose their will and opinion, and pretend that their idea is all others’.
Senem Doyduk: I see what you mean while you say that it should remain marginal. However, I do not think that its nature can be destroyed. First of all, naming is very crucial: “Participatory architecture”, “architecture of solidarity”, “collective architecture”, etc. They vary according to formal differences. Let us call them all “desubjectivized architecture movements”, in which subjects do not come to the fore, personal egos and satisfactions are eliminated, expectations dismissed, stardom and financial interest ceased to exist, etc. A process of such kind should not remain as singular examples, or some marginal works some weird high minded people do because of their kindness. These characteristics correspond to the basic social responsibilities of the profession, and thus they should become widespread. And such a movement which will increase the number of such examples is worth our efforts and supports.
I am here because I am a member of The Architect Assembly. I will give some examples of what we did. The Architect Assembly participated in the “Architecture of Solidarity” exhibition, which exactly served this purpose. There are some groups which carry on architectural services, and some of their members are not architect. The term “solidarity” in the title of the exhibition is not the solidarity of these small groups. This is what we learned in the last six-seven months. We met many times, these groups got to know each other, and learned from each other just as you said. When it was necessary -and it became necessary many times in six months- these groups acted with solidarity. Hence, I do not think that these examples should stay marginal in order to preserve the originality, beauty and romanticism, that does not fit current reality.
The Architect Assembly does this under the name of “architecture for the people”. We can discuss why we do not use the term participants, society, and how these concepts differ. And while doing this, we by no means keep it in a marginal parenthesis, on the contrary, we try to spread, increase, widen it as much as we can.
Ferhat Hacialibeyoglu: By marginality, I do not mean to avoid spreading it, indeed. However, if this becomes the dominant way of production, it might be consumed too soon. We should first come together, learn from each other, see the outcomes, and improve it, without having great expectations. These are the rings of a chain hence we should progress by learning and focus on the process, not on the outcome. My experience showed me how it is in the academy. In the academic realm, we learn from each other in continuous discussions. However, this begs an experience to see whether what you discuss can be made or not. If you experience the making, you learn and improve. For example, in one of our experience, the site was a park. Our subject was children. The environment was poor in terms of physical and social conditions. We came together, collaborated with the related actors, gathered the shareholders, and came up with an outcome. In the long run, we could not achieve our aims. Although we took the drugs and securities issues into account, our project did not last long. We learned something from that project, and now we are trying something else. We cannot come up with the idea to design all İzmir in this way, because it is not the correct way.
Senem Doyduk: I agree, speed is crucial. To expect it to blow, and everyone practicing it is to consume it. This is what the medium of architecture does: Some concepts shine, the medium swallows and consumes them, and the concepts become useless. Nowadays, everyone is in solidarity, every project is participatory.
Sinan Omacan: It is not architects; it is the admen who do it mostly.
Hulya Ertas: There are academicians in US trying to organize an evaluation certificate for participation.
Bengi Akbulut: We should check the dimensions, and the source of threats, I suppose.
Senem Doyduk: We should also talk about the inadequacy of the academy. Ferhat is right on this issue: You learn through practice, while making, and the process does not focus on the outcome. The brilliance of the project cannot be recognized solely through a professional perspective; moreover, it is not a sufficient criterion whether the project is realized or not. It is important of course, but cannot be a criterion by itself.
Ferhat Hacialibeyoglu: You learn from the process by trial and error, and you encounter many aspects you could not have imagined before. We are not there as designers or architects only; we gather the actors together. You cannot expect any municipality to approach you and require participatory design projects with the participation of the people. We have to show and tell them. Some accept, some others do not.
My professional action is based on design, both in the academy and in various other mediums. However, here, your identity is different. The first thing you do here is to listen, and learn a variety of issues. You face with a strictly defined context, e.g. security. When you explore the problem, it becomes complicated. While you proceed, communicate and collaborate, the data accumulates and the process gets complex. And at the end, the only thing you come up with is an idea how the security problem might be dealt with. Design takes a backseat. You are not there with your designer identity only. Various disciplines come together and their perspectives and surveys provide you with data; you learn from them. I see it as a process of learning where many shareholders gather; or even as a communication model. The answer to the question why it is a hot topic in Turkey now might be this: Communication. People do not only read or watch what they are exposed to anymore. Development of communication means has provided people with the ability to response fast, interpret, and instantly come together with people like you. We used to have a glance of something and bypass it, but now we see something, stop to think, interpret, share, hear what others say, come together and build a set. Communication is one of the aspects why participation has become a hot topic.
Bengi Akbulut: You started with the concepts of green and sustainable, Hulya. Participation, in humanities and in the management of the commons, precedes these concepts, indeed. Green economy and sustainable development claimed that there was a serious ecological crisis, and it was damaging the capital, hence we had to do something else. These concepts originated as radical concepts and ecological struggle movements internalized them, however, they at the same time signify the accumulation of capital, an area of investment. Building a green construction, providing environmental solutions based on green economy market models, doing technological investments are similar. The system clears out and appropriates these concepts. The capital named these concepts as green economy, sustainable development at the instance it accepted the situation. The threat is still present, and nothing has been solved yet. Participation can be traced back to 1970s in terms of the management of natural sources and commons. Even World Bank claimed that since lands and forests are commonly used by people, they should not be privatized and participatory mechanisms would work there. Privatization decreased the productivity. Private forest was consumed faster. Participation was considered as a better solution since it entailed the conservation of the forest. And what else did the World Bank do? Not only World Bank, by the way; all the international development institutions do the same. They came up with projects that propose building participatory management mechanisms in villages with forests to decide together in meetings on the annual number of trees used, on the time schedule and on the sharing of income.
I give the example of natural commons, but we can broaden it. Participation is good for the common interest. I cannot think of any case that interest does not exist. It might be a marginal, small, or a personal interest, but always there is an interest. It might be financial, or about the quality of life. Nobody in this process would say “It does not matter to me, this or that way”, everyone has an interest, or a demand. If there is a collaboration, although everyone has the right to vote, the poor and the rich of the village have different influence on the decision. The power relations in the participatory mechanisms do not guarantee a democratic process when you put participation solely as a mechanism. It did not work, and it was degenerated since it was too technical, and for show only. You can keep the participatory process going provided that the social structure is already experienced in common decisions, collaborative management in social and participatory sense. This has been done before in Turkey, the participatory projects of environmental protection. The women of the villages did not know anything about it, three headmen and their assistants decided on how the reeds around the village will be used, and they called it participatory plan. First of all, I do not understand why participation is a trend in architecture. Is it only because, as Sinan said, there is a boredom and a gap? Isn’t there any demand from the grassroots? Is there a demand that people want to have a word for the decisions on the land they live? Second, who might degenerate or exhaust the concept, and why? It is not an empty threat that it will become a useless concept, and it will be out of date, is it?
Senem Doyduk: It is just like your example: Why does the World Bank invest in participatory projects in a village in the middle of nowhere?
Bengi Akbulut: Because they realized that under the state’s control, the sea, and the fish would extinct. They saw it coming. For fifty years, they left it to the control of the state, the management of natural sources. And then they saw that it was not the right method. Then they transferred it to the free market. There, production decreased, and relations of capital did not gain anything. Therefore, they decided that the best way to maximize productivity and keep source efficiency was to delegate it to the local people. The participatory mechanisms do not only control people, but also sustain the productivity there. What is its equivalent in architecture, and what is the interest there? I am not an expert in this. If we talk about the political economy of it, I will probably grasp the threats.
Hulya Ertas: I think the threat is the concept of the star architect. I am not so sure that star architect is out of date. The architect of solidarity and participation may easily become the star architect of today.
Bengi Akbulut: Is this star architect going to be able to sell more houses? What is his or her interest?
Sinan Omacan: Yes, some people foresee it for star architects. I have just discussed it from the field of architecture. There is also a social demand, expectation, or pressure, about the right to the city. However, there exists a political barrier between architecture and social demand; and this barrier blocks everything. The demand for participation cannot climb over this dam wall. As Bengi claimed, participation is literally political, since it is for the people who cannot participate the decision mechanisms because of this or that. We are not talking about the participation of the powerful.
Bengi Akbulut: Therefore, the outcome depends on who participates.
Sinan Omacan: The mechanisms should be developed in such a way that the right owners who cannot express themselves could find the opportunity to participate. Pseudo-participation risks that sort of participation.
Bengi Akbulut: It becomes more and more clear for me what concerns us about the participatory architecture as we discuss on the obstacles and dilemmas it entails. No capital, in its broad sense, would be happy with participatory architecture, I suppose. It is a long process, and hard to be commercialized. The commercialization of green and sustainable architecture seems to be much easy, since we are going to be dead in twenty years, not in fifty, unless they make it green or sustainable.
Senem Doyduk: But it is marketed as easily as those. For example, what is the difference between the Okmeydani project of Beyoglu Municipality and environmental or ecological projects? They pretend to have pursued a participatory process in order to extend the rent-seeking project and to minimize the resistance. There is no difference indeed.
Bengi Akbulut: First, this is the business of degeneration or appropriation of social resistance, and this is another topic of utmost importance. Second, is participation for a rent-seeking project possible?
Sinan Omacan: For that very reason, it is possible.
Bengi Akbulut: “With capitalism came the transition from the space in which commodity is produced to the space-become-commodity”, writes Lefebvre. We are now experiencing it in İstanbul. DO the participants produce the space as a commodity? Is participatory architecture participatory production of space? Is it essential to produce the use value of space? Is it a principle? Do we need such a principle?
Hulya Ertas: I think we also have to discuss whether it is possible to achieve a participatory production in the present system. If it is, what is its scale? Sinan, you claim that there is a demand from the society, however the urban transformation rush motivates people to give their houses to the contractors to get a seventy-square meter flat. The market motivates individual greed and property.
Sinan Omacan: This is true. If we define the context as participation in architecture and planning, this is one of the basic problems. The manipulations of power holders could be avoided to a certain extent, but the real problem is the commercialization of participants’ expectations. This especially becomes obvious in housing.
Sait Ali Koknar: There is a similar difference between the birthday parties of my childhood and those of today. Children used to come together and have fun. Now, they do nothing. The parents hire some activities and the children get bored. The children today experience all the activities in one birthday, a number of activities of many years’ birthday parties at once, and they are bored. “I am so bored of this birthday party,” they say when they come back home.
Sinan Omacan: They are just audience, right?
Sait Ali Koknar: Now it is not possible to come together on the streets, to play or to construct something. They come together, and when asked what they want to learn, “What else can I learn?” they reply. How can I require from you something I do not know? I ask this from time to time. The reply is silence. Similarly, what can you get from participation? How can you encourage people to do something long forgotten, even ceased to exist? This part is empty.
In 1960s-70s, some architects who remembered what it meant, and who were concerned about forgetting these, Lucien Kroll, Giancarlo de Carlo and etc. discussed the subject. The recent version, however, is like “this seems to be okay, there is a potential in it, let’s learn and remember it”. It is not a spirit that avoids losing it.
Senem Doyduk: The the question becomes clearer: For what have these people come together? It is similar to the birthday party example. That crazy potential of many children cannot be achieved. It has to be recharged.
Sait Ali Koknar: It was transformed by co-evolution. They have forgotten what they could do.
Senem Doyduk: Right. And you cannot measure it with the number of people you managed to bring together in the participatory activity. No matter how many people and various actors you gather together, the reason why you are doing it should be solid and consistent. It is not enough with many participants, various actors, doing something together. This, by itself, does not correspond to participatory architecture.
Sait Ali Koknar: The participatory projects held from 2014 till now seem to be training projects on how participation would be used. It is not remembering how it was, it is rediscovery. Thatcher-ist politics of economy from mid-70s made people forget such things.
Sinan Omacan: You do not mean that only architects forgot it, right?
Sait Ali Koknar: No, I refer to everyone. The user also forgot how to participate.
Senem Doyduk: The sense of community and collectivism has been damaged. This is related to the flattering of the subject and individuality. Today, nobody is after a fertile, efficient, targeted production. Everybody desires the success of oneself. Hasan Fathy is often referred when participation and collective production are discussed. “Fathy did this and that, including the villagers into the process…” At the very center, still there is an individual.
Sait Ali Koknar: We have a range in which subjectivities vary. In some projects subjects dominate, and struggle with each other for their interests, and in others they cease to exist. The former examples can be seen Germany. Their political culture is different, and they have different habits.
In South America, there is an Inka tradition in Peru: Q’eswachaka Bridge. Once in a year, they rebuild the bridge made of grass rope, which connects the two sides of a canyon. How do they rebuild it? There are meadows around, with 30 cm long grass. They harvest the meadows, produce very thick rope out of that grass, use the old rope as the lead, reach the opposite side, and leave the old bridge on the river below. Of course, there is a master among them, an elderly of the village, or someone who learned how to do it from his parents. He weaves the rope. Two ropes on top, three on the bottom, and all the villagers, women, children spin and weave the bridge while singing and dancing. When the two sides are connected, they organize a festival, and then they go back to their village.
Now, some would find it nonsense. “They should build an iron bridge, and that’s it.” However, if you build the iron bridge, you just miss the three-days experience of building the bridge every year. People come together, children learn from the elderly, listen to their stories. These all are various sorts of capital, and you forsake it.
Bengi Akbulut: There is worse: Let’s imagine we are organizing a participatory project in that village, and the villagers say that they want an iron bridge, not that one anymore. We should not always expect that participation will result in solidarist, equalitarian, environment-friendly projects.
Sait Ali Koknar: One may create a campaign with the message “you are not civilized, and civilization is here in this iron bridge”. It is not difficult for them to give up something not so visible. If someone is intent to destroy this tradition, it is easy. Someone from the world we live in can easily confuse them.
Bengi Akbulut: We should not romanticize it. A group of villagers may decide to excessively use the lake near their village and dry it up.
Sait Ali Koknar: And this happened before, indeed. They dried Avlan Lake up in Elmali. Everyone approved since they thought the swamp might be dried. However, when moisture decreased, they could not grow apples. Now, they are filling the lake up again.
Bengi Akbulut: Here, in your example, the problem is lack of knowledge and foresight. In Sultansazligi people said that they hated the reeds, and they wanted to live somewhere else. They may say that they do not want to grow apples, they want to dry the lake up and grow something else. It is beyond how realist they are. This is a problem about participation. In the former example you gave, that three-days process is crucial in terms of organizing and sustaining the social relations. In this point, I would like to ask what the role of participatory architecture is. If it is gathering various sorts of information and organizing the process, then it does not have to be a participatory architect. Someone who is not an architect can also do it. What is the role of architect there; and why are we talking about participatory architecture? Is it the negotiation with the power holders? Is it introducing to the municipality the way how to do that particular participatory project? Is it a sort of expertise?
Hulya Ertas: This is what I wonder also: What is the role of professional competence of the architect here?
Ferhat Hacialibeyoglu: Professional expertise is of course necessary, however in participatory processes, it cannot be dominant. There is a place where a spatial organization will be built. We have two choices: We do it here by ourselves, and build it there; or we start with the people who will use it, and decide together, see what their expectations, aims and preferences are, and define it all according to such data. It is not so realistic to expect a design from a non-designer. It is our profession to design. If we are architects, designers, of course we are going to design. In this sort of projects, the process is constructed from grassroots, rather than being in a top-down fashion, that’s it.
On the other hand, we also discuss how we practice the design process. Participatory design process differs from other design methods, and the important point is whether people embrace the design as the result of the participatory process. When you design something here, and go to build it there, there is the risk that it may not be embraced. However, in participatory projects, the users feel that they have a contribution to it, they embrace and conserve what has been done. This is one of the criteria whether the process was participatory or not, whether that work was collective or not.
Senem Doyduk: If a space or a product is embraced by its user, no matter whether they participated the production process, it means that it is collective. If the user participated the decision or implementation processes, it is more collective. This is what we consider valuable, what should be extended, what should be seen as one of the social responsibilities of the designer or the architect. At least, this is what we aim at in our group. We do not care about the number of people participated, or how brilliant the product is. What is important for us is whether it is embraced. This is why we do it.
Merve Akdag Oner: There are three aspects we are discussing about: Singularity, speed and power. Let’s take singularity and discuss it in terms of architectural practice. In our country, our professional realm was established in such a way that we have difficulties to include other disciplines in design phase. For example, while designing a museum, the architect cannot delegate even the design of instructions to graphic designer or industrial designer, how could he or she delegate the participant in the public? We should also discuss the academy, and the base of education.
As for marginality issue, participants or participatory processes might be singular groups which pulled away from power dynamics dominating the culture. However, this is not marginality, in my opinion. What is essential here is the natural creative force in the earth itself, since it is related to processes which exist since human existed, such as right to city, production processes, etc. Keeping them remain as marginal is similar to leave them extinct. Participatory production has already been an organic part of our cultural structure.
As for the speed of collaboration among these groups, shall we be faster or remain slow; the basic values of each group are clear. If these groups agree on the basic values, and correct action is taken on the right time, sustainability might be accelerated. Local governments and the public might be stimulated, and they might accept this. The more these values become common, the more impact they will have. And, in terms of housing, in villages for example, people make drawings on their houses’ facades, even if somebody else built it, or they add something. They used to build the parapets on their balconies, that is industrialized now. I cannot imagine what people can make by themselves for their houses.
Hulya Ertas: What are the contributions the participatory processes make to each shareholder? What does the architect get? Moreover, what does the participant learn? This process is one that you cannot avoid being influenced, I suppose.
Sinan Omacan: We work on archaeological sites, sites with cultural heritage. In such a site in rural area, we made eight meetings with thirty-forty people, including the villagers, the officers of local government and headmen. It is not participatory design proper, however, various sections of the local community participated the decision-making process; a process design was supervised and criticized by various shareholders. This is one of the versions. Another version includes the participant actively in design process. Could we manage to solve all the problems in our project? No. However, all the agents willingly participated. This was an exception, since it had no aspect that could be turned into a personal interest. It was a project that might have an indirect common interest to the region. The participation was significant, though. Every participant claims their problems and expectations. In this sense, participation is easier in public or shared sites. Urban space, where the land value is high, is difficult. Everyone desires direct benefits that would immediately double the value of their property.
In some other processes, the position of the user, the designer, the architect, and the planner changes gradually. Some architects still think of İstanbul, with its history of 1500-2000 years, as a blank sheet; they see building plots wherever they look at. This is surreal. This is what I mean by the intellectual capacity. They think this is possible. Unbelievable! You cannot ask them why they do not recognize the participants, or why they do not mind them. This is intellectual incompetence. They work as if no cultural heritage exists underground. And they are not a minority, or a group of royal architects; they are very well-known. During the urban transformation projects, social scientists organized meetings in every neighbourhood, however none of the architects who would work there joined the meetings. This is strange. This is more than professional incompetence. This is solipsism. An architect may think of what he looks at as a sole wall, and an expert of another field might have something else to say about that wall. This would be a great contribution the intellectual capacity of architecture. And this is not yet participation. When you walk on the streets of the neighbourhood, you come across with an archaeologist, a social scientist, and a grocer. The architects unfortunately do not see them. Ok, the design is yours, but you have to learn about these. I repeat: This is not participation yet, this is the necessary minimum relation, and even this much would contribute architecture a great deal. While you work on something, you get to know its background. Before the problem of the user, in the present housing context, there exists the problem of imaginary user. It is not similar in urban transformation projects. The property owners are there, but the architect does not know them, or listen to them.
Hulya Ertas: If he does, he cannot complete the project.
Sinan Omacan: That’s right. A slightly better version, on top of the background information, consists of sharing the decision-making phase with the rights-holders, and “rights” means not only property rights, but also rights from being an inhabitant of the place. The rights-holders are allowed to codirect the project (architecture or planning), their opinions are asked, criticisms considered, satisfactions guaranteed. Some other design practices go still beyond this, such as including the participants in design process. I am not informed about the last one, it seems more difficult. However, the former practices would be of great benefit for architecture.
Sait Ali Koknar: You warned me about romanticism, but we should not assume that designers of other sorts do not know about these, or do not listen to them.
Merve Akdag Oner: It is a long process to become an architect after the graduation. Architecture cannot be reduced to something like “I designed a house there, renovated four buildings in Bostanci, made this and that project.” We practice architecture in a more intellectual fashion in İstanbul, however, in smaller cities, what Sinan remarked can be stronger. We have a number of students who choose to be architects since they have relatives who are contractors, and they have already been designing projects for them, and that they want to be more professional in the university.
It takes a long time for architecture to explore its roots. We cannot find out the extensions of a profession in such a cultural medium, at the beginning of architecture education. Sait Ali was my tutor in architectural studio course, and his perspective influenced me a great deal; since he was able to explain how a particular practice might have contacts with other particular practices. And he did this by making individual, subjective connections with each one of us. Some values have been degenerated in education, and just a few professors like Sait Ali remained in academy. The guidance of professors into a rich cultural realm helps the architecture students a great deal in improving their fields of interest. Architectural production had better find its cultural, structural and technological roots.
We made a billboard called “Come with your dreams” in Besiktas two years ago with Give Sound of Your City platform. This board came out of an attractive communication strategy Before we prepared the board, we worked for two months. Our process was a kinetic one, which came out of our own previous experience, and of some others that we witnessed. Although it is not a method often used in architecture, we decided to make a visual survey, the question of which also was interventionist and stimulating. Before the board, we had carried out City Workshops in Uskudar and in Besiktas with people from various disciplines for two months. We wandered around Besiktas with maps in our hands, talked to fishermen, tradesmen, and all sorts of users of the neighborhood. We derived some questions out of these talks. The number of parks in Besiktas was not sufficient, this was a problem, for example, in terms of public space. The municipality considered it was enough, the users did not agree. They also thought that parks do not necessarily have to be green, or lawn. All the answers to the questions were coded in colors according to age group. We also asked if the participants dwelled in Besiktas, or just used the neighborhood from time to time.
I cannot say that I designed this process by myself. An ethnographer who worked in the field of sociology contributed a great deal. We had support in terms of design and presentation of the board from Sevcan, a graphic designer from our crew, some social scientist, and experienced NGO members.
The correct way of communication brings certain answers. The cultural pattern of Besiktas also had an influence on participation. People realized that we were asking questions, and street children, elderly women and men, their grandchildren, university students and etc. came with their friends. We were not expecting that amount of participation. Four or five homeless persons came and gave feedback about street lighting. They said the lighting solutions was wrong for streets and city. Their homeless experience gave us some details on long term users’ discontents, while some others felt comfortable with it. Such feedback is generally overlooked, since our list of city users does not include homeless people. We ignore this group while designing the streets. The municipality was interested in particular questions: When the new local governors had started, they had made a survey, and the results had showed that Besiktas was the district where its habitants were the most content city dwellers with their neighborhood. The municipality wanted us to find out if this still was the case. The answers varied, however, eighty percent of participants agreed. However, they were not satisfied with specially functionalized tracks and infrastructure. They complained about the surveys carried out by the municipality. Although the surveyors claimed that they developed participatory strategies, the questions were not about the inhabitants, and did not leave room for their participation, they complained. Autonomous groups might find various strategies to develop such a project, and we might learn from each other.
Hulya Ertas: The municipality and governor gets in when we talk about urban space. We can ignore them in housing, however, in public space, the local government should inevitably be taken into account as a partner.
Ferhat Hacıbeyoğlu: Sure, they are the executing authorities. We have to consider them as a partner. And there is nothing wrong inviting them as a partner in a process that we tell and persuade them on what is to be done. If you do it correctly, the process becomes much easier, and satisfactory results become more probable. Local government can be used as a mechanism which provides the operation, access, and communication in the field.
Senem Doyduk: The local government should absolutely be used as a service provider. And this is the reason why it exists. This is its duty. It has to provide service to such sort of voluntary groups. But, do we really need them to contact with the neighborhood? Can’t we do it directly, as a professional group?
Ferhat Hacıbeyoğlu: Of course, we can. However, it would be better if local governing is with you in the communication phase, rather than ignoring them. When it becomes a problem, it should be overcome. It is and advantage when it is not a problem. Each experience has its own contextual conditions, and its necessities and methods may vary.
Bengi Akbulut: Let me add something about the municipality. Tarlabasi project was a participatory project, however the people removed were not among the participants. Zorlu was similar. What will the result be in each participatory project? Tarlabasi had an impact on the ones removed from there. None of the projects, especially the ones in the city scale, are not solely about the end users. Some people are removed, and the ones who do not live there might be influenced by the buildings to be constructed there, and I might have a word to say about it, considering that the city is common. It cannot be measured. Emek Movie Theatre was important since it was a space where our urban space was reproduced there; it was a part of a common. It was not a park, it was not a space where everyone gets in for free; but it was a common, and all the interventions in urban space somehow effect the commons. You may even think of it for all inhabitants of the city. Who has the right to say in this participation issue?
Sinan Omacan: Emek Movie Theatre was the property of the Retirement Fund.
Bengi Akbulut: Yes, I know that. It is a public property, but beyond the property right, it is a part of İstanbul, and it is a common space for the users.
Sinan Omacan: It used to catch their eyes, right?
Bengi Akbulut: It was beautiful. It should have remained there. We would be happy with its presence even if we did not see it. Hence, while considering participation, we should go beyond housing and literally shared public spaces. Merve mentioned the street lighting, and how wrong it was designed. Wrong to whom? It is bad design according to the homeless living there. If you do not want anyone to live in the streets, it is a good design, since it disturbs them. Such an extension of the discussion makes it much more contradictory. It will always be contradictory. We have just talked about power. Participation becomes naïve there. What happens there is anyone’s struggle.
Senem Doyduk: Then the question is the government of participatory groups; how the power will be delegated in their management.
Bengi Akbulut: If the people removed had the opportunity to participate the discussion in Tarlabaşı, it would have been a much more conflicting process than talking and learning from each other.
Senem Doyduk: And the outcome would have been different.
Bengi Akbulut: Of course, it would. The mechanisms that would make the process more democratic is one thing, and the role of the architect is another. It is not a peaceful process since spatial intervention will be beneficial for someone, and not for others. Their demands and needs are different. Beyond financial interest, their live would become easier or harder. Some social relations will become easier, and some others harder.
Sinan Omacan: It must be that way, especially today. When it is one of the main productive forces of the city, and one of the main means of urban memory, you should be aware of the conflicts and appropriation of a group of people’s rights, and transfer them to another group. One should develop communication means, and abilities to solve conflicts with dialogue. Otherwise, architecture becomes construction of a building solely. I have been hearing the following since I was student: What does the architect deal with? If it is not only the building, the architect should also deal with what we have just talked about.
Hulya Ertas: This is what is implied in the question “What does the architect deal with?”, I suppose.
Sinan Omacan: It should be. The architect should be aware of the lives his practice would change. And it is not limited to human lives. Beyond human society, there exist mountains, rivers, forests, etc. So, if you are moving a stone, you are responsible of it. Sait Ali said that we should not assume the architect does not know it. This might be a choice, but I think professional incompetence lies beneath that choice.
Hulya Ertas: In addition to these discussions, we also have the topic of aesthetics. Some think that participatory projects are not beautiful. The buildings designed by the star architects are beautiful, however they add up to terrible cities. How can we define beauty when the project is not the work of one architect’s aesthetics, but a project determined by many people’s views and many parameters? I ask this with the presupposition that we can evaluate a building as beautiful or ugly.
Senem Doyduk: I could not get what the beauty of the building is.
Sait Ali Koknar: Conventional beauty of a building.
Senem Doyduk: And it is not your sense of beauty.
Sait Ali Koknar: If it is yours, it is yours. And there is the conventional beauty of the society. The mechanism, the capital needs it. The capital starts the production of buildings which will be sold two years later; and they must be sold in that two years. If they are not appreciated, the company bankrupts. Thus, there is an overarching aesthetics that applies to the tastes of all of us. The trendsetters are organized, fashion shows are held in Paris, certain people wear certain cloths. This aesthetics is taught to us. We find ourselves buying things that do not match at all.
Senem Doyduk: Who would consider the most beautiful building of the world beautiful, if it is constructed on Gezi Park?
Sinan Omacan: The answer is in the question: The most beautiful building of the world must be appreciated by everyone on earth. It is not possible. And it cannot be a source of legitimization.
Senem Doyduk: Let’s say they build something that is conventionally beautiful, appreciated by the general sense, very well-designed in architectural sense; and it is built on Gezi Park. Who would find it beautiful? What is aesthetics here then?
Ferhat Hacialibeyoglu: Or, another question: Is something beautiful provided that it is not built on Gezi Park?
Sait Ali Koknar: This is a process of being taught. We all have been taught that Eiffel Tower was beautiful. Many disliked it when it was built. It was considered as a problem. “The most beautiful spot in Paris is the top of Eiffel Tower, since you cannot see it from there”, says Guy de Maupassant.
Senem Doyduk: Do you think the same would happen if something is built on Gezi Park?
Bengi Akbulut: There are two distinct discussions here. One is the aesthetic appreciation, the other is the demand of the building. The process depends on the historical context of the construction, on what is built and what is demolished.
Senem Doyduk: In which context can we discuss the aesthetics, with the theme of solidarity, participation and collectivism that occurred there?
Sait Ali Koknar: The conventional aesthetics that we learn apply to what we do. Something might seem ugly according to these general conventions, while it is sustainable, participatory, an object of a happier world, but it might be ugly at the same time.
Senem Doyduk: This is something that we can learn. The building constructed in the place where Emek Movie Theatre used to be might seem beautiful to many. In this context, the question has a message: The decline of star architecture and the emergence of social architecture movements include hitherto excluded social groups into the democratic, socially responsible projects; but is there a risk that these projects will not be as beautiful as the others? This is how I understood the question.
Hulya Ertas: Not exactly. The question is how we can build that aesthetics now. The latter will have its own aesthetics, and it will evolve into a conventional sense of beauty.
Senem Doyduk: The case of Gezi Park is a perfect answer to that question, isn’t it? In that short period, there existed that chaos, that mess, those little orchards... People appreciated that make-shift style, not the flower beds surrounded by granites designed by the municipality. I think this is what we should talk about.
Sait Ali Koknar: This is the perspective of your own circle. In a general sense, that spot has been cleaned. This is the issue of aesthetic opposition. We control each other in terms of aesthetics also. It is not that someone comes up and controls us all, it happens in the social relations and produces opposing fronts. We think that the architects consider everywhere as building plots. Similarly, the architects should be aware of how their designs, their aesthetics are perceived, misunderstood, and coded. The last Venice Biennial curated by Aravena included only beautiful pieces. The next phases would be inacceptable for people.
Senem Doyduk: Which people?
Sait Ali Koknar: The board of trustees of the Venice Biennale, the elites of Venice, bureaucrats in the Italian Ministry of Culture, the world, the curators, and so on.
Hulya Ertas: And the journals would not publish them.
Ferhat Hacialibeyoglu: What do you mean by the next phases? The phases that users start to build?
Sait Ali Koknar: I don’t know. Maybe. Sam happened in İstanbul Biennale a few years ago. “Why have they put this mess here?”, they asked. There was an installation in Salt Beyoglu, hastily put up. Everybody found it odd. It is not about learning. It seems beautiful or ugly to our eyes, and we want to get rid of the ugly. The arguments about Tarlabasi and Sulukule included the “cleaning” discourse. What we learn in terms of aesthetic judgement creates some fronts, and this is interesting. The dominant architecture practice, and people’s expectations from architecture include such blocks, dogmas, and circles. I am not the first one who claims it. The issue of aesthetics is political and economic at the same time.
Some gardens built according to permaculture does not look like as beautiful and tidy as the others, but they need less care. People come together in a context of plant sociology, however the garden becomes something other than you learned about. It needs less care, it is more fruitful. But it is ugly.
Hulya Ertas: A settlement like a village was built in South Africa. Iwan Baan was sent by Domus to photograph the settlement. Joseph Grima used to be the editor of Domus then. In Baan’s photos, the ground seems to be swept. It is too clean. And Baan, who is a very expensive photographer, produced in those photos a conventional photographic aesthetics. That project could not have been published in Domus, if it was not “aestheticized” by Baan.
Sinan Omacan: That’s right. If a very famous and expensive photographer goes to somewhere, it is beautiful. No one can have a doubt about it. If enough amount of money is invested, it is unquestionably beautiful.
Sait Ali Koknar: The approval of the conventional is about the reproduction of it. It is interesting that Venice Biennale was curated by Aravena, and is curated now by two female architects. Capital might have to create green policies. Or it might have been in a phase that destroys itself. This might be the reason why social responsibility projects have become so popular. Roman Empire collapsed because eight persons had the eighty percent of the people’s total wealth. The present conditions are similar. Income inequality becomes a threat, and such projects ca be staged. It might also be a change in politics, a slowdown, or a braking.
Bengi Akbulut: This is a good answer for my initial question.
Sait Ali Koknar: It might be a threat. The term “destination” is often used nowadays in tourism. It was never used in 1970s. Destination refers to the city where the hotel is, and includes the spots you will visit after you get out of your hotel. However, when a hotel is built there, the destination is destroyed. It is a vicious circle. Those particular buildings, or those gated communities are built, but it has no sense. But still, I am not sure whether people could produce participatory architectural projects, especially since they have forgotten what is done when they come together. All these participatory projects re-teach us what we can do. It works, to learn it again, and to discover what might be done in a more efficient way in the future.
Sinan Omacan: Aesthetics and ethics seem to be separate topics in philosophy, but I think they cannot be discussed independently from each other. On the topic of conventionality, the term “normal” is problematic. “Show me a single normal person, where is it?”, I would just ask. The same applies to the term “beautiful”. These should be discussed in singular cases, not in generalized fashion. We are talking about distinct aesthetics when we are talking about a 10000-15000 Euro per square-meter building and about an example of participatory design. They cannot be of the same aesthetics, and I do not mean that one is superior than the other. Consider the forty years of Russian Constructivism from the beginning of the twentieth century to 1940s, or the architecture of the Nazi period, or the previous German early-modern examples, or Art-Deco of Mid-Europe at the beginning of twentieth century: These all lasted forty years, and each had different aesthetics. If you find one of them beautiful, the other is not. It is very simple and obvious. However, some might find beautiful elements in each.
Hulya Ertas: They all look beautiful now.
Sinan Omacan: Nothing can easily be appreciated as beautiful, I think. “Beautiful” has a very general sense, and it is too generalized to evaluate something in terms of aesthetics. We have to learn how to see them in their differences and variety of aesthetics.
Aesthetics and ethics cannot be separated, I said, and this means that ethics is not a distinct category which can be consumed in an isolated context. Aesthetics is certainly an element in it. This may not be an aesthetics about a building. Einstein, for example, remarks the aesthetics of scientific and mathematical theories. And ours might be similar. The respect participatory architecture has for trees and waters is considered to be an ethical stance. This cannot be the end of discussion; we should also talk about the aesthetics. And it has no sense to say “but, it is beautiful”, or “but, it is ethically fine”.
Sait Ali Koknar: I consider what Ferhat defined as “marginal” not in its literal meaning, but as something that cannot be reproduced in another place than its own. These cannot be considered as reproducible models, standards, necessities, etc. It is contrary to its nature. Very basic techniques of a participatory project in Manisa might be borrowed, or reproduced, but the whole project cannot be reproduced identically in Karabuk. We cannot even reproduce it in two plots side by side. What is discovered, what is produced is different, and the people change. Or, you cannot make it five years later in the very same spot, but with different participants. This is the heart of participation, I think; and this is what capital hates, since this entails unpredictability, since it cannot be solved two years later. In this context, the concept marginality does not work.
Merve Akdag Oner: Still some methods might be sustained.
Ferhat Hacialibeyoglu: Contextual values cannot be transferred; this is the main issue. The derivations, the methods, the experience can guide you; you can learn of it. And you develop that guide to transfer your experience to someone else. The term marginal might be inappropriate, I accept. However, a canonical model cannot be developed if you only consider combining individual, independent cases together. Someone builds, another learns, and the chain goes, or not. Each is special with its outcome, with its profile, with its place and time; and its aesthetics might be found in its process. An aesthetics of an operational process might be superior than an aesthetics of a building. It may sound romantic, but the aesthetics of struggle to build is different. If you remember this, the rest becomes irrelevant. It might be found ugly, but what I care about is something else. And its aesthetics is distinct.
Sait Ali Koknar: There are various sorts of participation. The archaeological project Sinan talked about is a very participatory one. All decision makers come together, evaluate the processes, redefine the jobs; and they do not have to involve in design phase. Thus, many versions of participation exist.
Ferhat Hacialibeyoglu: There was an architectural competition in a very small spot in France. The winner came up with a proposal to build it with the inhabitants. Thy defined how to build it and the model. You might have seen some images of it: “Place au changement”. The community contributed to its application, not to its design, though. Everyone did what they could do. This process might have been designed to result in something photogenic, and the images are; but what I see in the context make me think otherwise. The youngsters organize activities in the evenings, they make live music; the women cook lunches. Everyone contributes as much as they can. Does it fit in the general aesthetics you talked about? In my opinion, it does not. I mean, you do not have to design in order to participate.
While I was discussing this, the question was “what does the user know about design?” And I agree. The user does not visit you in your studio to talk about design. They bring their own experience, and tell it directly to you. And the language in charge here is not the language of design or architecture. This is a network of experiences and knowledge, not of design. A user does not come to draw something. This is a misunderstanding about the participatory design process. One of our professors says that we take our cars to the mechanic, and take it back in an hour, and we do not deal with what is happening in the engine. The user does not have the necessary professional experience to be involved.
Sait Ali Koknar: The example of car is a vicious one, since it is about the invisible social relations, and their emergence in spatial production.
Senem DOyduk: It also reduces the architect to the designer of the building, at the same time.
Sait Ali Koknar: A group of people are building a pergola. And they are deciding where and how it should be built together. They might not have the technical knowledge in order to make it a well-designed pergola. If will be beautiful at the cost of the relations of the group, then let it be ugly, I say. Technical knowledge by itself produces technocrats. And the discovery or reproduction of such relations becomes impossible. The pergola stands on the right instead of standing on the left, and the cost of this positioning is known just by the architect; this results in the removal of that pergola one day. The aspects of the process should be shared by the community to create a sociality. However, the architect does not risk his job, and ignores the destruction of those social relations. Many other professions also do the same. It is about professionalism.
Merve Akdag Oner: The architect is not an observer of a mechanical process; it is the cogwheel itself. Hence the difficulty to associate an obvious objective fact and the living phenomena experienced.
Sait Ali Koknar: “Participatory”, “solidarity”, “socially responsible architecture”, and so on, all the se terms are interpreted differently by everyone. I especially like interdisciplinary cases, or World Bank case. There are various participatory architectures, not one. And, participatory architecture is not something good by its nature. It is similar to a bread knife; you can use it to kill people. It is not innocent, similar to anything else. It is all contextual. It cannot be isolated from its context and used as a nice concept. The best thing about the discourse on architecture of solidarity or participatory architecture is that you immediately feel the possibility of failure if it is decontextualized. “I have a sense in my context”, it warns.
Sinan Omacan: What becomes a label is easier to degenerate. It becomes a simplified formula, a check list, a simple set of questions such as “is it beautiful or not?”, “is it ethical or not?”. And this makes it easier to be packed and marketed. An in-depth approach may resist such a process. It should be considered deeply enough so that it cannot be easily reduced and labelled. A Tarkovsky movie, for example, cannot easily be declared beautiful. Some would find it disgusting, since it was shot in the mud.
Sait Ali Koknar: Or you may give up and say you cannot get it, it is complicated, etc.
Sinan Omacan: But, there are some people who find it beautiful. When asked, it is not easy to explain why you find it beautiful. A complicated network of relations is in charge there. It is so cultural. Why you find it beautiful is because of your background. This is not valid only for art, but also for ethics. Thus, if it cannot be reduced and labelled, it is not marketable. It cannot become a new LEED certificate, or something similar. It should be irreducible.
Bengi Akbulut: We can discuss the political economy, or the system. But we should not ignore the fact that we are going through an exceptional historical process. The subjects of participatory projects have not even been practicing their basic citizen rights, let alone the participation. The present social structure is forgetting and getting more and more passive. In order to discover citizen culture and participation culture again, we have to be aware spatial participation experiences that used to exist.
What do you think?
Hulya Ertas in conversation with Cristi Borcan of studioBASAR on the potentials of urban commons and co-design processes with communities in the specific context of Bucharest.
Bilgen Coşkun and Dilek Öztürk talked with sociologist and Living Cities member Jennie Björstad, about social inclusion, “yes culture” and the role volunteers for urban development.
Bilgen Coşkun and Dilek Öztürk talked with architects and urban planners Christelle Lahoud, Pontus Westerberg and Klas Groth from UN-Habitat about designing smart cities through participatory planning approaches.
Hulya Ertas talked with Cristina Gamboa, one of the founder members of Lacol, on their approach as an architecture cooperative
Cities are complex organisms that are able to develop themselves at an incredible speed and in different conditions.