The most compelling exhibit at last fall's Istanbul Art Biennial was a music video. Rapped by teenagers in a Beastie Boys meets Tupac fashion, it was about the hotly contested “urban renewal” of their neighborhood, Sulukule, and the resulting dislocation of 3,400 Romani residents. In the video, the hard-edged authenticity of a 1,300-year-old settlement is patched over with tinny, -cutter “villas” advertised at 10 times the price paid to evictees. And yet... out of the demolition, creativity.
Indeed, Istanbul is a place where creativity is often born of chaos and loss. Urban planning was also the spark that ignited ongoing protests across Turkey when police gassed people objecting to the demolition of a precious shard of greenery called Gezi Park. This May, the one-year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests fueled the city's talent for spontaneous design, inspiring gas masks made from water bottles, the construction of an outdoor lending library, and graffiti-ing of DNS numbers across peeling city walls, enabling the public to bypass government firewalls of Twitter and YouTube. In sum, the protests inspired authorless, ad hoc design by ordinary people. The sort of design of which Istanbul is—almost casually and unconsciously—a master. Of course, decade-long economic growth has also set progressive designers and architects—and the clients and consumers newly learning their value—alight, marked conspicuously by the advent of the country's first design biennial in 2012. The next installment is due this fall. Keep reading for the full Memo From Istanbul: