A conversation about independent architecture

by Herkes İçin Mimarlık (Architecture for All) and Elena Motisi

E.M.: What does the label “independent” mean to you? Why do you define yourselves in such a way?

H.İ.M.: Today, in a world that is both “dependent and connected”, being independent seems to be related to being able to express yourself in words and being able to produce your own ideas. We are dependent on institutions, persons and organisations, even if we don’t want to be. In a lot of cases we end up unconsciously building this structure of connections as a result of the current system. We think that proper models can exist and we are trying to work in this direction. Because, if you want to be part of a proactive movement or act, you need to have an autonomous and independent structure; otherwise, you should accept that you will be subject to external influences. We, as Herkes İçin Mimarlık (Architecture for all), are trying to build up our own agenda so that we can be free of the pressures of the agendas of others. We think that we will succeed in being independent if we follow this method.

E.M.: How does the concept of independence intersect with the specific fields of architectural and urban disciplines? How does this affect the profession and its projects?

H.İ.M.: In conventional systems and in a lot of cases, architecture and other urban practices are dependent on capital. If we speculate further on the topic, we might even say that architecture is addicted to capital – but only less than 10% of people get anything from architecture. But this is starting to change, and we believe in it. We believe that architecture will be subject to a new form of transversal learning and collaboration, becoming detached from the status quo. It is not an aspiration or a request, but a necessity.

Architecture, as well as other similar disciplines, should take the responsibility upon themselves and look for new possibilities, new ways of working with these ideas. We believe that the first step towards being independent is detaching yourself from all these external factors.

E.M.: Is it possible to talk about non-profit work in your fields of activity?

H.İ.M.: We are a not for profit group. There have been a couple of similar groups in the past, and as of today we are not the only ones. We were born from a student initiative, during our undergraduate studies. Its name is Ölçek 1/1 (Scale 1/1). We aim to have a sustainable and not for profit economic structure, and continuity is necessary for this kind of structure. We have a project-based organisational structure, but we also work with different materials and different mediums. The variety in the kinds of output we produce keeps us together. Also, we are always discussing immaterial labour as we are all volunteers, but we believe that being a volunteer isn’t the same as free labour. To avoid exploitation, we always keep this issue in mind; it is an endless topic for discussion between us.

E.M.: In my opinion, emergencies can be a source of inspiration for new architectural projects. Do today’s independents have to come up with new topics for projects of their own accord, relative to the needs arising from the context in which they live? In this respect, identifying one criticism and one opportunity, is it possible to respond with the processes on which self-initiated projects are based? Under what conditions, then, can a “self-commissioned” project exist?

H.İ.M.: Emergent topics are relevant for new practices, and they shouldn’t be neglected. But, on the other hand, emergent issues have their own attraction and ambience, and sometimes they can influence the whole agenda. For example, sometimes current affairs intersects with emergent issues and, through the desire for quick solutions to react to them, you could miss the chance to research and understand the issues deeply. Our opinion is that architecture – and other related practices – cannot solve these problems entirely. However, architecture should take responsibility for its role in solving these problems, and should be aware of its position. We cannot define architecture as an independent practice; it is related to all the happenings in the galaxy. That’s why architecture should share such problems with all those who participate in it; if we can spread this way of thinking into the community, then we could have a truly pluralist practice.

We believe that every human condition has the potential to bring about self-initiated, self-commissioned projects. If you are fighting against conventional understanding, you need a system for self-resistance. This is also related to practice; as we said before, architecture is not a lonely practice, it initialises a lot of collaboration. Additionally, if you are working in common spaces, there are some centralised obstacles, such as institutions and officials. But there are also ways past these; we think that architectural practices should look for such loopholes and breathing spaces. The act is simple: take the initiative and share as much you can.

E.M.: With regards to ways of working: what does working with citizens mean to you? What strategies are available for shared work?

H.İ.M.: Citizens are our partners. Participation, which has been one of our key goals since the beginning, requires active citizens to be involved in our work. We try to reach everyone that may be relevant to each of our project; if people are willing to contribute, you need to work together to create appropriate methods through which they can participate. Willingness is an important issue but participation is not an obligation – it’s about volunteering.

Citizens can get involved in every stage of our work: from design to implementation. We run open calls, communicate with people who are already volunteering and brainstorm who we may or may not want to involve.

Methods of participation change according to the subject. We are looking for new methods through learning from previous ones, rather than sticking with a particular way of doing things. The only sure thing is, we don’t have a ‘we did something like that, you like it?’ approach, which we find irrelevant to participation. We believe that citizenship is a common ground for all of us.

E.M.: In my opinion, there are some subjects, such as the emergencies related to migrants (possible solutions for receiving them,…), construction waste and its disposal (alternative uses of the unfinished,…), the critical relationship with territory (urban gardens,…) and the generalised political crisis, which  may be  considered  as the  starting point  for independent  collectives’ planning of activities. What is your opinion? Do you think that the solution to these issues can be found in an institutional context or, rather, outside of it?

H.İ.M.: We believe that every topic is affected by its context; it is not so easy to categorise them as institutional, civic, etc. Solidarity is critical as a starting point, as it is a catalyst for actions to follow.

E.M.: How much does politics affect your job? Does political pressure represent an incentive or a barrier for independent architects?

H.İ.M.: Although we don’t build our ideas around political discourses, our projects are usually politically charged. Our daily practices and choices are very bound to the political. This is again a situation of associations. The rapidly changing conditions of our political geography do create spaces of opportunity but, at the same time, these conditions hold us back. No matter how much we try, sometimes it is impossible to create an agenda that is independent from the political. Usually, we find ourselves unintentionally ‘political’, since these conditions force us to take a position. We tend to see these barriers as an incentive to resist. Otherwise, it is easy to find ourselves dwelling on the same issue, and yet not taking any action against it.

E.M.: Do you think there is a connection between those territories characterised by conflict and the presence of independent groups? Can we say that the intensity of the presence of these collectives and of their actions tends to superimpose itself on maps of emergencies and geopolitical imbalances? Is there a relationship between the conditions of conflict in which they work and the way in which architectural planning paradigms change?

H.İ.M.: It may seem that there is a connection between independent groups since they are working on similar issues but, in reality, it is hard to say so. We believe in co-solving problems with local stakeholders, but this doesn’t mean that we have to live in those territories. You have to search for and find alternative ways to work with local communities. This is why a lot of our projects and members are based outside of Istanbul, even though our base is there. We see a lot of organisations working with similar methods, encouraging solidarity, mutual learning and experience transfer. Although we think that the topic of conflict zones is an urgent one, and we respect that fact, we also believe that other topics desperately need collaborative action. Otherwise, an oversaturation of attention to the conflict areas can easily turn into a new “orientalism” unrelated to the local context. When working in these zones, it is crucial to understand and be aware of the local paradigms. There is an undeniable relationship between these and your capabilities. We like to think of the constraints as incentives for looking at places from a different perspective.

E.M.: Talking about strategies, do an unambiguous and independent way of planning, or some guidelines that can act as a tool for a new kind of intervention in line with the needs of the contemporary, exist?

H.İ.M.: Guidelines can exist, and are sometimes necessary when you want to set principles and objectives for your process. But, if you just follow the guidelines, without leaving any room for flexibility, you can only be as successful as the guidelines prescribe. So, there is a need for flexible guidelines that favour participation and collaboration. We see guidelines as one of the tools that feed our process, and it is not possible to say that there is only one path. You have to be open to taking unexpected paths, even if you are following the old ones.

E.M.: Which of your projects has represented an effective action within the field of the topics you investigate?

H.İ.M.: We do projects in both rural and urban contexts. One example is the Abandoned Rural Schools Project, which aims to transform abandoned school buildings in Anatolian villages, which were left vacant in 2000 as a result of a system change. The project involved the local community, local decision makers, technical consultants and volunteers. Through a series of workshops, Herkes İçin Mimarlık is currently engaged with different schools throughout Turkey.

Gezi Park also has an important place in our work1 and we would like to explain the story behind it. These stages of development were alarming for our organisation, since neither civil society nor Istanbulites were part of the decision-making process.

As HiM, we decided to organise workshops in which we discussed the administration’s claims that the square and the park did not serve their purpose as a public space. The workshops gave birth to weekly ‘Gezi Park Festivals’. We publicised these events through social media channels; invited musicians, dancers and performance artists; and organised workshops and games that would attract people. Although only 50 people attended the first festival, our popularity increased rapidly, and the fifth festival was attended by more than 500 people. The festivals showed that Gezi Park is a calming place to spend time to people who used Taksim Square but never passed by the park, and accomplished something that is major task of urban spaces: bringing different kinds of people together. They made Gezi Park almost a trademark for a platform that brings together people who have a mutual interest in the future of urban spaces.

E.M.: Working in “crisis” areas results in changes to the timescales for design projects: have you found that there is any relationship between the acceleration of such timescales and the innovativeness of the results?

H.İ.M.: Timescale acceleration or time constraints resulting from urgent needs are inevitable. Because of these constraints, results are usually familiar rather than innovative. We are always looking for new ways to work in such rushed situations, but we are not sure whether or not there can be a radical way to proceed if everything is well established. Some radical acts and movements are also born under this pressure.

E.M.: Could you briefly describe the Mobile Urban Consultation Buro project, realised for the exhibition Istanbul. Passion, Joy, Fury? (MAXXI, 11-12-2015 / 8-05-2016)

H.İ.M.: In a context where the built environment changes at a rapid pace, and given the enactment of the law num. 6306 of 20122, we believe it is important to examine and document how citizens are affected by these changes.

We therefore decided to conduct a search based on the following questions:

Our research was based on following questions:

- How do property owners perceive the idea of urban renewal?
- Do property values actually rise dramatically after such renewal processes, as the owners believe?
- How trustworthy are the “urban renewal consulting firms” that popped up like mushrooms after the law came into effect?
– Are property owners sufficiently informed about the process?
– Can property owners benefit from the financial support system that accompanies the law?

To explore these questions, and to open up new information channels, we built a “Mobile Urban Consultation Bureau”, from which we provided free consultation services to citizens affected by the law in strategic locations in the city. In addition, through the network created by our organization, we have been able to interview different people and document these conversations in order to promote discussions on a variety of platforms.

E.M.: In the specific case of Istanbul, “architecture” is trapped between by an architectural reality borne out of macro-urbanisation and the experiments of revolutionary thinkers. In your opinion, as far as design is concerned, which are the best results that have been achieved in the field in the last decade?

H.İ.M.: We could say “Gezi Resistance”, which of course is not a case of design or architectural practice. However, it is a form of solidarity; it opens us up to a lot of new understanding.

E.M.: What does it mean to be architects, designers and artists in today’s Istanbul?

H.İ.M.: It’s an intense construction activity; everyone would like to conquer the city – maybe that’s why the government and local authorities are still celebrating Istanbul conquest. On the other hand, today we can say that we have struggled on every front. We are engaged in an endless struggle to protect our ideas and our position in the face of intense pressure.

E.M.: Are the themes you deal with in your work related to those urgent issues which are inherent in your country and in the territories in which you operate?

H.İ.M.: We could say yes: the projects we are working on are mostly related to these ‘urgent issues’, such as the right to the city, educational needs, self-organisation and women’s studies.

1 In December 2011, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and the Mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbas, publicly announced the ‘Taksim Square Pedestrianisation Project’. They did this with a large amount of enthusiasm at a press conference right before the elections. The only available source of information about the project was a video that was distributed to the press, and which caused intense speculations about the project’s specifics. According to the video, Taksim Square, which is virtually the heart of the city, was going to be entirely pedestrianised by shifting the vehicle traffic to underground tunnels. Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s only green spaces, was also slated to be destroyed in order to rebuild an Ottoman-era barracks which stood there until its demolition in the 1940s. The project passed through the Metropolitan Municipality Congress unanimously and was approved by the Istanbul Second Cultural Heritage Protection Board, again unanimously, as a “master plan amendment project”.

2 In 2012, the Turkish Ministry of Environment and Urbanism declared Law n. 6306, which defined 1106 hectares of risky areas and 22000 risky buildings in 16 districts of Istanbul. According to the ministry, 190000 people were living in these risky areas and were subject to this new law. This law coming into effect dragged Istanbul into a frenzy of urban renewal.