For architects and urban planners, the 20th century had been a period of discovering how public space is crucial for city life. They were the vigorous advocates of squares, boulevards and plazas where people stroll through the city enjoying modern life. As the century goes on, architects’ passion for public space becomes even more clear and the concept of buildings becoming an extension of public space was more popular. The main idea was simple: Bring more people together. Let them meet in your buildings, if not in the extensions of your buildings that are already acting as a public plaza.
However, towards the end of the century, while cities were rapidly becoming global financial hot spots, it became harder to recognize architecture’s affection for public space. Though the millennium brought groundbreaking examples like Oslo Opera House or Wyly Theatre, where either rooftops or basements were cuddling up the public plazas, in reality, public space in big cities is being threatened by privatization. Persuading a client to leave the half of the constructible property for a square as in the case of Pompediu or to dig through a bank headquarters to create a public plaza like in HSBC headquarters in the 70s, is now even more arduous.
Then the pandemic happened. Once in a century. Life stopped, the show that has to go on, suddenly ended. It is a global crisis that forces every aspect of life to be questioned, and architecture takes its share. It has to be re-examined. But how? Is it possible for a profession which has been rallied by magnetizing people to suddenly adapt to the “new normal? Reconsidering architecture from a perspective full of socially distanced people requires to rewrite the main contemporary urban theories from scratch. However, looking from a wider perspective pandemic lets us think more about the public space itself, that it is a right, not a privilege to be in reach of free, open-air public areas. In cities where they have enough accessible open-air areas, people can stay outside and still be safe while in denser areas, like in the case of Istanbul, elderly and kids were under lockdown for months.
Pandemic has unveiled the fact that it is essential to have an adequate amount of open-air areas for the whole population, that is homogeneously spread in the city. Pavements that people can walk without touching each other, parks and squares that let the elderly and kids spend time outdoors safely... For us, architects, it is not easy to turn this crisis into an opportunity but pandemic gave us the capability to reclaim public space.
In the case of Istanbul, like many other big cities such as London, NYC, that are under the influence of rapid privatization, pandemic gave us a dreadful reason to reclaim public space, with a louder voice.
However, before the pandemic, there has already been a threat of another disaster in Istanbul, that requires a demand for public space as well. Since the city is on an active fault line, it is expected that an earthquake over 7 magnitudes will likely to happen in the next decade. The last earthquake that was generated by the active fault 20 years ago was in a small city very close to Istanbul. After this big earthquake in 1999, Istanbul took action and announced around 500 public areas, where people can get together after the disaster, put tents etc. But thanks to the rapid transformation of the city, most of these areas have been privatized in the last decade, and there were only 77 of them left in 2017. Our project Hope on Water was initially triggered by this fact. We started with the idea of reclaiming the public gathering areas. The main objective of the almost absurd image of a post-disaster living unit, sailing on the water, was to take attention to one point. Why do we have to build post-disaster housing on water? What happened to the land that was already allocated for this purpose? They are privatized.
So we designed Fold&Float, a foldable floating post-emergency unit, initiated by the idea of reclaiming public space. Meanwhile, in the university, we started an inter-disciplinary design studio on this subject, with architecture students from MEF University, and civil engineering and sociology students from Bogazici University. With our colleagues Ayfer Bartu Candan and Emre Otay, we investigated how it would be to live on the water, surviving after an earthquake. Working with students from different disciplines, initially, it was tough to convince each group of students, why we have to work in collaboration with other disciplines. In general, architects are keen on considering that they are capable of overcoming any type or scale of problematics.
However, disasters and crisis require collaboration more than any other topic. Not only because they are complex subjects, but also they include social and physical problems at the same time. Though the process was challenging, at the end of the semester the interdisciplinary design studio was successful and students’ work was exhibited in the 4th Istanbul Design Biennale curated by Jan Boelen. Since the topic was about a disaster, it was much easier to collaborate on a vital issue, where each discipline needs others to survive.
Urgent situations such as earthquakes or pandemics will not all of a sudden change the way architects and designers work. But at least, it will let them think more about a city where each neighbourhood has easy access to open-air green areas, wider pavements for a safe time outdoors. By doing speculative projects on real issues like Hope on Water, we use urgency as a megaphone, to make our voice louder about our demands for a better city.