The Housing Question and Beyond

Interview with Yaşar Adnan Adanalı

by Lucia Wright

On the role of “experts”, participation, housing, public space and democracy…

Tell us what is the turning point in your life which directed your interest in the field your working in now.

Defining one turning point is not easy, but really what affected my whole life, and my work, is the chance of making very direct and real contact with various groups and groups of people, and individuals. That really opened up my mind; defined, and refined my search in the cities, and what kind of profession that I wanted to get involved. So having this real contact with the people that are supposed to be planned, or people that are supposed to be developed by an expert or an external, helped me to see things a bit differently. Maybe shuffle all these expected roles from a planner or an urbanist, and start to understand the common ground, that you as an expert and planner share with fellow citizens. And kind of reformulate your relationship in the society in a more equal way. So I was lucky to make these quite interesting contacts. And these contacts really educated me. So I had a chance to learn from the so-called ‘disadvantaged’ people in the city, from different groups in different places, and different cities. And in each contact I tried to take something, to learn something from them. I guess that was my turning point.

While you have doing participatory work in different contexts, what has been the biggest problem you have faced and how did you react to this challenge?

The whole life is full of challenges. The biggest one? One of the students was also asking me this the other day. Saying, so what is one thing, tell me one thing, the most difficult thing with regards to participatory planning. I couldn’t come up with one thing. I don’t have that kind of quick answer. You try to open up new spaces, because how the things are working, how the things are evolving. How the status quo is established, is not receptive for the kind of work that I do. So, you first need to create that space. There is no sort of invitation that is waiting for you to come and do the work that you are doing, the way you do. So you need to create your own space. And that by itself, is, you start from the very beginning with a challenge. You need to make people believe in those subjects of the planning, those people, those views are important and they should be equal partners in whatever project it is. So, I mean, our education, our academies, our universities, all the markets that we work in, the world that we live in, doesn’t really operate in that way. We are trained to be an architect, planner, or an expert of development; it means your training includes this one-way flow of knowledge to the people. But what I argue, what I also teach, and what I try to live, is like, you are just one of the guys, one of the actors. And you have to learn ways in which to be equal. And to listen and to understand and to compromise. I guess the biggest challenge is really setting the scene. Starting is the biggest challenge and then the rest just comes.

Where has your work been concentrated?

Now mostly I am working in Turkey, in Istanbul, in different cities in the Middle-East; I had a chance to live in Latin America, in Dominican Republic, and did research in various cities. So that really helped me to broaden my view, my horizon, and to learn from different contexts; try to see commonalities as well as differences. So that really kind of help you not to come from this grand narrative of urbanism. But really start seeing the importance of the context and details and the uniqueness of each place that you work with.

Can you tell us about the outcome of the last project you worked on?

I work usually, fortunately or unfortunately, on various projects at the same time; so now there are a few projects that I am involved in. But one that I am lucky to be part of, is a design collective in Istanbul. We are helping a very long, enduring community to design their own neighbourhood and houses. This is a housing cooperative that was formed after the earthquake in 1999. And for a very long time, for more than 15 years, these people have struggled to get land from the state. And finally, they got the land. And with a group of designers coming from different backgrounds, we are helping the cooperative to design and build their own neighbourhood. And that was a process in which I was involved a few years ago, and now we are in a really good track. The construction is starting this month and our students in Mundus Urbano have also been involved in this design process for the last two years. For me, that was a positive outcome, to see that long-lasting work, struggle, finally being really realised.

Are you working mainly with architects? Can you explain how it is to work in your field with people from different backgrounds?

I work directly with professionals and none-professionals, with the people, with the different community organisations, with the neighbourhoods, cooperatives, so try to base all my work with the people. And, usually, in our work we form these trans-disciplinary groups, and that is not because we really seek for bringing all these disciplines together, and non-disciplines together, but it is the kind of group that we have. We value this diversity within our working groups. For instance, in the project I explained, in the participatory design of housing project, we have architects, planners, engineers, psychologists, sociologists, just volunteers with a lot of motivation, with no education, and the community members, young and old, women and men. So this is a diverse group of, broader community that we also, at outsiders, become part of it throughout the project. And, most of the projects that I am involved have this diversity.

Can you define affordable housing? In this case describe cooperative housing?

What we see, unlike maybe what we are seeing as examples, in say the most prosperous parts of the world, or like the history of mass-housing, what it really teaches; how I see housing, housing for the places like my city, Istanbul, or these growing cities, housing is not something provided. Housing is something produced collectively. And that is the kind of understanding that really defines our projects, our work. The idea that housing is delivered, housing is something that is provided to the people, doesn’t really exist, anywhere in the world. So we have to kind of get this understanding. Because this understanding is important, that when we see housing as something to be produced collectively, with the people, with their own initiative, the whole meaning of housing and the process of housing regain a different meaning. So then what really participatory design means is a different question. When you look at the issue from this perspective for instance.

Also as I see housing is not really… even though it is something visible and it looks like a product… but it is not a product. Housing is about collective production. But it is more a process than a product. And the process in which you, not only do housing, but also build the city, so housing is urbanisation in a way, but also you build the citizens, the communities; so it is not only housing, but it is the public spaces, it is not only housing but it is the public life that you do collectively throughout this process. So that is also how we can go beyond, this very separated understanding of functions and the spaces of the city, and diminishing, it also helps us not to diminish the value of housing—when you put the whole question like that. Actually the housing question becomes a question in who has a say in the city, who has a say in the city-making, who is the citizen? And this dichotomy between housing and the public space and the private space also disappears. This is I guess the way I see the whole housing question and that is reflected in our housing project as well.

Good you go deeper into the definition of public space, being not private and not public? Zooming out of the housing situation, how do we define public space?

Public space is also something that is not constant, or static, that is not changing. Public space is also a process and a constant struggle. So, it means that it is not enough to look at the adjectives on the space; public space, private space. But it is the process in which a space becomes public. It is the common link processes. So in a way, initially, a private space carries the potential to be public. Or a very public space also carries the risk to be very exclusionary and in a way, in de-facto, private. So this is important to always keep in mind, public space is the space in which public—with all of its diversity—it is constantly reforming and re-struggling, to shape, to give meaning. And that is also in a way, meaning of democracy—where the ideas are challenging and people are trying to come to certain meaning and conclusions, but not one. So, this is the way in which I say, the public space always relates to the housing, where, and for a very practical reason, this way of seeing the private and public, this kind of dichotomist understanding, is also represented in the housing question. We disregard the whole so-called ‘public’ spaces when we get into a housing project. It just becomes a kind of last touch, which is being taught at the very end, or just an issue of landscape, etcetera, etcetera. But when you put the question, how the publicness, among the community, actually producing the whole housing, the whole city, then you bridge this gap between these spheres. So in a way, I can say that public space, or our urban commons, should be the central question of housing. And not being perceived as two separate categories.

Regarding Gezi Park, as public space is also political, representing democracy or the lack of, so in this case in Istanbul, how can we see this materializing?

Gezi Park, where the park is located, is next to Taksim Square, one of the most prominent squares of the country. Not only in Istanbul. So in a way, it is a public plaza, Taksim Square, and one would expect it to be a public space, meaning not privatised, open to everyone, etcetera, etcetera. But as I said, public space is a constant struggle. A struggle shaping, giving meanings, from different groups and actors in the city. And there, one example with Gezi Park, right after the Gezi Park; Gezi Park was an occupy movement, the appropriation of the space by the people, from very diverse background and giving new meaning to an existing public space. And, was in a way, a very successful movement, and created a new symbol for commons in the city. So all of a sudden, a space, a park that has existed for such a long time, we saw that it could regain a new meaning by this movement. But right after the police’s involvement, crashing the protesters, and kind of re-taking control of the area, we also saw that the very same public space can also be quite hostile and exclusionary of the broader public. So the people, including the protesters, where excluded from the area. They were kind of sealed off, heavy police control was introduced, and all of the colours and diversity of the areas were ‘cleaned’ and at the end, the only “publicness” that you get was the feeling of public authorities. It becomes the space of public authorities, so public space in a way, it is still public, but representing the state, not anymore the people. This is the experience that we had, which still, after two years, or more than two years, has an impact. Like now, protests in Taksim Square and Gezi Park is not allowed. You have to find your way, sneak, or struggle, with the authorities to just make your voice heard in that area. But on theory, on paper, it’s a public space. 

The students here created a piece called “Passive Activist” in which they document different positions which were adopted in Taksim Square as a sign of protest. Do you think these can also be taken as a symbol or as an icon and be replicated in other cities so that they carry the same message?

It can be. Replication is not my way of doing things. But at least it’s a way to learn lessons. That we are from anywhere in the world. From all the urban experiences we are just gathering lessons. We are trying to adapt that to our own context. So, yes, this can be also one way.

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