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Why DIY Public Spaces Are Starting to Take Off in Turkey

"We felt a real hunger in Istanbul for projects that are bottom-up."

Locals enjoying a prototype platform anchored off the Turkish city of İzmir last fall. (İyi Ofis)

The seaside promenade in İzmir, a Turkish coastal metropolis of some 3 million people, is one of the city’s most popular gathering places, though it offers very little in the way of amusements or amenities.

“People are just constantly walking back and forth, as there’s really nothing to do,” says architect Can Sucuoğlu. “The space isn’t made to be occupied, but people still want to be there; they go and sit on the pavement and stare out at the sea,” adds his partner, Elif Ensari.

That all changed for 40 days last fall when a series of connected platforms appeared at a central point along the İzmir urban coast, offering a floating labyrinth of spaces specially designed for sunbathing, fishing, relaxing in the shade, reading, even dancing and taking selfies.

The temporary installation, by Sucuoğlu and Ensari’s design firm, İyi Ofis, is part of a small but growing movement positioning itself as an alternative to the massive development projects currently (and controversially) reshaping Turkey’s biggest cities. In the wake of so many top-down, large-scale redevelopment efforts with little to no community input, these designers and builders are focusing on human-scale, easily replicable urban improvements that are responsive to local residents’ needs.

Two such initiatives, İyi Ofis’s modular shoreline extension and a DIY street furniture project, were showcased at the recent 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial, which curator Zoë Ryan describes as focused on “proposing ways we can transform everyday life.”

(Ali Güler/İKSV)

“We felt a real hunger in Istanbul for projects that are bottom-up,” says Gilly Karjevsky, co-director of the Tel Aviv-based civic design practice 72 Hour Urban Action, who traveled to Turkey’s largest city to collaborate with the local initiative Design Workshop Kadıköy (known by its Turkish acronym TAK) on the street furniture project. The combined team put out an open call for design concepts and then picked five that could be easily constructed by volunteers out of recycled materials, without any specialized tools or skills.

Awareness of both recycling and public space planning is low in Turkey, and many passers-by initially looked askance at the furniture-builders, according to TAK project executive Onur Atay. “But after five or six hours, they saw we are actually creating something out of what they thought was trash,” he says, adding that some of the early critics eventually admitted they enjoyed napping in the hammock-chairs the team built out of scrap wood and old fire hoses.

Video footage of the construction process is being turned into short how-to films, in both Turkish and English, to encourage residents in any community to make the things they want and need for their own public spaces. The İyi Ofis team likewise designed its shoreline extension modules—interconnectable “docks” made out of custom-cut plywood, ropes, and plastic floats that a Turkish company manufactures and rents to beach clubs—to be copied widely.

A bike rack built out of old manhole covers in Istanbul’s Kadıköy neighborhood, designed by Bilal Binici/Emrullah Toprak. (Tasarım Atölyesi Kadıköy)

“We always had the concept of doing this in an open-source way; making the drawings and blueprints for the 100-plus module variations we created available online so people could download them and build the floating platforms on their own,” Ensari says. She and Sucuoğlu worked with students in İzmir to observe how people were using the existing space and conceptualize, build, and install the platforms accordingly. But cutting the wood precisely enough to fit tightly together on top of the plastic floats proved difficult without a CNC router, equipment still mostly available only to architecture schools and professionals in Turkey.

Like most urban coastlines in Turkey, the one in İzmir has been paved over, raised above sea level, and is bordered by a busy inland highway. “We liked the idea that people could expand the coastline to suit their needs, to reclaim some kind of relationship with the water in their cities,” Ensari says.

Connecting with users is important for success, agrees TAK’s Atay, who admits that one of their pieces of street furniture—a seating structure made from old cabinets—might not have disappeared after two days had it been installed in a neighborhood, where locals could “embrace and even defend” it as their own, rather than in a very public, anonymously transited plaza.

“Getting local community buy-in first is always best, but if collaboration fails, there are still blind spots, places of neglect in every city,” says Karjevsky. “These are places too small for municipalities to care about, or in neighborhoods that developers don’t find desirable. If you care about them, go do something there.”

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