Istanbul is magnificent, messy, unpredictable, and growing at lightning speed. It is at once an economic capital seen as fertile ground for foreign investment, a rising star in the international art scene, and a city caught in the middle of Turkish politics, in which public opinion on urban issues tends to fall along party lines (conservative vs. liberal and religious vs. secular). Amid these overlapping identities, design and the voices of designers — sometimes embraced, more often than not lost in the chaotic shuffle — are trying to find their place in the city, their role in addressing some of the city’s complex urban challenges. In this context, the first Istanbul Design Biennial is taking place from October 13th to December 12th, with the appropriate theme of imperfection.
By embracing the potential of the imperfect, the Biennial abandons utopian ideals and –isms and instead acknowledges the unpredictability of real life and advocates that designers learn to roll with the punches. The Biennial’s two main exhibits, Adhocracy and Musibet, take the theme and run with it in polar opposite yet complimentary directions.
Adhocracy takes an optimistic and inspiring approach to imperfection, highlighting its productive possibilities. The exhibit, curated by Joseph Grima, editor of Domus, strips away pretenses generally associated with design in order to highlight smart solutions to real problems, developed out of necessity rather than theory. “This is an exhibition about people who make things,” Grima notes in the show’s introduction. It is about production and the process of designing while negotiating the constraints of an unpredictably changing world.
Many of the projects on display, like the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), an open source catalogue of 50 industrial machines, aim to democratize design by making it more accessible and affordable. The GVCS machines are made of low cost, modular parts that are easy to build and significantly cheaper to produce than their brand-name counterparts. The collection is the work of Open Source Ecology, a US-based group of farmers and engineers that aims “to build a sustainable civilization with modern comforts” by making it easier to farm, build, and manufacture.
Adhocracy is full of collaborative examples like GVCS, which make good design accessible and promote DIY production. The show’s section on Arduino open-source microcontroller boards presents some of the most clever and innovative uses of Arduino hardware — such as a geiger counter that enables people to test radiation levels in their homes (developed after the Fukushima nuclear accident), and PulseSensor, a plug-and-play, heart-rate sensor that allows individuals to easily collect and share heartbeat data in real-time. The importance of open knowledge sharing and collaboration is underscored by the fact that even The Open Source Hardware Statement of Principles and Definition v1.0 has its own place in the show.
Other pieces in the exhibit highlight the potential for design as political commentary through clever responses to current day political issues. James Bridle, a UK-based artist, found a Google Maps image of the shadow of a Predator drone flying over an Afghan city and then painted a 1:1 scale outline of the shadow on the asphalt of a London parking lot. The piece, Drone Shadow, which is reproduced for Adhocracy in a parking lot across from the exhibition, playfully examines the ominous and (almost) invisible nature of surveillance. In a similarly playful yet powerful manner, Mexican artist Pedro Reyes transforms confiscated illegal weapons into musical instruments, such as a guitar and a flute, to produce a sweet cacophony out of steel.
The refreshing, straightforward show is housed in the historic Galata Greek School, a 19th century neo-classical building left mostly true to its origins with little alteration, where you can almost hear the patter of children running up and down the stairs between classes. The exhibit occupies the space comfortably, leaning against the walls or placed on large classroom tables, illuminated by natural light coming through the building’s large windows.
In contrast to Adhocracy’s relaxed and informal setting, Musibet — the word can mean either nuisance or calamity — is installed in a dark, prison-like setting. The reference is not subtle: viewers enter the exhibit through the metal bars of a jail cell. The show, curated by Turkish architect Emre Arolat and housed in the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, is organized around a dark main corridor leading to tiny individual exhibition rooms. The high walls, mirrored surfaces and small spaces create a sense of hyper-awareness and the exasperating need to keep moving.
While Adhocracy focuses on people making things for a better future, Musibet reflects critically on what has already been made. In his exhibition essay, Arolat critiques the rapid urban transformation of megacities, where construction is driven by private investment, quick results, flashy marketing, and quantity over quality. The majority of the exhibit focuses on Istanbul, but the issues in question and the commentary are easily applied to any rapidly-growing metropolis.
Design or Make, created by PAB Architectural Design, questions the media presentation and public perception of a tradesman versus a designer. Two different narratives about the same project — one real and one fictional — are told side-by-side through reprints of newspaper and magazine articles. In one story, a minimalist micro-home is developed by an established architecture firm for a wealthy client as a tiny weekend retreat. In the other narrative, the same structure is one man’s ad-hoc, low-budget solution to shelter after he loses his home in the earthquake that struck Turkey in 1999 (in this case, built out of scrap metal instead of high-end building materials). The viewers are left to decide which is a true story and which is fiction.
Other projects, such as Istanbul-O-Matik, respond to the politics of city planning and designing by committee. In the interactive video game, created by PATTU Architecture, participants act as different stakeholders in the city building process. The various agents — such as the star architect, the housing authority, the bureaucrat, the environmental activist — can construct and destroy buildings in the city as fast as each player can jump on the kinetic touchpads on the floor.
While it is hard to escape the cynical tone set by Musibet’s ominous title and dark ambiance, its thoughtful and well-made components raise important questions about the current and future states of design. Can design respond to the unpredictable chaos of everyday urban life? How is design relevant to these challenges? Can design be a democratic endeavor? Lucky for us, Adhocracy presents a positive vision of what may be just around the corner, providing a candid and optimistic response to these questions.
Irmak Turan is an architect and sustainability consultant. She worked as an environmental designer at Buro Happold in New York before recently moving to Istanbul. She holds degrees in architecture and civil engineering from Columbia University.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.