Situated in a unique geography at the junction of Europe and Asia and bearing the legacy of three empires — Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman — Istanbul is a historic world city that defies any easy categorization into typological abstractions like “European city,” “Islamic city,” “Mediterranean city,” or “global city.” It is a bit of all of the above, and irreducible to either one of them. Hybrid, fragmented, and multi-layered, it has resisted all modern planning efforts to give it a morphological coherence, and continues to pose formidable challenges to design professionals and policy makers alike.
Beginning in the mid 20th century, major infrastructural modernization and urban renewal schemes in Istanbul have obliterated much of the historical residential fabric of the city and erased from collective memory many buildings and urban spaces where public life was staged during the late Ottoman and early Republican periods. The construction of Bosporus bridges and connecting highway systems have triggered the expansion of the urban footprint, changing Istanbul’s urban image from a historic “shore city” to that of a gigantic, shapeless “hinterland sprawl”. Since 2002, the aggressive construction boom and urban renewal schemes resulting from the neo-liberal policies of the current government have taken this century-long unraveling of Istanbul to unprecedented new levels, with serious threats to the city’s historical heritage, collective memory, environmental sustainability, and social harmony.
Two characteristics of this modern urban history are significant for the work of the Istanbul portal. The first has to do with actors and agencies. In line with Turkey’s long traditions of powerful central state and weak local governance, the primary actor and decision-maker in this process has almost invariably been the national government, without accountability, without effective oversight from experts, and above all, without the participation of ordinary Istanbulites whose lives are directly affected. The second salient feature of Istanbul’s urban history, largely resulting from the citizens’ lack of power or even a voice, is the palpable sense of loss, melancholy and nostalgia that permeates so much of the literature, films and representations of Istanbul. This unfolds as a love-hate relationship between the city and its inhabitants: the city is the source of pleasure and frustration in equal measures; people feel disconnected not only from the past, the urban traces of which are erased constantly, but also from the future which they are powerless to affect.
To address the above and make them visible and legible in multiple scales, our research seeks to produce timelines and layered maps to show the development of the urban form over time, especially the expansion of transportation infrastructure, the transformation of public spaces, and the changes in urban fabric, all affecting the social topography and the collective experience of the city. Non-Muslim communities, ethnic and religious minorities, and poor migrants from rural Anatolia have been the groups particularly affected by the spatial practices of urban modernization and national homogenization, resulting in “silenced histories” whose spatial traces we seek to uncover. Supplementing digital techniques of mapping and data visualization with more traditional sources of humanities research (texts, films, photographs, literary sources, publications, memoirs etc), we hope to produce a digital platform for open-ended, continuously revised, cumulative research on what has now become a discipline of its own under the rubric of “Istanbul Studies.”