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In Dialogue: The End of the World is a Single-occupancy Park Bench

Art & Process In Dialogue with Hüseyin Yanar

The end of the world is a single-occupancy park bench

Hüseyin Yanar (b. 1955 in Istanbul) is a Turkish researcher, architect and writer, who now lives and works in Helsinki.

The starting point of the dialogue was our previous blog post based on Ewa Westermark´s presentation about People Friendly Planning. The first notion of the presentation was that the cases, which the Gehl Architects carried out, were site specific, culture specific and time specific. Their intention was to create people friendlier, slower and more human scale city. In different case studies the city environments were planned temporarily more inviting to walk or bicycle, to spend time in and, of course, to enjoy the services and products of the small businesses. Basically the idea was to make the public space welcoming and unlimited for all age and user groups.

When we planned our questions to Hüseyin Yanar, we were especially interested in his comments on participatory planning and design. Soon enough we noticed that we had a very culture specific questions in our hands. So, the conversation took its own course.

17 years ago when Yanar came to Finland people didn’t extend their lives to the streets. "The city is people’s property, and when the dialogue starts between the city and the individuals, the city can be their home," he says. Comparing the city identity in Helsinki and Istanbul, Helsinki is much more organized, quieter and less busy city. When Yanar moved from Sörnäinen to Katajanokka, he was disturbed by the silence around. Once he bumped into a strange sight in his new neighbourhood: a single occupancy park bench. "I´m in trouble... This must be the end of the world", he thought back then. But he began to understand Finnish culture and the people. He quotes himself: "This is the world of silence. These people make art of silence."

Nowadays it is different. The private and the public sphere are in the state of change. In Finland the current decade has been an era of public events and participation. The input for the activity often arouses from the root level. A private person can become a catalyst of a phenomenon. With a little help of the social media, a conversation starts and a cause or a public event is formed in which anyone can join. This is the way of getting to know your neighbours and feeling togetherness for the urban people today. In the old days these events were called bees (talkoot). The difference between the bee and the facebook launched public event is that the latter one doesn´t oblige to take part. Obligation is a turn-off. To invest time in the bee or organizing a public event benefits the society locally. The concept of the volunteer worker has changed into the participant. The social obligation has shifted from doing common good to taking on-site selfies.

Both the private and the public sector have learned to see this as a potential, a resource or even as a cultural capital. The participatory planning aims to the bottom-up approach instead of the top-down approach. There is some demand for hierarchy in the participative practices. The client is technically forced to commit citizens to participate within the limits and structure.

Art & Process (A&P): We talked about Kalasatama earlier. In Helsinki many of the old industrial areas and shipyards are being rebuilt as residential areas. In Finland art has been brought to the areas by obliging builders to follow a principal where one present of the building costs is budgeted for public art. Another perspective is to open the developing process for participation to create co-ownership to the living environment. But private investors might just ask why to involve people. They have their strict timetables and adding an art process in the scenario doesn´t sound like an efficient business opportunity.

What do you think about participatory processes as an architect?

Hüseyin Yanar (HY): Architecture is about projects. You have to have a plan. In fine art the project is different - the end result is unknown. In Istanbul you see constructions everywhere to make the buildings earthquake safe. Who can by these apartments? The rich ones. This very well known feature (fixed end) is not right. Life is not like that. The economy demands constant building.

A&P: To gather, the problem you see is that who can participate these processes and make the difference. Who will actually benefit from the final result? The target is to sell the apartments, to predict the users and to see the end result. Architecture is based on methodology and certainties. It makes the process stiff. The participatory processes require time, which the builders don’t have.

HY: In Turkey the locomotive of the economy is building, because a lot of parties are involved in the processes starting from the planners to the contractors. Why to build all the time? It is somebody’s decision to sell the land and open the competitions for housing. On the other hand in Istanbul the intensity of people forces to it.
Comparing to Helsinki where everything is planned and in order, Istanbul is a sketchy picture. Nowadays you can see the contrast between the new skyscrapers and the old Istanbul, which is a sculpture like installation. The cities are different and it shows in participation. What is participation? The people who are moving to the outskirts of Istanbul are already taking part in the city development by the necessity.

We have to have infrastructure and such fundamental things. The people who are moving to the outskirts of Istanbul are taking part in the city development. The questions we have to ask are why to touch the city and how to touch it? Architects want to build!

A&P: In Istanbul the need to build rises from the need to have a roof on the top of your head. What is the relation between the city authorities and the citizens in Istanbul? Do the city officials accept the ground level development that emerges on its own despite of the city visions?

HY: These one-night-build-houses follow the most beautiful planning principles. They are made from found materials and they are a bit accidental and shabby. Illegal? Sure. Over the years people continue to occupy the places and start to build. The political parties promise to legalise these houses. In the meantime this guerrilla building goes on.

Today the economy is better and the administration has the money to develop the infrastructure. Every administration wants to destroy or put their own stamp on things. The Taksim Gezi Park demonstrations were the biggest public participation that happened in Turkey.

How the society will be happy? Society has to be in peace. In Finland the public participation is different...

A&P: People contested the urban development plan and the lack of public consultation. In Turkey the participation is in taking an action, instead of the city approaching the citizens to hear what they have to say about the changes in their living environment. There is a conflict around the corner if there is no other way for a communication. In Finland the processes are very controlled, but it is the law that the residents must be at least heard.

HY: To control is good in some extend. The demonstrations have happened in Finland too. There are no tents anymore next to the ruins of the VR magazines. But this kind of public stand has happened here as well.

A&P: We have been thinking about the area next to the Music Centre. There is a temporary space called Kansalaistori. It is an empty square that follows the logic of an old market square. It is a public space where activities can emerge - if you pay the rent to the city. The idea of openness is such a complex concept. Kansalaistori´s openness is limited to the organisational level. The root level is been excluded. It is, in fact, a half public space within it´s regulations and conditions. There is a difference between a public forum and an empty asphalt lot.

HY: The new Central Library may balance the area. Kansalaistori is a ceremonial space, a bit untouchable space in the middle of the power and the culture hub. There are boundaries here in Finland; you don’t have a free access to the institution like Kiasma, Sanomatalo or the Parliament House. Are these actors willing to come out from the institutions to Kansalaistori?

A&P: Who decides about the participatory processes? What kind of respect is been given to the citizens’ contributions? We are interested in the examples of participatory planning or design through the building processes in the new residential areas. So far we have not heard how this new paradigm have been implemented here in Helsinki area. We wonder if there are any processes going on in the new residential areas.

Have you been asked to participate to Helsinki city planning projects? Do you know if the immigrants have been given the possibility to contribute to the city environment?

HY: Once I was asked to participate this kind of program, but I quitted the process. The program itself was completed, thought! I am a researcher, architect and writer, and from the professional point of view we have to find the opportunities our selves. The big crowd of immigrants are not professionals and it is very difficult for them to participate, because they are confused about the new culture. The attitudes of the local people are more important than the city authorities. These kind of public invitations are important for the immigrants. But they all come to Finland because of the most different of reasons. As an immigrant it is easy to build a wall against the society. However, how they are able to express themselves is really important.

We professionals are living in a bubble. We have to listen to other people, the different levels of the society, the intellectually and socially outsiders.