Friday, August 13, 2010

Through the Roof and Underground

This needs no introduction, really:
Harem Nesin, a Turkish journalist for the Istanbul newspaper Dünya Gazetesi, began photographing concealed buildings in Istanbul sometime in 2007 for his personal records. The buildings captured by Nesin had recently been destroyed by a fire or evacuated due to some other instability of the structure, and were later covered by scaffolding, tarps, or screens. Nesin correlated his collection of photographs to a map of Istanbul, indicating the location of each abandoned building. Through the mapped locations Nesin discovered a triangular geometric pattern across a portion of the city on the European side, from the Golden Horn to the Bosphorus. Nesin used the Galata Tower as a place to survey the buildings in question, indicated by his collage of aerial photographs taken from the Tower. Additionally, in his observations Nesin recorded the means of concealment (tarp, wood, fence, screen) and the address for each structure.
And what did Nesin find?
"Harem Nesin's map reveals strategic locations used by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality as injection points for Bacillus Pasteurii, a microbe able to transform sand into sandstone by depositing calcite (calcium carbonate) throughout the granules, fusing them together."

The authorities, in other words, were earthquake-proofing the city from below, in "the first application of the bacteria, which had been under development since the mid 1970s through joint research between Germany and the US."
This secret government project, finally completed just a bit too late, is an ingenious way to solidify the landmass under Istanbul before another earthquake comes using interconnected isosceles triangles. However, not everything is rainbows and unicorns. Nesin disappeared shortly after publishing the maps, and all memory of his publications and work has been destroyed.
All of this is courtesy of BLDGBlog and all of it, unfortunately, is 100% fictional (I changed the date from 2017 to 2007 in order to add a patina of conspiracy). What it actually is is an architecture project. Students were told to "investigate[s] potentials for future design through the creation and analysis of hyper-fictional documents. These document sets create evidence for future scenarios that string together a specific history of political, social, and technological developments." This is an academic way to say "invent a historical dataset for the city you'd like to exist."
There are a few interesting angles to this. The first is probably my favorite. If I walked around Istanbul explaining to people (in my butchered, Yankee-patois, Turkish) that the government has been injecting a bacteria into the ground throughout building sites in the city in a careful and top-secret bid to solidify the ground and God knows what else...I'm positive people would believe me. Gossip flies fast 'round here, especially without any real believable news sources. Government and anti-government conspiracies are taken as a matter of course. No matter what your political beliefs are, there is a shady organization with ties to someone in the government who is trying to subvert you. This much is assumed, and the Nesin Map easily falls under that.
Most interestingly to us here at İ6 is the fact that the Nesin Map is a map of what is literally under Istanbul. This is an old, old, city built of layers like a Jenga tower, and just as ready to collapse. One of the most memorable (and mocked) scenes of From Russia With Love is when they take the cisterns under the Russian Consulate. A lot of people make fun of this because, yeah right, no way you could go from Yerebatan to the Consulate. And they're right, of course. Yerebatan is on the peninsula. But in a city that had so much smuggling going on for the past few thousand years, a city that 100 years ago had separate jails for European nationals and Ottoman subjects, a city that still has resource monopolies and the black market that goes with, a city that is literally the hub of heroin transport from Kabul to London (read this fantastic interview when you get the chance)...well, there is no way you could convince me the only way from Tünel to Beşiktaş is by bus. There have to be maps, in peoples' heads, tattooed on backs, written on napkins that are just fascinating. I'd love to see 'em. Even if a few were fake.
Finally, I'm hardly a sci-fi sort of guy, but Istanbul is screaming for some sort of set-up. The reason I, for one, love this city is its healthy sense of "where are we going." Say what you want about Neo-Ottomanism, but it is certainly more "Neo" than "Ottoman." One of the first things I noted when I came here the first time around was that there's this exciting feeling of optimism abound, the feeling that the city will be completely different, and hopefully much better, in only a few years. Coming, as I am, from a dying empire, it's awfully neat.
And of course, in order to construct a future, one needs a past to base it on. That's the idea behind the Nesim Map, and the reason I have no problem pouring out so many words for it. The Nesin Map is a detailed explanation of what never happened. Should a shadowy government agency doctor the bedrock of a city of ~15,000,000? Yeeeeah, probably not. But by entering an idea to the historical record, an argument is being made. There is so much going on in this city, be it officially, criminally, culturally, or whatever that even Istanbullus have absolutely no clue about. Yabancis don't even stand a chance. News is in the eye of the beholder, and even if people are connected by geography, by identity as an Istanbullu or even *snort* taxpaying, there are many more divisions in this city than there are unifiers.
The Nesin Map, with its elegant triangles and clear evidence, represents a much more coherent city than the one Istanbul truly is. So in another way, its a unifying map of the city. I, for one, would much rather be able to explain "I live in Triangle 43e" than "OK, so you go to the Iskele, then uphill, past Kuzgun..." It is a map of, quite literally, a more stable Istanbul. But that wouldn't be very much fun, would it?
NOTE: If this sort of thing (futurism, design, magical realism as history) is also your sort of thing, check out the Istanbul Design Week, going from September 9 to October 3 at the Beyoglu end of Ataturk Koprusu. Check it out.

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