Ugly Istanbul: An activist fights the eyesores of urbanisation

A few examples of “aesthetic catastrophes” in Istanbul, as identified by our Observer on his Twitter account.
A few examples of “aesthetic catastrophes” in Istanbul, as identified by our Observer on his Twitter account.

Tourists flock to Istanbul each year to take in the famed beauty of Turkey’s biggest city. However, economic growth, rampant construction and the policies of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan have taken a toll on the city’s charm and soul, says our Observer. He has taken to Twitter to document the transformation of his native city and to bemoan the aesthetic perils of urbanisation and cement.

The sprawling metropolis of Istanbul is several thousand years old and sits on two different continents. It has 15 million residents and has been growing rapidly since the nineties. These days, its historic ruins often sit squashed between steel skyscrapers and businesses seeking customers with flashy promotional posters… all to the detriment of the urban landscape.

This tweet, which was shared more than 50,000 times, uses photos to tell the story of a tree in Istanbul.

Deeply in love with his city, our Observer Devrim K. decided in September 2017 to start documenting violations of its aesthetic integrity. He shares his photos on a Twitter account that he calls "Çirkin İstanbul" (Ugly Istanbul). He has more than 40,000 followers. Every day, Devrim posts photos showing historical monuments disfigured by failed renovations, bulldozed parks that have been replaced with parking lots and skylines sullied by modern monstrosities.

"Many neighbourhoods have been disfigured with concrete"

I got the idea to start this account when I was at a dentist’s appointment. I was looking out the window and I saw a landscape covered with cement.

This grim view from the window of the dentist’s office inspired our Observer Devrim K. to launch his project.


My aim is to identify the aesthetic affronts on our city. Most of these are the fault of incompetent architects employed by the city or the private sector. When they build a mosque, for example, they often try to copy the Ottoman style but then fail miserably. Or, worse, they try to blend ancient and modern styles to create monstrosities that are half apartment block, half mosque. I called them “mosque-d blocks".


Our Observer hates a popular style of building mosques in Istanbul where the bottom is built like a basic building, but an Ottoman-style dome is added on top. (This photo was posted on his Twitter page on February 7, 2018.)


Another example that most people in Istanbul know and hate is the Süzer Plaza skyscraper, a luxury hotel built in the nineties that everyone agrees is ugly. It is built near several important historical landmarks.

"Forced to pour concrete over history,” wrote this person on Twitter. This 34-story skyscraper houses a Ritz-Carlton hotel. (Photo posted by Çirkin İstanbul.)


The Twitter account also highlights aesthetic misjudgements made when renovating historic buildings. One such example is the "French passage" in the Karaköy neighbourhood, which had a strange modern steel structure added on top.


"A renovation classic", wrote our Observer on Twitter.


Then there’s also Taksim Square, a modern centre of Istanbul, which is, today, empty and grey.


The photo at left shows Taksim Square in 1968. The photo at right shows the modern version.


Ads have completely invaded public space. Restaurants plaster flashy signs all over to attract customers. I also hate the propagation of individual air conditioning units and parking lots.

Advertising (!) in Esenyurt [Editor’s note: A neighbourhood in Istanbul] complains our Observer on Twitter.

"My tweets sometimes lead to small victories”

On occasion, my tweets and criticisms have led to change. I am constantly calling out City Hall on Twitter. For example, there was a store on Istiklal Avenue [Editor’s note: a historic pedestrian street that is popular with tourists] that had a fluorescent pink façade. After I posted this tweet, the owners changed it. But these are just tiny victories next to the high-speed urbanisation of this city.

Our Observer’s hope is to develop an “aesthetic conscience” amongst his followers.


But activism on social media isn’t enough. We need to get out on the streets to defend our city, like we did during the Gezi protests.

In June 2013, environmental activists and members of the Chamber of Architects mobilised to save Gezi Park, located in Taksim Square, where the government wanted to build a shopping mall. These protests sparked a popular revolt against the government that shook the country for several weeks. In the end, the plan to build a shopping mall was scrapped.

"No one does anything, we are all afraid"


The transformation of Istanbul is intense. The economy revoles around the construction sector. When the mayors [Editor’s note: from different municipalities within Istanbul] build a building, they always choose the cheapest option-- no matter what party they are from.

On my second account, Güzel Istanbul (Beautiful Istanbul), I show examples of successful renovations. Since the Gezi Park affair, numerous historic buildings have been destroyed and no one does anything. Probably because we are all afraid. We are living under an authoritarian regime where democracy is at a larval stage. Our historical preservation associations aren’t as strong as those in Europe.

One day, perhaps, raising your voice against the pouring of concrete across this city will be seen as political activism. Who knows, one day, I might even be accused of terrorism and be thrown into prison for having dared to speak out on Twitter. That’s why I prefer to remain anonymous.

Erdogan’s mega-construction projects stir controversy


In this tweet, our Observer comments ironically on the expensive plan launched by President Erdogan known as "Şehrim 2023" (Vision 2023, in Turkish), a list of goals to achieve ahead of the centenary of the republic. This list includes the construction of three nuclear power plants.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who served as Istanbul’s mayor for four years, from 1994 to 1998, is currently championing a variety of mega-construction projects, including the construction of a third airport -- which will be the largest in the world when it is finished, the construction of the biggest mosque in Turkey and a "mega-canal" connecting the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea. All of these projects outrage environmentalists, who denounce the rapid and unregulated urbanisation of public spaces and the resulting pollution.

Nostalgia for “old Istanbul"

On social media, thousands of Turks reminisce with nostalgia about old Istanbul, where greenery and calm could always be found right around the corner. The Twitter account "Bir Istanbul hayali" (A dream of Istanbul in Turkish), which shares old photos, has around 320,000 followers. In 1980, Istanbul had a population of around 3 million. These days, that number has been multiplied by five.


"Ah, beautiful Istanbul, a stolen city. A moment of respite on Acibadem bridge. Osman Yalçin Archives, 1967-68", writes this Twitter user. Today, if you stand on the bridge, you can see miles of construction and shopping malls disappearing into the horizon.

According to an Ipsos poll, three out of every four Turks feel nostalgic about the past. A growing number of citizens also say they feel worried about the environment. "Thanks to the construction and development sector, we have less and less green spaces. This may explain growing awareness about environmental problems,” says professor of sociology, Nilufer Narlı, who participated in the research.