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The White Center

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As a kid, I used to love returning to Istanbul after a long summer break. Its artificiality would come as a relief after months spent in Turkey’s edenic Aegean sea in yachts, swimming in its cold, salty waters, totally cut off from civilization. What more could a child want? Well, what I wanted was to be somewhere else, anywhere but where I was: at the site of nature. This was the 1990s and I was living in Etiler, an Istanbul neighborhood whose dominating monument was a shopping mall named Akmerkez (“the White Center”). I considered it a Mecca of capitalism and artificiality, things that I liked quite a lot. I would long to be near the mall’s new, metallic escalators and its concrete facade, which burnt under the sun. The first week of September (the last week of the summer holiday) I would occupy eating burgers and watching postmodern Hollywood films and window-shopping for high-tech products, stuck inside the mall and strangely happy in captivity.

Two decades later I find myself baffled by the amazing expansion of the likes of Akmerkez. All those summers when I looked forward to coming back to the malls of my city now seem frightening—be careful what you wish for. I never imagined that Istanbul, or any city, could be this artificial in the future.

In my hands I am holding a map of Istanbul’s future. It is part of an advertorial published in a national newspaper. The map advertises the so-called “Brooklyn projects,” which take the New York borough as their model. The plan is to build 5,000 Brooklyn-named residential properties in Istanbul within five years. “Among the most striking qualities of Brooklyn Park are its architecture and high-quality facilities,” the ad copy reads. There is also Brooklyn Family, Brooklyn City, Brooklyn Life, and Brooklyn Ocean, all coming to Istanbul soon. We already have Viaport Venezia, a mall that “brings Venice life to Istanbul,” complete with canals and gondolas. The future is here: it is artificiality.

Over the past two years, 705 such residential properties have been in development and seventy-two shopping malls have been added to Istanbul. Twenty-five malls have been constructed on the ninety-five-kilometer E5 highway. “The sun can no more be seen because of their height,” one newspaper proclaims. Experts predict that an additional seven and a half million people will join Istanbul’s population once the city’s northern parts are opened to construction.

While neighborhoods are being redeveloped, their histories are being used to advertise their future. History has become a marketing tool. Make use of the past and create the future with it: this is familiar for a country whose national ideology is built on an endless cycle of self-invention. And so this country of endless reinvention is now reinventing its cities as it dreams of faraway places. If I feel a bit guilty about it, it is only because to this day I find it hard to resist the charms of artificiality, destruction, and other evils of modernity. I can even imagine a day when the city’s protean transformations will be complete, when this capital of syntheticity will outgrow nature and all things natural.

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Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. Last year his An Istanbul Anthology came out from American University in Cairo Press. Genç is writing a history of Turkish literature for Harvard University Press. His Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey will be published by I.B. Tauris. He blogs at www.kayagenc.net and tweets @kayagenc.

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