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Turkish delights at the new Biennale

The sprawling chaos of Turkey’s cultural capital provides an entrancing setting for a big new biennial, writes Hilary French

Architects with a perfectionist tendency or ambitions to bring order to the chaos of the urban environment may be put off by the title of the first Istanbul Design Biennial: Imperfection. In the context of the host city however − with real traffic jams, quirky street patterns and idiosyncratic skyline − the very idea of ‘imperfection’ is enticing.

The theme is explored in the Biennale’s two major exhibitions: one on design, Adhocracy, curated by Domus Editor Joseph Grima; the other on architecture and urban design, Musibet, which is loosely translated as ‘uncomfortableness’, curated by architect Emre Arolat. The latter show, examining architecture’s darker side, shows 30 projects in progress in Istanbul.

The projects are presented in a series of cell-like spaces with concealed entrances accessed from a long and very dark corridor, designed to evoke the ‘uncomfortableness’ of the theme. The work is further divided into two strands: ‘Transformations’, which considers social housing and urban renewal projects; and ‘Anti Context’, which offers thoughts on Istanbul from a variety of local and global perspectives.

The projects cover a very wide spectrum of outcome and approach. Recurring ideas are gentrification and the problems caused by a lack of a balance of power in decision making, illustrated by contemporary projects in Istanbul and parallel ones from other urban centres as diverse as Dubai and Brussels. The quantity and quality of information presented is very varied, and for some projects unfortunately too dense without the assistance of the catalogue.

Those that come over well include a clothes ‘swap shop’ installation raising simple ideas about waste and exchange, and Precise Rhythm by fashion designer Bahar Korçan, that describes the ‘invasion’ by fashion designers of derelict areas of Istanbul. Complex issues of political influence on planning decisions are addressed by a project to follow up the 1984 IBA (Berlin) Kreuzberg housing blocks, offering a Turkish perspective, with video interviews with the architects and residents.

The title of the design exhibition, Adhocracy, refers to the upheaval in design practice with the move away from mass production. In Grima’s words: ‘If the last revolution was about making perfect objects − millions of them, absolutely identical produced to exactingly consistent quality standards − this one is about making just one, or a few.’ So rather than the ‘perfect’ products of industrial production, this exhibition describes design processes; the space is a laboratory, a work in progress for the curious, rather than a gallery.

Installations in the entrance hall are welcoming and encourage visitors, as consumers of product design, to feel at home in the exhibition. Beyond presenting the object on a shelf, whether in a shop or on a gallery plinth, the exhibition does a brilliant job of bringing together many of the alternative approaches to design that have emerged over the last 10 years or so.

Open-source projects are plentiful, including a whole room dedicated to Arduino, the single-board micro controller, developed in Ivrea in 2005, that means anyone can do their own electronics.

There is a DIY rotational moulding machine driven by a cordless electric drill Improvisation Machine, Annika Frye); and entry level rapid prototyping equipment, used for everything from shapely chocolates, to souvenirs of your own body scanned and delivered in fine, stringy, colourful plastic in 30 minutes (Be your own souvenir, BlablabLAB); to a street vendor’s cart version using an open-source database of digital models (Kiosk 2.0 Unfold) that can reproduce, remix or rescale your object and deliver it to you on the street just like an ice cream or a fake handbag.

At a bigger scale and with more serious intention Open Source Ecology can build a tractor in six days, part of their ongoing project, Global Village Construction Set − a collection of 50 open-source agricultural machines hacked from a kit of common parts. Established by the non-governmental organisation, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) − who have a 40-year history in facilitating diverse artistic production as well as conserving traditional arts and culture − the Istanbul Design Biennial, unlike similar events, sets out to beinterdisciplinary, and treat design as a cultural element.

It is very different from the Venice Architecture Biennale, which probably has the best reputation for engaging the architectural world in thinking about architecture as product, and a long way from the highly commercial international Milan Furniture Fair, where every showroom competes to show us the latest in ‘lifestyle’ design.

There are no stars in Istanbul. There are no big-name designers from the world of design or architecture in either Adhocracy nor Musibet, only projects. There are no stars in the third element of the biennial either: the showrooms and workshops of the artisans and craft workers participating across the city.

In London and other post-industrial cities, current debate is focused on whether a return to more sustainable small-scale production is feasible, and how it could be made to ‘fit’ in the contemporary urban environment, and we argue over terminology; between craft and design, between architecture and planning, and between design-art and designer-makers.

This has no place in Istanbul. Somehow the local artisanal production never left this city, the small workshops and ateliers are still here, furniture makers, fashion designers, metalworkers and more, still operating unperturbed by the exuberant growth of the city around them.


The inaugural Istanbul Biennial

City: Istanbul
Dates: continues until 12 December

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