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Seismic Talks – Exchange of Experiences on Earthquake-proof Construction in Istanbul

On April 27-29, the Seismic Safety trade fair for earthquake safety, fire protection and intelligent urban renewal was held in Istanbul for the first time at the same time as the already established Intergeo Eurasia trade fair. Also premièred for the first time were the "Seismic Talks", the name given to Seismic Safety's supporting programme. This was a series of talks during which international experts discussed earthquake-resistant construction techniques and their application, along with their importance for urban development and their social consequences. The programme was drawn up by DETAIL transfer, and focused on dealing with the damage caused by earthquakes, reconstruction of the affected towns and cities, and future prevention of severe earthquake damage.

A small section of Istanbul, as seen from the Sapphire Tower, Istanbul. Photo: Kathrin Wiblishauser, Munich

The earthquake of 1999, which caused devastating damage to the east of Istanbul, is still very much present in the minds of Istanbul's inhabitants. Nearly 20,000 people died at the time, and many lost their lives because their homes had been poorly constructed and were not prepared for an earthquake. Law No. 6306 passed by the Turkish government means that there are now stricter rules in place for new buildings. Existing buildings and entire neighbourhoods have also had to be regenerated on account of it. Istanbul must therefore on the one hand deal with the aftermath of a previous earthquake, and on the other, prepare itself for the next one.

An interdisciplinary group of geographers, urban sociologists, urban planners, architects and engineers from Istanbul were invited to the "Seismic Talks" to discuss the city's particular situation. Also present were architects, urban researchers and architectural historians from Germany, Denmark and New Zealand with experience of dealing with the consequences of the earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand (2010) and L'Aquila, Italy (2009) and who are currently working on projects for these cities.

Prof. Dr. Murat Güvenç explaining to the foreign architects how Istanbul's geographical location has influenced its development. Photo: Kathrin Wiblishauser, Munich

In order to do justice to the complexity of this topic in a city like Istanbul - which covers an area of 180 km from west to east and 60 km from south to north, and has 16 million inhabitants - and to ensure adequate discussion intensity and depth, DETAIL transfer developed a special format for this event. First of all, the experts were taken on a tour of the former Santralinstanbul power station, now converted into a university campus and cultural centre, and through the Kagithane Valley to Istanbul's new Levent business district. The tour, which was led by geographer Prof. Dr. Murat Güvenç (Istanbul Sehir Üniversitesi), showed the upheaval caused by urban development in the city against the backdrop of Turkey's transition from a manufacturing to a service economy. The Kagithane Valley, which is highly prone to earthquakes, initially developed as an industrial area with residential buildings called 'gecekondus' (informally-built houses; settlements in Turkish cities built overnight on public land), which over time in a self-regulating manner have become respectable neighbourhoods. The valley's current second transformation is turning it into a new city centre, with office parks, shopping centres and new residential areas now all being built here on a large scale. The tour ended on the roof of the 263m-high Sapphire Tower.

The experts meeting in private on the eve of the public debate. Photos: Kathrin Wiblishauser, Munich

The presentations given the following day shed light on the complexity and diversity of the city's history and the urban development of Istanbul. Using various best-practice projects, architects Murat Tabanlioglu (Tabanlioglu Architects, Istanbul) and Can Çinici (Çinici Mimarlik, Istanbul) showed that the renovation, improvement and modernization of existing buildings can be carried out quite gently, if among other things historic building techniques are used (Ali Bayraktar, SGH Sismik Güclendirme Merkezi, Istanbul). Architect and urban researcher Ömer Kanipak (Tasarim Atölyesi Kadiköy, Istanbul) explained the political background to the efforts to ensure seismic safety in Turkey using the example of the Kadiköy district. Prof. Dr. Asu Aksoy, urban sociologist at Istanbul Bilgi University, confirmed the statements made by Ömer Kanipak in her statement to the public round-table debate on the last day of the conference. During the public debate, the results and reflections of the closed expert debate held the previous day were also presented. Aksoy showed how areas classified as earthquake-prone areas by the city council and government still had high property values. According to her, this was because very few of these areas actually lie in the geographically recognised danger zone. Architect Emre Arolat (Emre Arolat Architects, Istanbul) in his public statement called for a master plan for Istanbul.

Knowledge transfer during the public debate: Prof. Uwe Rieger, Steffen Braun, David Sim, Dr.-Ing. Sebastian Storz, Olaf Bartels (moderator), Emre Arolat, Prof. Murat Güvenç, Prof. Dr. Asu Aksoy (from left). Photo: Kathrin Wiblishauser, Munich

Steffen Braun of the Fraunhofer IAO in Stuttgart drew attention to the example of the Japanese city of Edo, which has been hit several times by earthquakes, explaining how use of the straightforward and traditional tatami-mat measuring system enabled it to be quickly rebuilt according to old conventions. Prof. Uwe Rieger (The University of Auckland, School of Architecture and Planning) pointed to the opportunities that had arisen for innovation in construction methods and for cooperation between universities as well as between architects and engineers in the wake of the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, with forms of cooperation emerging that had previously not existed. In addition, it had been shown that earthquake-proof construction was only slightly more expensive than conventional construction methods. This apparently had also caught the interest of investors, as it meant that good-quality properties could now be built and easily marketed at relatively low cost. David Sim of Gehl Architects in Copenhagen stressed in his statement the need to consider the human scale when planning new towns and cities. While working on a master plan for the rebuilding of Christchurch, for example, his office had successfully conducted extensive participation workshops with local residents. The architect and architectural historian Dr.-Ing. Sebastian Storz from the Forum für Baukultur e.V. from Dresden, which with its German-Italian architecture project MusAA is seeking to teach the residents of L'Aquila about architecture and culture, placed the focus of his deliberations firmly on the people affected by earthquakes. He believes that it is necessary to raise the awareness of inhabitants of their built environment, to increase their involvement, and to put them in a position where they can articulate their wishes to authorities as regards their living environment and its quality.

The "Seismic Talks" proved to be an important platform for the exchange of experiences and opinions regarding the seismic safety of buildings and urban development. The Istanbul experts on the one hand believed strongly in comprehensive planning for the city and region, and on the other in the systematic implementation of scientific and practical knowledge regarding earthquakes (Arolat, Aksoy, Bayraktar, Çinici). They were very open to the suggestions made by the overseas experts. Their room for manoeuvre when it comes to planning, however, is limited in the current political situation.

Exhibition: Learning from Istanbul by studio HBohle from Berlin. Photo: Hendrik Bohle, Berlin

The exhibition "Learning from Istanbul", designed and constructed by architect Hendrik Bohle (studio HBohle, Berlin) for the "Seismic Talks", also showed the value of small contributions to urban reality. It illustrated how the inhabitants of Istanbul put their improvisation skills to good use when it comes to the appropriation of public spaces in everyday life, covering them with a network of stationary and mobile service structures. It also demonstrated how self-regulation, as referred to during the debate by Prof. Dr. Murat Güvenç, works in the city, giving rise to the hope that Istanbul will survive as an urban principle, regardless of any earthquake that it suffers or any political/economic decisions that are taken.

Von Olaf Bartels
28.05.2014
Istanbul , Turkey

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