International Informal/ engl

International Informal Style

Historical Modernism, House-building Ballads and the Precarious Life
Jochen Becker

“Due to global commerce and global technology, an uniformity of modern architecture, that excedes the natural limits which people and the individual adhere to, is breaking ground in all cultivated countries.” Walter Gropius, Internationale Architektur, Dessau 1927

While looking for a cover picture for our book Self-service City: İstanbul (1, we came across a picture taken by the Istanbul art group Oda Projesi. If you turn this image of a self-produced house around its vertical axis, it shows astounding similarities to an icon of modern architecture: Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22 hovering over the Los Angeles valley, as it was eternalised as an icon by the photographer Julius Shulman in his double-exposure. Thus, both pictures used here are already constructed. Besides, it is Viennese artist Dorit Margreiter’s re-production and not Shulman’s original that serves as a reference.

International Style?

Dorit MargreiterThe comparison of the re-produced fashion-photo (2 of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22 in Los Angeles with Seçil Yersel’s(3 photograph of a nameless post-geçekondu in Istanbul, creates a parallel house-building modernism which crosses continents of very different ideas of urbanism and architecture, challenging the International Style. For the so-named standard-setting MoMA exhibition, curated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932, completely excluded the global south — in other words, the southern hemisphere and the immigration zones in the north — as well as the worldwide self-made urbanization, thus legitimizing an imperial model of modernist building industry(.4

The thirty-six prototype Case Study Houses in the modernist tradition were constructed in California during the post-war years, in order to develop contemporary (5 and affordable housing. These social-emancipatory and also political aims of a mainly European modernism were ignored by Hitchcock and Johnson. (6

Ke∑anlı Ali destanı

Oda Projesi had a geçekondu-like building constructed for the Istanbul Biennial 2003 in front of the central exhibition hall. These shacks that “landed overnight” (translated from Turkish) have accommodated rural industrial worker’s families and represented the pioneer scheme-houses in Istanbul’s construction boom since the fifties. Their construction, either being self-built or produced, was focussed firmly towards the “desire of the customer”. Even Case Study #22’s construction was preceded by long debates with the clients, who insisted on curved and stone walls and a waterfall. But here the architect was in fact able to assert his ideas and called this a “re-interpretation of the customer’s desire”.

Oda ProdesiOda Projesi requested the advice of professional house builders for their exhibition project and thus followed an artistic tradition of dealing with Istanbul’s informal settlements, which made Haldun Taner’s The Ballads of Ali of Ke∑an (Ke∑anlı Ali destanı) a first and widely travelled theater classic in 1964. The fights for the geçekondus were, especially in Istanbul in the 1960s and 70s, often linked with the struggle of the bourgeois-cultural left. According to the Cologne-based theatre critic Zehra Ip∑iroêlu “conflicts resulting from the Europeanizion process, problems of the socially under-privileged classes, the reality of the Anatolian people and villages, the status of the woman or problems connected to the emigration into urban areas”, thus often formed the subject matter of progressive Turkish theatre. (7

Haldun Taner (+1986), the most popular theatre author in the country8, uses an ironic style in his Ballad of Ali of Ke∑an, so the misery that he describes in the “Fly Hill” () – district is neither picturesque nor heroic. Here, he connects anti-illusionistic elements of the Turkish folk theatre with the alienation effects of modern epic theatre according to Brecht. The drama is emphasized as being a play-as-play, the audience is approached directly and the theatre-machinery is used for playing an active role. For a love scene, Ali orders chirping cicadas, the song of a nightingale, a mawkish entrance of the orchestra and blue moonlight from the machinery: An “American night”.

Intern_inforThe choir — fag-end [ciggy-but]-Nuri, letter-writer Dervi∑, knife-grinder Temel, wet nurse Hafice, porter Niyazi, lavatory attendant Serif — establishes a colony of national immigrants, housed in shacks with “canister roofs” and “’cracked’ plywood every wall”, located between rubbish heaps, the stench of ammonia and sewers. “Every kind of man is here / Lazy and industrious / They have come from every land / Peasant, poet, blunderbuss / The Laz people of Black Sea / Kurdish horseman of Hak’ri / Moslem peasants of Hung’ry / All thursty and all hungry.”

All types live here: / thieves, thugs or tramps, / day-laborers, workingmen / they came from everywhere. / From Mara∑, from far-away Van, / from Kemah or Erzincan / Lazes, Kurds and Pomaki, / fate brought them together here.”

Nuri introduces himself as a day-laborer: “I can sell papers, / I can shine shoes, / And if I’m out of a job / I can do that of I don’t know whose. / I can fix faucets, / I can clean sewers, / I can wash cars, / I can walk dogs, / I can take care of babies, / And if there are no babies, / I can take care of that too.”

There are job descriptions here that could also apply to the generation of foreign workers that immigrated as “Gastarbeiter” from Turkey to Germany. “Man are mostly unemployed, / Dozing at the coffeehouse. / Some are lucky to find work / Even it be to catch a mouse.”

brigdeThe non-formalized community is divided into classes, yet a career is still possible: “Scratch and nothing was our start / Our single deposit / Was toil, work, sweat, and wit. Come and see us in the mart!” Former accountants, waiters and barmen become manufacturers of door hinges or timber and thus profit from Istanbul’s construction boom.

In Taner’s work, the “well ordered” middle-class town is in conflict with the informal settlements, derogatorily called “slums” or “ghettos” in German. However, the bourgeois author Taner adopts the geçekondu residents’ perspective: “The shantytown is above / Metropolis and the sea; / As far above and beyond / As flea is from honeybee.”

The view down is like the situation in Rio de Janeiro, where the favelas rise above a slope and often offer a better view than the bourgeois part of the city. Taner describes a situation in 1964, when the geçekondus were not yet urbanized and thus becoming part of the official city.

Public Security Forces

The “never surrender” and wants a “patriotic, national” play with “ethics and disciplinary”. Thus, the censorship of the military regime becomes a part of the performance and is also the official representative within the piece: “The end is near. One of the senators put in a bill – don’t you read the papers? ‘They should tear down every shanty in the town”, he says. ‘They’re a cancer foer the city.’”, says the thin policeman. Conflicts exist not only in dealing with the organs of the state, but also in dealing with informal security forces, who demand tributes or bribes for the distribution of occupied public land. “We are masters of the shanties. Poh! / Who’ll deny our birthright our priviledge? / Money is what we spent: ten green on the average / To bribe the scouts and city men / To get the land and patronage. / Rent out the land, pocket the dough. / We’re today the law an`lords here! / What’s this big fuss? Who is your big whip? / Don’t you know that this is the law of the world? / When laughable old clowns / Put up a building on their own / We swure tear it down. / We’ve set up a fixed two thousands / As hush money fair and mild / Won’t he pay? We’ll curse his mother an’ child.” (9

The voting potential of the residents is important in the politics, and so the planned removal of the district is almost off the table.(10 Even the parties have started to pay bribes. “How can you balance the budget without taxes?”, asks Nuri, thus mentioning the problem of informal politics: without a tax system, levies are collected more or less by random; social services are not guaranteed, but are granted like alms or traded for votes, and bribes are dispensed by a network of aid monies and secret funds. Taner portrays politicians as total opportunists, while gangster Ali, who became a civil servant, follows a client orientated and reliable policy . “He knew who’s who, who is where: / Better the whole world be3 cautious! Oh, woe! / Where would we be without him now, you tell me / Without shelter”, are the words at the end of the performance.

The Long Road to Kreuzberg

The Ballad of Ali of Ke∑an in the epic style of the Dreigroschenoper (‘3 Penny Opera’ by Brecht/Weill) was performed 1.600 times only in Turkey. It was performed in England, Germany, The Chech Republic, in the Lebanon, in Hungary and former Yugoslavia. It was successfully picturised for Turkish television and – in the turkish version – added to the current repertory of the Cologne Arkada Tourneetheater (Arkadas Touring Theatre). The first German performance took place in April 1981 at the Ernst-Deutsch-Theater in Hamburg, where Haldun Taner stepped onto the stage after the premiere. The play had however already been performed in Germany in the 1960s and was performed again 1980 by the Turkish group of the formerly famous Schaubühne im Hebbeltheater in Berlin.

“Mr. Taner explained his project to me… Berlin had been an important place for him, so he also thought about making a piece such as Ali of Ke∑an in Kreuzberg. … At that time, I introduced Haldun Taner to the theatre expert Meray Ülgen. He had a role in ‘Groß und Klein’ [by Botho Strauss] at the Schaubühne…. This is how the relationship with Peter Stein began”, Dr. Ali Nadir Savaser, a Berlin “physician interested in art” recalls the astounding constellation.(11

“This subject is very familiar to us, there are a lot of geçekondu people working here as well. There are also a lot of people from the village who work here. That’s very close. But of course, Haldun Taner tells about the geçekondu life in a very different direction — the entire Turkish life”, Kreuzberg author and actor Meray Ülgen explains the local references to the piece. “Some Turkish immigrants have never seen a theatre in their life. Many come to Berlin directly from a village and don’t know theatre is this form.” “Some members of the play’s cast came from Turkey, for example Ayla Algan, Sener Sen, Tuncel Kurtiz, Engin Akcelik and Yekta Arman. A theatre group for Turks working in Germany, was formed. The production was predominantly in Turkish, so that Turks living here could get closer to theater”, Bülent Tezcanli, a committed theatre musician from Kreuzberg, who also was hired at that time, describes the productions intentions. “And I also hoped that Haldun Taner would have accomplished to produce Ali of Ke∑an in the Kreuzberg area and in the Kreuzberg scene in such a way. … And he said, it’s possible to get a lot of ideas from Kreuzberg, and write a play and produce it here in Kreuzberg.” (Dr. Ali Nadir Savaser)

Plant of Slums

The literary works from Istanbul, written “in a process of industrialization and ‘Europeanization’” (Zehra Ip∑iroêlu) (12, talk about a time of modernization that, considering its architectural and social character, seems to have almost completely elapsed in the contemporary Turkish metropolis: a metropolis has emerged from what used to be shacks. But Taner’s more than forty year old scenes are more present in other cities in the south. US American urban sociologist Mike Davis even pictures a planet of slums, when in 2005 the global urban population will have exceeded the rural population for the first time. 85 percent of these citizans occupy land, but do not own it. Globally, the majority will live in 250.000 slums: in the past in geçekondus, dark back courtyards (Berlin) or shack-villages (Vienna), they now live in bustees (Calcutta), chalw and zopadpattis (Mumbai) katchi abadis (Karachi), kampungs (Jakarta), iskwaters (Manila), shammasas (Khartoum), umjondolos (Durban), intra-murios (Rabat), bidonvilles (Abidjan), baladis (Cairo), conventillos (Quito), invasión and colonias populares (Mexico City), favelas (Rio de Janeiro), villas miseria (Buenos Aires), in ranchos, barriada, townships or barras. (13

“The dynamic of third world urbanization recapitulates and mixes the precedents in the nineteenth and beginning twentieth century in Europe and North America”, according to Mike Davis. Yet — and this is a dramatic shift to the situation in Istanbul — more than an “urbanization without growth” (14 will not be possible in the future, in other words, without any incoming profit that the legalized geçekondus, enlarged to multistorey buildings, would still have offered. The global urban de-integration is still aggravated by the exclusion from the job market: “At the end of the day, there is a majority of urban slum residents who are genuinely and radically homeless in the contemporary international economy.” (15 The slum sprawl, the spreading overdevelopment at the edge of the city, is almost always accompanied by a deficient basic supply.


The 1998 Rotterdam exhibition with the talking title Mastering the City which looked at 100 years of urban planning, appeared strangely anachronistic even in the highly-regulated country of the “super-modernism”: How could cities be mastered in a global standard? The Dutch architectural institute showcased a Eurocentric and retro-summary survey — whereas the exhibition, at least for historians who deal with planning, as well as map lovers and restorative city lovers, was of burning interest. The introducing film already broke from the scenario of formal planning. Here, an entire settlement was created on an adventure playground, where carefree children in the old fashioned patina of the1970s romped around, hammering and playing with mud. Yet the Amsterdam house-squatting scene, the free city of Christiania – situated on parts of a military area in Copenhagen, or favela-like economies of poverty, formed at best footnotes in planning philosophies that are shaped by public task and that are, more than ever, realized largely by private companies.

The city is now more difficult to plan. John Carpenter’s crazy film, They Live, from 1988, showed in a drastic way a sort of illegal trailer park in the middle of Los Angeles, that was brutally cleared by the police, while a ‘day-laborer-construction-worker-hobo’ is trying to escape by moving into a modernism-house on the cliffs above the city. These are urban realities that have long been common in the global south, but are increasingly seen and recognized in the US and Europe.

The fact that the Berliner Senat für Stadtentwicklung (Berlin Department of Urban Development) is moving more towards crises management, even turning away from the contested master “inner-city plan” of the late nineties, and increasingly focusing on the pragmatic gap-filling and temporary use of urban waste lands (Zwischennutzung), demonstrates a new governmental technique that allows more and more informality. Here, the neo-liberal state no longer wants to re-distribute, but instead is decorated with a forced streak of laisse-faire while beeing bankrupt. Neighborhood policy and the Neue Mitte (the ‘New Center’ was Chancelor Schröder’s ‘Third Way’, but means the new touristic center of Berlin as well) diverge more and more, for example, in the case of the the development policy of “help to self-help” that finds its way into the form of district management.

Both legal and socially-marginalized immigrants develop their own networks, trading routes and emergency economies, as former Vietnamese contract workers do by turning their hostels into a shop and repository. The International informal Style has arrived at the homeland of Modernism.

Quotes from: Halun Taner, The Ballad of Ali of Keshan’, Istanbul, 1970

1) editied by Orhan Esen and Stephan Lanz, metroZones 4, b_books, Berlin, 2004

2) Photo by Markus Wailand

3) In cooperation with the Oda Projesi team

4) Le Corbusier’s planning — he was granted a special position by the co-publisher Hitchcock twenty years later — became the blueprint for the International Style’s worldwide imperialistic left-overs, and assumed a tabula rasa that cared little for the geographic or even the social conditions. Le Corbusier’s colonial fantasies about Algeria by-passed the city, without any consideration for localities. This comes very close to the technocrat term “slum clearance”.

5) In a video interview with Dorit Margrieter, Pierre Koenig insisted that Modernism was above all a social movement: new plans for new family structures in place of the patriarchal residential world.

6) Many Case Study Houses of the famous architect are expensive collectible items meanwhile.

7) “Neue Formen und Tendenzen im türkischen Gegenwartstheater“, in: Johann Christoph Bürgel; Stephan Guth (publ.), Gesellschaftlicher Umbruch und Historie im zeitgenössischen Drama der islamischen Welt, Stuttgart 1995, p. 140

8) From 1935 till 1938, Haldun Taner studied at the Department of Political Science at the University of Heidelberg, and later theatre history in Vienna. Until his forced removal by the 1960 military coup, he worked at the Universities of Istanbul and Ankara. He has written many plays and texts (among these was a piece about an illegal foreign worker who hired himself out as a Berliner Bear). Taner was considered a Brecht influenced theatre reformer and later worked as a much respected newspaper columnist.

9) This song was performed in 2003 in the metroZones event Self-Service-City by the participating actors from 1980: Meray Ülgen (actor and director), Bülent Tezcanli (musician) and the Hip-Hop singer Aziza A.

10) “Like many million other Turks, Minister President Erdogan lives in a house without a building permission. The land in Üsküdar, on the Asiatic coast of Istanbul belongs to him, but the house was built without official permission. He wants to sell that house now and look for another one.” (dpa, quoted from: taz November 11, 2005)

11) The following interviews were carried out by Folke Köbberling and Birun Ercan for the metroZone project Self-Service-City.

12) In: “Kritisches Lexikon zur fremdsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur“, Berlin 1983

13) “Mike Davis blickt auf die ganze Welt” (Wildcat Nr. 71, Autumn 2004, p. 50)

14) Mike Davis, „Planet of Slums. Urban Involution and the Informal Proletariat“, in: New Left Review, Nr. 26, March/April 2004

15) Ibd., p. 26

Translated from German by Laura Bruce