Competitions are unresolved issues of our professional life in Turkey

Arkitera, interviewed with Dr.Oktan Nalbantoğlu about ON TASARIM, professional office life, and the architectural / urban design project competitions in Turkey..

Oktan Nalbantoğlu:
We, ON TASARIM, are a multidisciplinary office. We have urban designers, landscape architects, architects, city planners, and interior architects in Ankara and İstanbul offices. We are mainly focusing on urban design and landscape architecture projects. I can say that we especially enjoy working on public spaces. Thinking and getting responsibilities for cities make us very considerate and excited at the same time, especially when it comes to public opinion. Our head office is in Ankara, we opened our office in Istanbul five months ago. We make projects at several districts and cities of Turkey, and at some cities abroad. Our customer profile is mainly ministries, municipalities, private companies, and other public institutions.

D.Y.: Which projects do you work on recently?

ON: One of the important projects we are working on now is Turkey’s first National Botanical Garden to be realized in Ankara. The Botanical Garden has a very large area, land of 2.5 million square meters, and it will be established on the Eskişehir road between the Ministry of Agriculture and Hacettepe University, Beytepe Campus. We are at the concept development and site design stages of the project, implementation projects and consulting services will be held by TÜMAŞ A.Ş. We have some projects in Istanbul as well. For instance a very significant urban design project for Kadıköy Square and Haydarpaşa Station.

DY: Haydarpaşa Port project is on the agenda then…

ON: There is no such a decision, nor a project. We reconsidered the historical Haydarpaşa Station and its immediate surrounding public spaces as a museum complex and a kind of open-air train terminal. That project has had huge effort and trans-disciplinary approach. We are involved in the process of urban landscape architecture. It is projected by a group that we are in control of, under the supervision of an advisory board composed of İstanbul Technical University. We have not received any information about the use of the Historical Haydarpaşa Station with a different function until today. In fact, our urban design and landscape design decisions have been completely based on the use of space for trains.

Apart from those, there are boulevard revisions and arrangements, facade rehabilitation projects, and urban square projects in various parts of Turkey. Aydın City Square is one of our important projects. The application has begun; I think it will be finished at the end of the year. We started as a challenge to the project, but it touches many directions and districts at the city center.

We designed the city’s largest park in Manisa. The tender is about to be made. In the future we intend to make a project work that will coincide with the historical texture of the city and its cultural landscape. The mayor has also such a vision. We have revealed the first ideas of the rehabilitation and urban transformation project for the Iluh Stream in Batman, which had been turned into a depressed area with heavy loaded migration in recent history. It is a very crucial and important project for us because it is in fact a very problematic area within the magnificent historical center of Batman. We do try to understand the “context” first. We claim to design “the place” from the natural, cultural, and architectural characteristics of that geography. These are the projects that are realized by catching contemporary visions. But never being disconnected to the context … Time passes and we try to race with it.

DY: What are your opinions about competitions in Turkey? Do they achieve their purposes?

ON: Competitions in Turkey are very important. Especially new approaches, trends, and developments of architecture are very important for our young colleagues. At the same time, it is important to be able to operate collaborated production mechanisms and to capture the working spirit as a team. But competitions in Turkey are really unresolved issues still. The main reason is the lack of coordination and communication between related administrations, juries and contestants. The administration often wants to use the competition process as a show off. Especially during election periods or in order to create agenda in Turkey … Almost 80% of the projects obtained through the competitions cannot be implemented. Urban design projects in particular. Of course, there are different reasons for this, it may be a little unfair to put responsibility on the organization that opened the competition directly. And of course, there is a jury stage. I do not think that the competition specifications and requirements are prepared by adequate seriousness and in well-completed files. Competition juries need to spend more time on each project. I think it is beneficial to prepare the competition specifications a little more precisely. Likewise, the process of evaluating entries needs to be addressed in a more comprehensive way. Participants started to see the competitions as a commercial profit, a commodity rather than an idea or a shared professionality. I think that some competitions try to fool juries by creating stereotypes, creating fake worlds, and using the possibilities of digital technology. The jury is also affected from time to time. The projects are now starting to look alike.

DY: The project, which won the 3rd prize in the Gallipoli competition was very much talked about in the colloquium.

ON: Well, there is such a problem yes. But the real problem is that the administration is still admiring the 3rd Project (laughing).

DY: The structure of the jury is also important in competitions. According to the competition, for example, urban design competitions are becoming more important than urban designers.

ON: Yes, definitely. I usually review the things that someone did, not the name. The Academy is important, but I think it is much more important to have a practical experience in those who will be jurors. I tell my colleagues many times that, some competitors are able to put a lot of prizes in front of putting out original ideas. It seems to me that quality is gradually diminishing. In the evaluation process, you often have to eliminate about 50% of the projects in the first or second round. There is a quality and quantity problem.

DY: I think there was a problem during the competition. It is desirable to have projects within a very limited period of time, isn’t it ?

ON: Absolutely. The competitions are now around maximum 3-4 months beforehand. These are the large, mega urban design projects. Another critical problem is for the idea projects. From the moment you said “conceptual project” to the title of the project, the administration is totally free to implement or not your project. I’m not against getting conceptual projects. However, when you request projects up to 1/50, 1/20 under the name of an idea project, that “idea” becomes an application. That’s why the jury should not fall into this trap. If necessary, s/he should show her/his reaction by resigning from being jury member. The administration takes your copyright rights from your hand, and then applies the project whichever they desire. I think that the jury should be very careful in this regard in order to defend the rights of colleagues.

DY: The competition in the law is not very clear. There are regulations and many things are left to the organizational initiatives.

ON: It would be useful to reconsider regulations of competitions. But unfortunately there is no consensus among professional organizations. Especially the chauvinist attitude of the profession chambers is the most common obstacle to competitions. This is true for all chambers. The chambers do not want anyone outside their room to participate in urban design competitions as long as they are close to the administration that organizes the competition. For example, he says, “head of a team must be an architect to participate to this competition”. I’m actually against the term “head of a team”. A team representative might be more appropriate. It is meant to be the person who represents the team. I think that the person who organizes the group should be the person authorized to solve the administrative and financial matters on behalf of the team. The concept of “team head” is completely wrong for me and should not be dictated. Encouraging participation of each discipline to the competition, ‘teams out of different professions’ is always more successful way.

DY: The issue of ownership in the implementation of projects is one of the risky factors, I think.

ON: In the case of Zonguldak project, the mayor became a deputy candidate. He left the presidency. It is the project that even the agenda of the mayor who is acting as proxy is formed. However, it is a very important project for Zonguldak. We meet with the administration at the Gallipoli Competition, but, we cannot say that we have a project that is implemented merely and totally as an outcome of the competition. Of course there are problems with the management departments too. If you do not solve the property problems and start competing without creating your budgetary predictions, you will be seduced by the project.

Nevertheless, we certainly should never give up. We must continue to encourage the administrations in this sense. The project competitions are beneficiary also for educational-instructional processes.

DY: Finally, you decided to join a competition. How is the process progressing as a team?

ON: I believe that we have a success in our competitions. The underlying factor is definitely teamwork. Everyone has the right to speak and everyone knows what to do. In the first concept phase of the project a serious brainstorm is made, all ideas are discussed. Later on, a compromise is made on the way and the process flourishes rapidly. The most dangerous issue in competitions is indecisive stands and not to be able to agree on ideas. In these situations it is important to have someone to say the last word.

DY: Thank you very much.

ON: I thank you.

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