Istanbul’s Gecekondu Homes Reveal the Building Blocks of a Megalopolis

(This story is part of an ongoing series on the home designs that define cities. Read more about iconic floor plans in Prague, Beijing, Reyjavik, Hanoi, Brussels, Athens, Sydney, Singapore, London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris. Follow our Storythread to have future installments delivered to your inbox.)

In the shadow of Istanbul’s better-known buildings — its historic Ottoman mosques, its grand late-19th-century apartments, its modern skyscrapers — the wanderer occasionally stumbles upon a structure that looks out of place even in a city famous for its mélange of architectural styles and eras. These small, squat, simple homes, often with roughly white-washed walls, a metal door, and a low-pitched roof, are more redolent of the hardscrabble countryside than a megalopolis of more than 15 million people. But though few of these homes, referred to as gecekondu, (“pronounced “GEDJ-Eh-Kond-U” — the first syllable rhyming with “hedge”) remain standing in this form, these humble abodes are vital to understanding how Turkey’s largest city became what it is today.

“The gecekondu is something so tied to the history of urbanization in Turkey that you can’t distinguish the building from the process itself,” says Başak Demireş Özkul, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Istanbul Technical University. “It has evolved because the city has evolved.”

So-called gecekondu homes first began to appear in significant numbers in big cities, particularly Istanbul and the capital Ankara, in the late 1940s. Their name, which literally means “landed overnight,” reflects how hastily they were constructed, without permits or adherence to building codes, on vacant, often state-owned land to which the occupant had no legal right.

Until after World War II, Turkey’s population was largely rural. Fewer than 1 million people lived in Istanbul. Things began shifting rapidly with post-war Marshall Plan-fueled mechanization of agriculture and industrial development, which drove people off the land to seek new urban jobs, with Istanbul many people’s destination of choice.

“Everywhere this transformation happens, it’s painful and turbulent, and Turkey’s urbanization process was one of the world’s speediest, with a complete rural-urban shift over 30 years,” says Murat Güvenç, director of Kadir Has University’s Istanbul Studies Center. “Its cities lacked funds to create the necessary infrastructure, so newcomers solved their own problems as they could.”

For lower-income migrants, that often meant building what later became known as gecekondu, typically in areas already populated by migrants from their hometown.

“Most of these people were from small villages and constructed homes for themselves the way they knew how, with the materials they could find,” says Özkul. In this initial stage, gecekondu homes typically consisted of hollow concrete breeze-blocks stacked on a concrete slab, topped by basic tin or tiled roofs, often incorporating scavenged or secondhand materials. They had a few rooms, an outhouse toilet, and a patio or garden for growing and preparing food, and perhaps keeping chickens. For many new Istanbul residents, they formed a transitional space between rural and urban life.  As time went by and the neighborhoods achieved a greater degree of permanence, residents gradually added rooms and indoor plumbing, installing bathrooms and in some cases extra floors.

While the gecekondu are often referred to in English as squatter or shanty homes, the translation doesn’t quite fit. The homes were often preferable to the alternatives — squalid rental rooms for (male) workers or crumbling old wood-frame houses — and represented a family’s first step in upward urban mobility.

“Yes, they were very basic, but you can’t equate them with the squalor you find in, say, tenement houses,” says Özkul. “This was something a family built for themselves, that required some capital. The ones I visited in my research all felt like homes.”

This didn’t quell urban elite anxiety about the growing numbers of rural migrants, reflected in newspaper headlines like one from 1948 that warned “More and more, Istanbul is looking like an Anatolian village.”

The changes brought by the influx were indeed dramatic. The Zeytinburnu area outside Istanbul’s historic city walls, for example, went from largely undeveloped land in the 1940s, to a 20,000-resident industrial and gecekondu district by the mid 1950s, officially incorporated into Istanbul in 1957. This process repeated across the city. By the early 1980s, around 50% of Istanbulites lived in gecekondu housing, in a city that had grown to 3 million inhabitants.

Over the decades government attitudes toward the gecekondu had swung between policies of demolition and amnesty, with the latter predominating. This allowed the settlements to become more permanent and residents to upgrade and expand their homes as their families and financial resources grew.

“In the initial years, many gecekondu areas had no public transportation, no utility infrastructure, but as the settlements grew and their populations increased, residents started to demand these things from local governments,” says Murat Cemal Yalçıntan, a professor of urban planning at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. Electricity, water, and sewage lines arrived, roads improved, and the dolmuş shared taxi services established by entrepreneurial local residents formalized into set minibus routes. As formal planning and infrastructure started to reshape the informal settlements, they in time came to be considered quite central parts of the growing city.

Amnesties and new regulations in the mid-1980s accelerated this transformation, by granting legal titles to gecekondu owners and sparking a wave of demolition and improvement. Legal status allowed gecekondu owners to participate in the yapsat (“build/sell”) model already common in middle-class neighborhoods. Under this model — akin to thePolikatoikia system  found in Greece — a homeowner would allow a contractor to tear down their house and construct a four- or five-story apartment building, with each party in the deal receiving a set number of units in the new building to sell or rent. The practice rapidly increased urban density and homogeneity. These apartments — of varying levels of construction quality — still dominate many Istanbul streetscapes today.

These changes nonetheless didn’t wipe out their neighborhoods’ informal DNA “You can never shake off the fact that a former gecekondu area wasn’t a planned neighborhood,” says Özkul. “You have plots that are irregular, that have no road connections, that are on steep inclines or in old streambeds that get flooded during storms.”

Such areas of huddled, low-rise housing stand in stark contrast to newer developments in contemporary Istanbul, which since the mid-2000s has seen further dramatic transformation as the government courted international investors and pursued widespread (and often controversial) redevelopment of much valuable real estate. Skyscrapers and shopping malls proliferated, while by the late 1990s most smaller houses had been replaced by yapsat buildings. In a city still undergoing rapid change, many of these have had an even shorter life before being replaced. New migrants to the city today are now more likely to live in vast high-rise apartment blocks on the urban fringes, constructed after the millennium under the auspices of the powerful government-backed housing agency TOKİ.

But, Yalçıntan says, “if there is a city culture in Istanbul, it has been — and still is — affected a lot by the gecekondu populations and settlements.”

Istanbul’s densely built but sprawling structure reveals the legacy of unplanned development, with areas once regarded as the city’s marginal fringes now fully incorporated into it. Their migrant inhabitants also reshaped the political map. When now-President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose to political prominence as Istanbul mayor in 1994, Yalçıntan’s research shows that support from gecekondu residents played a major role. Shops, restaurants, and social centers in different neighborhoods cater to the tastes of their distinct migrant communities, who hail from every corner of Turkey, making the country’s dominant metropolis a microcosm of its entire population and their varied cultures.

“There are very few people today who can look back at generations of Istanbul roots,” says Özkul. “The story that most people can relate to is a story of migration, and the gecekondu is part of that narrative.”

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