A city of dualities—east and west, Europe and Asia, ancient and modern all at once—today, Istanbul feels like the ultimate urban mash-up. But the city has always worked that way: Constantine imported civic monuments from all corners of the Roman empire to give his insta-capital an air of authenticity; Mehmet the Conqueror converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque; Ataturk decreed that the Turkish language would be written in Latin script rather than Arabic, and the city’s shop and street signs had to be changed. So it’s fitting that the city’s first design biennial, which opened in October and ran through mid-December, is itself a mash-up of two distinct shows, Musibet and Adhocracy.
Musibet (the Turkish work for disaster) curated by the Istanbul-based architect Emre Arolat paints a picture of grassroots architectural struggles taking place urban environments, mainly in his own city and country, while Adhocracy, curated by Domus editor Joseph Grima, the current back to basics movement: how things are made. The exhibits are loosely united through the Biennial’s overarching theme of “Imperfection,” which Deyan Sudjic, a member of the fair’s advisory board, defines as an acceptance “that we no longer believe in utopia, but find inspiration working in the messy reality of everyday life.”
In its acknowledgement of the complexities of modern existence, Imperfection’s “messy reality” summons up the “messy vitality” called for in architecture by Robert Venturi in the early 1970s. But while Venturi’s response to the stifling perfection of Modernism was enacted through formal means, today’s response to cookie cutter planning solutions or the banality of mass production comes through highly practical channels that privilege the process of making and utility of the final product. The theme of imperfection loosely unites Musibet and Adhocracy, but conceptually the shows sit on different sides of the same road, something underscored by the fact that the exhibitions are separated by one of Istanbul’s busiest traffic arteries.
The intentionally oppressive Musibet exhibition makes visitors feel in turns anxious and trapped—the entrance of the show in the basement of the Istanbul Modern Museum is an actual prison gate that leads into a disorienting labyrinth with 15-foot black walls. Intended as critique of the contemporary urban environment, the exhibition design mainly comes off as heavy-handed, but the show succeeds in bringing to the surface many proactive efforts by local architects and artists to address crises in the Turkish city, like Design or Make by PAB Mimari Tasarım, a fictional narrative critiquing the media for celebrating high design bona fides rather than looking at the actual project. Istanbul-o-Matic by PATTU Architecture creates a game of city-making that highlights the need for a balance of both ground-up and top-down solutions.
Infused with both sound and scent, Musibet effectively makes its point through a theatrical but intense experience. Visitors to the biennial are more likely to linger across the street in the sunny galleries of the Galata Greek Primary School, a Beaux Arts building that formerly catered to the children of Istanbul’s Greek community. Here, Adhocracy casts its net globally to present a recent history, an exciting present, and an optimistic future of what an April 2012 cover of The Economist magazine called the “third revolution” in design.
The third revolution is a resourceful but humble one, a point playfully made by one of the first installations the visitor encounters, In Love We Trash by the Spanish collective Basurama, whose contribution was improvised on site using discarded packing materials from other objects in the exhibition. Basurama’s makeshift tent relies solely on an air current commandeered from a nearby vent to stay upright; after stepping through a scruffy flap, and standing up inside, it’s hard not to be enchanted by a patchwork of bubble-wrap transformed into a domed structure of ethereal beauty.
Beauty is often found in unexpected places in Adhocracy, including in the process of making itself. As Grima notes in his catalogue essay, futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term “adhocracy” to describe “any form of organization that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results.” It’s a powerful concept that was picked up by business consultants—and recently in the U.S. by both the Tea Party and Occupy movements—to overcome the built-in inefficiencies of calcified organizations through quick, tactical, and largely ephemeral solutions. This is what makes the show exciting and what sets it apart from other design biennial round-ups: you haven’t seen these things before. The biennial itself is ad hoc.
For the fields of architecture and design, subverting codified systems is nothing new; Adhocracy aptly demonstrates this through presenting the work of practitioners like Italian architect Giancarlo De Carlo, whose 1960s designs for modular housing projects allowed for customization and individual preferences. But with the advent of open source software, file sharing, and supporting tools in the form of 3-D printers affordable enough for a home-user (the Maker-Bot receives a place of honor), today tactical designs have a much greater chance of becoming reality.
On the third floor of the show, Antwerp-based Unfold studio has set up Stratigrafic Manufactory. Part exhibit, part laboratory, Unfold provides instructions on 3-D printing ceramics to craftsmen around the globe. The results of previous experiments, some of which are on display, reveal the subtle differences, both personal and cultural, that arise when people from different regions are allowed to customize post-prototype. It’s an elegant demonstration of the reunion of craft and industry and of how individualism might be expressed through quotidian objects. Other projects are roadmaps for making the machines themselves. The kit of parts system of Global Village Construction Set by Maysville, Ohio-based farmers and scientists of Open Source Ecology allows for the creation of 50 working industrial machines.
As visitors move to the higher floors of the exhibition, the projects become more polemical and political. Drone Journalism, a video created by the Polish firm Robocopter, documents the November 2011 Independence Day riots in Warsaw, capturing violence in the streets between police and protestors. Although police shut down large parts of the city, limiting access to journalists and witnesses, Robocopter’s drone-mounted camera rig captured the action in sweeping cinematic shots. Adhocracy makes music, too: Artist Pedro Reyes’ Imagine uses instruments made of defunct guns and helmets to cover the John Lennon song of the same name.
While information sharing is built into many of the projects on display, another level of communication seems to be required if adoption on a larger scale is the goal. With their techy instruction sets, one wonders how these projects have a chance of gaining the attention of general consumers, especially Westerners who have been long tricked into passivity by a prevailing culture of artificial obsolescence. So the real story of adhocracy has yet to unfold. Like democracy, the true measure of adhocracy will be how, when given the tools, people practice it. In suggesting what this imperfect future could look like, Musibet and Adhocracy, two shows of a seemingly bi-polar biennial, intersect—a mash-up that feels right at home in Istanbul.