Kıvanç Kılınç and Mohammad Gharipour (eds.), Social Housing in the Middle East: Architecture, Urban Development, and Transnational Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya: What made you edit this book?
Kıvanç Kılınç and Mohammad Gharipour (KK & MG): We wanted to write a book that would contribute to the critical studies of modernity and global culture by making visible the actually existing, diverse, but previously neglected practices of social housing in the broader Middle East. We believed that the absence of a scholarly book that particularly addressed the topic was evident. Comparative studies existed, but either their geographical diversity was limited, or they included housing as part of larger debates in architecture, urban design, and city planning. So, we considered Social Housing in the Middle East as an opportunity to address this gap in scholarship. Following our co-chaired panel at the 69th annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) in 2016, we came up with a book project that would bring together works on lesser known examples of social housing projects in the region by adopting cross-cultural and interdisciplinary perspectives.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
KK & MG: The book underlines the interconnectedness of social housing experiences in the Middle East to various other sites, economies, and urban regimes around the world by gathering the stories behind projects that have until now remained virtually unexplored. In addition to further drawing attention to the agency of local builders and homeowners in refashioning interior and exterior spaces, it intervenes in the field by extending the notion of modernity beyond canonical buildings and by moving out of isolationist frameworks for the region. The book includes both practitioners and consumers within projects that have typically been addressed solely in terms of formal analysis. In addressing these interlinked agendas, accounts gathered in this volume seek to contribute to recent, more inclusive architectural history writing practices. In this respect, Social Housing in the Middle East is situated within the broad spectrum of critical postcolonial studies of architecture and urbanism.
The modernization of the Middle East and North Africa has been considered primarily as the story of elite groups. In the case of cities, the narrative usually consists of "important" works of architecture, either directly built by foreign (star) architects commissioned by "western oriented" governments or "western-educated" local actors. In response, chapters in this book tell diverse histories of alternative modes of dwelling cultures where lower-class families have extended the borders of the modernist paradigm by adopting, localizing, and reshaping given models. In doing so, the book turns its attention to marginalized subjectivities, competing identity claims, and class aspirations that have played a role in the development and transformation of lower-income housing settlements in the region.
Furthermore, housing is closely linked to topics that are both contemporary and whose scope reaches beyond mainstream architectural history writing—social movements, for instance. In response, our introduction chapter calls for the extension of social housing literature to include humanitarian endeavors such as building refugee camps and designing emergency dwellings (not typically included within the breadth of social and public housing), as well as activism organized around the “right to housing” in the MENA region.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
KK: My previous work focused on the transformation of the residential culture and the lower-income households in early twentieth-century Turkey. I also wrote on issues of urban culture and identity in contemporary Turkish cities. My collaboration with Mohammad began when he invited me to join the editorial team of the International Journal of Islamic Architecture in late 2011. Seeing that we worked together quite well and learned a lot from each other, we began to collaborate on research as well.
MG: My previous research initially focused on Persian architecture and garden history, but I have published books on a wide range of topics, including bazaars in Islamic cities, synagogues in the Islamic world, and calligraphy in Islamic architecture. Although we had developed varied scholarly interests, both Kıvanç and I have backgrounds in architecture and architectural history, and have been interested in the contemporary urban developments in the Middle East, from large-scale landscape projects to temporary settlements, which brought us together in this project.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
KK & MG: We imagined Social Housing in the Middle East to be a work of reference for an international community of scholars and graduate students who are interested in exploring the role of locality in the production, transformation, and appropriation of global architectural typologies. The book includes both historical studies and contemporary debates on social housing in the region. For that reason, we hope that practitioners and policymakers, as well as housing activists, will also be interested in reading it.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
KK & MG: In addition to our individual research projects, we recently co-chaired a panel on “Housing Refugees in Urban Centers” at the 14th congress of the International Society of Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (2019). We are also working on a special issue of the International Journal of Islamic Architecture (IJIA), together with the guest editor Bülent Batuman, that will discuss the notion of displacement and its impact on architecture and the cities in the Islamic world.
J: Do you think your book covered all major social housing projects in the region?
KK & MG: From the beginning, the edited collection did not intend to bring together all aspects of social housing production in the Middle East or all known examples in its near history, covering every single country. Our selection of each contribution is closely related to the structure of the book: the chapters are strong representatives of relevant themes surrounding the issue of social housing and spatial agency in the region. And although we initially planned to have a more even coverage, this has proven very difficult to accomplish, like in most edited volumes. Unfortunately, we did not receive any submissions from scholars working on sites that are usually excluded from mainstream sources, such as Palestine, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
Excerpt from the book
Resurgent Typologies: The Apartment Block and Informal Housing
As in many other places in the world, in Middle Eastern cities mass housing has been but one of the formulas drawn in response to the quest for finding the right form of “inhabiting on a large scale.” While “large scale” has not always been the most popular solution, it has often been deemed the most economically sound answer to the housing problem. In Turkey, for instance, Siedlung-inspired detached and semi-detached types dominated the urban scene until the end of the 1950s. In the first half of the twentieth century, the so-called “rental barracks” were likened to contemporary prisons, which were thought to have symbolized a transient and nomadic life. Yet, beginning in the 1960s, these were gradually replaced by midrise and high-rise housing units, the most repeated form of social housing in the region today. The ambiguous reception of the big concrete blocks in Turkey is by no means unique. Across the world, multistory-type social housing models mostly emerged because of financial constraints or the lack of available land. For instance, in Iraq, multistory “public housing estates” that were built by various government agencies were mostly popular in the 1960s and 1970s. These models differed from the “low-rise high-density urban blocks” that characterized the larger modernization and reconstruction programs laid out by the state in the 1950s and were seldom repeated. In post-revolutionary Cairo, midrise modernist blocks were the widely adopted type in the 1950s and 1960s. This trend continued in the 1970s but gradually ceased in the 1980s, when regulation and planning gave way to the growth of informal settlements. Vast satellite cities built outside Cairo, once seen as a viable solution to stop mass migration to the capital city, ended up uninhabited or partially inhabited voids. In many other countries in the region, “the tendency for most affordable housing projects to be located in peripheral and relatively remote locations . . . has resulted in problems of higher social and infra- structure costs.”
Nevertheless, in stark contrast to Egypt and Turkey, the history of rapid urbanization linked to oil economies in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain meant that welfare housing translated into the single-family detached home, and the consideration of alternative types has been rare. Similarly, in Iran, post-Revolutionary measures for centralization, such as the transition of ownership of urban wastelands to the government and regulation of the market, encouraged horizontal urban growth rather than high-rise developments. The second development plan of the Islamic Republic continued this policy by focusing on producing social housing under the campaign of “building small.” Contemporary developments, such as the ambitious but poorly received Mehr Project (2007), however, consisted predominantly of midrise apartment blocks. In places where comprehensive government policies in social housing are yet to exist, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), private entrepreneurs who build affordable houses tend to reproduce existing high-rise models of luxury housing on a smaller scale and farther away from the city centers.
While most countries chose to directly produce housing units, few ofthese attempts proved sufficient to meet rising needs. With increased migration to urban centers for prospects of better lives and jobs, as well as unending wars and conflict in the region, oceans of shantytowns began to emerge at the periphery of cities and towns. The unanticipated scale of informal housing in Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, and Yemen forced governments to look for more site-specific solutions, such as the sites-and-services approach, in which prospective users would be given cheap land and subsidies to build their own housing with affordable payment options, much below the market value. Another strategy was applying aided self-help housing methods, especially when government (central and local administrations) means were limited. When such attempts too fell short of providing sufficient housing supplies, primarily two things transpired: first, self-built vernacular housing typologies, including informal settlements in countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey, became customary urban forms in expanding cities. Second, small-scale contractors emerged as significant actors regulating the market in urban centers in competition with registered architects. In the second half of the twentieth century, cities in and around the Middle East were increasingly marked by “housing infill and densification” and self-help urban “apartment building extensions.”
Architecture in the Age of Turmoil: Extended Scope of Social Housing
Beyond (post)colonial legacies, which still inform the present in countless ways, two recent global and regional developments continue to shape contemporary social housing policies in the region: one is the larger neoliberal economic trends that hurl the Middle East into becoming a construction zone, with a reduced role for central authorities in housing production. Growing inequality and privatization of services foster the expansion of self-help settlements around the region at the same time as the emergence of a transnational capitalist class as investors reconfigure the scene. New cities are now being built from scratch in compressed timeframes with little or no concern for decent working conditions, such as Lusail City in Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup In Dubai’s infamous labor camps, thousands of workers who are reported to be working long hours on giant construction sites are denied access not only to adequate housing, but also to freedom of movement, basic health care, and social security. In Beirut, where mapping affordable housing, or any form of housing for that matter, has long been equated with “mapping security,” the city’s old neighborhoods are in continual transformation with the fast pace of high-rise and gated residential development. In the meantime, neoliberal economic policies in the region have not remained unchallenged. For instance, unequal urban development threatening to eat up the remaining bits of green spaces in Istanbul, coupled with rising cultural and religious conservatism, led to mass protests and unrest in 2013 with the Gezi movement in Turkey.
The second major development affecting social housing debates is the political conflicts and violence, tension, and wars in the region, which caused millions of people to take refuge in countries neighboring Syria and Iraq, such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Some of the early camps, built for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forcibly displaced from their villages and towns in the occupied territories as Israel tactically used (and continues to use) housing needs as a tool for colonial expansion, eventually became permanent residential areas. While Palestinians have long been denied the right to return their homes and lands, in the words of a humanitarian aid expert, these camp cities may well be the “cities of tomorrow.” One such example is the camp established by the International Committee of the Red Cross near Zarqa for Palestinian refugees after the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. According to the United Nations Work and Relief Agency (UNRWA) website, the agency “replaced the original tents with concrete shelters and over the years the refugees have made improvements and added more rooms. The camp now resembles other urban quarters in Zarqa.” Social geographer Myriam Ababsa writes that the unprecedented scale of such developments, in addition to financial difficulties, made Jordan steer away from its more comprehensive social housing and slum-upgrading programs in the 1990s and focus instead on providing basic services and infrastructure. The Nahr al-Bared camp in Lebanon has a similar story. In its old and newly built parts, one could see various permanent types of housing inhabited by diverse income groups. Almost completely destroyed during an armed conflict in 2007, the camp was rebuilt in 2011 by the UNRWA with the aim of reconstructing it “in a manner that preserves the social fabric through maintaining the camp’s pre-destruction neighborhood layout.”
Beyond city centers, newly built refugee camps in the Middle East accommodate millions of people cramped in tiny shelters in a vast sea of desert-barren land blemished by scarce water and thus unsuited for agriculture. Such crises drew the attention of not only humanitarian agencies, but also big manufacturers such as IKEA, to developing mic-dwellings, which go beyond either the container type or tent as a housing solution. An exhibition at MoMA in October 2016, Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter, displayed “a range of objects, including the jointly-designed IKEA Foundation-UNHCR-Better Shelter modular emergency structure, along with works by Estudio Teddy Cruz, Henk Wildschut, and Tiffany Chung, among others.” Undoubtedly, the larger implications are becoming more devastating as homelessness and displacement in the region define a human tragedy of global dimensions. In the last six years, stories of these tragedies have been circulating in the news virtually every day: images of Syrian refugees sent back from European cities and borders to refugee camps, or the loss of life caused by desperate measures that families adopt to travel via land or sea to escape crises at home, to name a few. With these images and conditions in mind, is the time not ripe to rethink social housing as a category to include provincial refugee camps, as well as emergency dwellings, which, in practice, perform as permanent shelters?