Why do the Turks love concrete so much?

From President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s passion for large roads to the sprightly octogenarians’ desire to “enlarge the balcony just a bit,” the Turks just love construction – even at the risk of bending local laws.

As I walk to the beach every morning, I pass in front of a deserted summer house with a torn-down front façade and rusty pipes sticking out. The local “beach myth” is that its owner was furious with his neighbor for expanding his patio and ratted out this irregular construction to the municipality. When the authorities came to tear down the oversized porch, the outraged neighbor simply pointed out the balcony of the tattle-tale and filed a complaint. Within a month, the municipality’s bulldozers demolished the illegally-constructed parts of the two adjacent houses – a porch, a balcony and even the extension of one of the back rooms. One of the houses was rebuilt according to the standards while the owner of the other, the one who allegedly started the whole demolition with a phone call, abandoned the cottage and left it just like the unfinished tower of Saint Sulpice

Though shots of a beautiful sandy beach dominate my Instagram account, I am surrounded by bricks, iron rods, slabs of concrete, workers who shout at each other, and scroungers passing by to gather the scraps of wood and iron. October is the “construction season” in Çeşme, an Aegean resort known for its harsh winds, posh restaurants and mushrooming second houses. 

My neighbors on left and right, octogenarians who anticipate staying here in the event of a “second wave” of COVID-19, are engrossed in repairs and construction. So is every third or fourth house in the neighborhood. Old wooden shutters are replaced with electronic ones; electrical heating is installed and roofs are raised. The traditional off-white red-roofedhouses transition into a gray-hued cube with too much iron and glass, most likely with some illegal half-story or a new room-made-out-of-a-balcony added. Though the law requires an official authorization for any change of façade or adding square-meters to the houses, most hope that the municipality would turn a blind-eye as “everyone is doing it.” Or they hope to get away with paying a fine until yet another amnesty for illegal/unregistered construction comes out in a year or two.

The temptation of adding a room, a floor or a gazebo seems irresistible to all – including those in the public eye. In April, the Municipality of Istanbul demolished illegal construction by Turkey’s Presidential Communications Director and info-tsar Fahrettin Altun. Altun, who had hired a house in Istanbul’s Kuzguncuk district, built a gazebo and a fireplace in the garden and erected high walls. The tearing down and the resulting spat has opened the Pandora’s box on privacy, political mud-slinging, and freedom of expression and the press. Still, the fact remains that Mr. Altun, like many of his compatriots, had carried out unregistered construction.

“There are many gray areas in construction laws and sporadic controls,” Gamze Demiröz İlalan, an Ankara-based architect, told Duvar English. “So people think that they can build first, settle it with their local municipality later and wait for an eventual amnesty.”

The last amnesty for unregistered buildings, through which people could apply for their unauthorized enlargements or constructions for a fine until June 2019, benefited 1.8 million applicants and brought TL 16.5 billion in property taxes and registration fees into government coffers. Experts complained that it had provided amnesty for many unsafe buildings, even in some earthquake-prone zones. “Whether it is completely unlicensed or has more floors than the original plan, they gave an amnesty to all buildings. This is very dangerous,” Cemal Gökçe, the chairman of the Chamber of Civil Engineers, told Reuters.

Beyond the safety risk, the Turks’ building frenzy often comes at the cost of the environment, archaeological heritage, or eyesores that clash with the local architectural fabric. The chic resort town of Alaçatı, whose name means “red roofs,” now boasts residences whose facades are a strange marriage of wooden panels and grayish glass. Impervious to local protests, multi-story residences are erected on the coastline, sometimes blocking a flaneur’s right to access the beach. Several of these have been opened under a tourism permit – meaning they were granted a license as hotels - but were quietly sold off as residences, making a quick and hefty buck to the construction companies.

Last month, Ekrem Oran, Çeşme’s media-savvy mayor, accompanied bulldozers to demolish a house built on an archaeological site. “We will not allow the concretization of Çeşme,” he told cameras. “We will start by demolishing the illegally constructed buildings on lands that belong to the treasury or the municipality. We need to protect our cultural and natural heritage for the generations to come,” This may lead to a series of uncomfortable face-offs with previous local administrations, which were all from the opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), and with the government. Besides, much of the eyesores have already been legalized.

From the-man-next-door to all the way up to the president, Turks display much love for showy slabs of concrete – the bigger, the better, and never mind the environment! Many of the country’s recent megaprojects  - the new airport and the third bridge in Istanbul, the Presidential Palace in Ankara, and dozens of motorways – were built at the expense of nature. The 1,000-room palace where Erdoğan currently resides and works, resulted in 10,000 trees being cut down. Northern Tree Defense, an environmentalist association, said 13 million trees were cut off to build Istanbul Airport.

“Ever since the 50s, ‘laying concrete’ has become the primary engine of the economy. It provided a livelihood for unskilled laborers, flourished other industries and met the housing needs of the people who moved from rural areas to the cities,” said İlalan. It also provided consecutive government to speak of “concrete progress” in the form of collective housing, hospitals, roads, and airports. Süleyman Demirel, Turkey’s 9th president, was known as the “King of Dams.” İzmir’s ex-mayor Osman Kibar was known as “Tarmac Osman.”

In 18 years in power, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his team have placed great emphasis on construction at home and abroad, as the president and his ministers paid homage to the construction sector as the engine of the growing economy. But as economic turmoil has taken its toll on the sector, unfinished towers and ghost housing units have sprouted across the country. My favorite, to this day, is 700 villas built like fairy-tale castles 200 km away from Istanbul. The fact that no one has bought them gives me hope that there may be a glimmer of hope that the Turks can be saved from this futile love of concrete after all.