Insurgent Architectures of Mobility in Gaziantep, Melbourne, and Bishan



Nothing is easier to materialize for architecture than borders; they are, after all, only lines that requires a physical extrusion. In this text however, Merve Bedir presents three spaces assembled against the (national and international) border industrial complex in three different continents.

My research on the vocabulary of hospitality and its spaces deals with the intertwined (mis)conceptions of “host,” “guest,” and “hospitality” in relation to migration across Europe. I argue that hospitality is impossible when it comes to the relationship between the individuals and the state, because this relationship needs to be construed with reciprocal responsibilities based on rights and justice. In addition, hospitality needs to be defined as a space outside the sovereign territory of the nation state, with no predetermined expectations between the relations between “the host” and “the guest.” In this text, besides hospitality, I would like to focus on another meaning of guest, or misafir in Turkish — this etymologically goes back to its Arabic root, and relates to “xenia” in Greek — that relates to “mobility,” or “being mobile.” This meaning of guest, the notion of mobility, might allow us to rethink the possibilities of hospitality, despite the legal and spatial language of hospitality creating a hierarchy and violence in the context of (illegalized) migration.

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Cooking workshop at the Kitchen. Photo by Merve Bedir (2017).

In Mobility, Justification and the City (2001), Bülent Diken and Niels Albertsen summarise the concept of “mobility” and its regimes of justification: mobility refers to global movements of people, as well as the expansion of urbanization, and in this way transcends and disrupts deterministic ideas of society and nation state. Power and freedom today is distributed through the possibility of mobility. Mobility is relational; being a matter of choice for some, and fate for others. Mobility is paradoxical; differentiating the human condition rather than unifying it. Bodily immobility might exist in parallel to mobility of one’s mind. Here, I will focus on two meanings of the concept as Diken and Albertsen explain in their article: first, “mobility in opinion” as recognition of others, to be visible, and to be entitled to influence others. What is undesirable is to be forgotten, hidden, and to appear as a blurred image. Second, “mobility in civics,” as the people’s common will and equality. Here mobility does not depend on persons, but on collectivities and representation, and relates to slowing down. I will elaborate on the notion of misafir, a person in mobility, based on these two meanings, and three insurgent and situational architectures in Gaziantep, Melbourne, and Bishan. In these particular spaces, I will articulate mobility as a disruption to the nation state’s colonial, racial, and ethnic identity politics of population control.

Architecture of Mobility and the Kitchen ///

Turkey’s constantly changing asylum policies and ambiguous legal context treat migrants differently, and grant them citizenship according to their identities and ethnic backgrounds. Determined as “guests” by different governments in public communication and official language, migrants, as non-citizens of Turkey, live in uncertainty and constant mobility, either seeking asylum in so-called “developed countries” or remaining in Turkey. Turkey has been a short-term transition country for migrants from outside Europe moving towards the west, mainly because it does not give them the legal status of refugee. Two historical thresholds have led Turkey to become a host country in practice: first, the heightened international security regime following September 11, 2001 and second, the mass exile from Syria following the civil war starting 2011, which significantly changed the spatial politics of migration. Periods of stay in Turkey ranges from three months to six years, and especially after the latter, the Turkish state started building border camps for migrants from Syria (currently 26 in total), reception and detention centers (currently two and 37 respectively). Nine of these camps are built under the agreement with the European Union on the Migrant Relocation and Resettlement Scheme (2016).

Urban infrastructure and transformation projects perpetuate the violence of the State on migrants, as well as the marginalized inhabitants through displacement and segregation in the city. Bey neighborhood, one of the most central and touristic neighborhoods in Gaziantep renders this visible. The neighborhood witnessed a history of expulsion and dispossession of its Armenian inhabitants around World War I. A major part of the neighborhood remained vacant for years, and was then confiscated by the state. This was followed by an infrastructure project at the end of the 1980s to widen Atatürk Boulevard, which lead to the neighborhood’s further isolation from the city. The neighborhood later on started to receive undocumented migrants both from the army-evacuated Kurdish villages in Turkey during the 1990s, and from Syria (mainly Aleppo from 2011 onwards). After 2016, the State started applying a mobility restriction regime on the migrants, limiting their movement only to the cities they are registered in.

In 2014, a solidarity kitchen was initiated by a transnational women group, which I was also part of, in Gaziantep. The Kitchen is located in the aforementioned Bey neighborhood, on a side street that leads to Atatürk Boulevard, on the ground floor of a heritage building that Kırkayak Cultural Center is based in. The Kitchen was created as an epilogue to two years of activities by women that made use of different spaces in the whole building, as well as other spaces in the city. These activities included self-defense workshops, performance group therapy sessions, gatherings, and meetings with different Turkish and Syrian NGOs about what can be done together to create better conditions of life in the city.

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Plan drawing of the Kitchen. Entrance to the Kitchen can be seen next to the main entrance to the Kırkayak Cultural Center. Farther away from the door is the cooking and storage zone, while the walls on the left and right hand side are as well to store/locate kitchen furniture. The center part is left open intentionally to obtain an almost square-based flexible space (2016).

The Kitchen space was created by renovating an existing room on the ground floor of the heritage building. The space opens directly to the street with its own entrance, which makes it possible to be accessed before and after opening hours of the cultural center. The outside door is not locked, making it possible for everyone (not only Kitchen members but anyone else) to come in, cook produce, organize activities, or rest during different times of the day. The space is composed of two rooms: a smaller back room that stores food and equipment, and a front room that has a free space in the middle and auxiliary enclaves embedded in the walls. The front room is square-like in plan, with equal distances from the corners and edges, and a free flow space in the middle, making the space flexible for changing activities. The use and design of the spaces were decided collectively, understood through my self-observation on the movement of our bodies in space during common activities.

The load-bearing walls constructed with stone were in part cladded with the wood, both locally-sourced, using a local processing technique to create auxiliary enclaves in the wall. These enclaves are used as temporary storage for stools, floor-table, jars, books, etc. The wooden cladding is easy to clean and together with the original stone walls create an intimate and light interior. The floor finishing was not only decided based on the functions and activities of/for women, but also to suit the cultural conditions — such as eating on the floor, or gathering around a circular floor-table.

We also decided to set up a niche for the window place overlooking the street, to use this space as the facade/display to the outside, for temporary displays of banners and posters, members’ craft-works, and so on.

The Kitchen in this case represents mobility in opinion and in civics because of its structural function as a space of solidarity, sharing and sustaining the struggle based on common issues among Syrian, Kurdish, and Turkish women. Working as a network, women mobilize and organize large-scale workshops, or continuous cooking activities. In time, people from all around the city started to visit Bey neighbourhood to take part in a Kitchen activity, which is a first step in changing the marginal image of the street and neighborhood. Food is not perceived as cultural commodity, but a metaphor for production, as well as constituting a space in itself for cooking up and preparing ideas of living together in the city. The mobility of women proposes an insurgency against the deterministic and restrictive migration politics of the Turkish State.

Considering the recent trends of national populism, non-liberal democracy, anti-immigrant and anti-globalist sensibilities — and especially when these politics are set within governmental power — it has been increasingly difficult to speak for oneself, and even more so for migrants in Turkey. This certainly has influenced the Kitchen as well. But the 13 core women continue to informally and collectively organize based on affinity, instead of a strict ideological program around an NGO. This makes the group mobile, with the space of the kitchen reflecting this flexibility through the modest acts that exist within it — easily reproducible through unsophisticated means, and made available to all. This brings me to one of my conversations with Ramesh Fernandez, founding member of RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees, in March 2016.

RISE: An (Interior) Urbanism of Mobility ///

I first visited RISE in March 2016, at their space in Melbourne’s famous downtown Ross House, where many NGOs in Melbourne are located. “We wanted visibility, and to be in this central location with all other NGOs and foundations,” said Ramesh. “We are here, and you have to accept us.” RISE is a refugee and asylum seeker welfare and advocacy organization. It is entirely governed by refugees, asylum seekers, and ex-detainees.

RISE had its humble beginnings in the library of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in January 2009. It was then officially launched in March 2010 and moved to their current Central Business District (CBD) location. They focus on facilitating refugees and asylum seekers with starting new lives in Melbourne and broader Australia by providing advice, engaging in community development, and campaigning for refugee and asylum seeker rights. Since its establishment, RISE has represented 30 refugee community groups, and has provided support to more than 2,600 members.

While many refugee organisations end up at the fringes of the city, it matters that RISE is located in a highly visible and unavoidable part of the Melbourne’s CBD with other NGOs — a crucial part of the spatial strategy. In Australia, the colonial politics of white supremacist nationalism and racism ensure that these fringes extend as far as the offshore islands of Manus and Nauru, rendering asylum seekers and detainees completely invisible. Being well aware of this, RISE was insistent on getting a location in the center of the city, their unyielding presence there representing an insurgent urbanism.

RISE’s space is on the second floor of Ross House, separated from the main hallway with a glass partition wall that is covered with posters. The space includes a computer lab, a food bank, a resource library, and two administrative rooms all organised around the central communal space where meetings and gatherings take place. The main entrance to RISE directly opens to this area, which is an open, free-flow, flexible space to change according to different needs. The computer lab is also part of the main room, to be utilized when needed in different meetings. This space is also used for language, computer, and driving test classes. To the left of the main entrance is the food bank room, and to the right the two administration offices.

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First gatherings of the group after the Kitchen was officially opened, and workshops were organised with open calls to women in Gaziantep. / Photo by Merve Bedir (2017).

Ramesh referred to this central space as the living room. The space that everyone comes together, the semi-public space in the house, where one lets in the people they know, they feel comfortable with and/or they align. This reminded me of the revolutions against the colonial sovereignty, and against racist politics that were started in the living rooms of South America. In RISE, the center space (living room) is an urban interior that is about representing the radical and making it visible.

RISE operates according to two main principles: seeking asylum is not a crime, and detention centers should not exist in any capacity. They encourage the public to support their campaigns to put an end to mandatory detention and adopt alternative solutions that center refugee and ex-detainee self-determination. They believe that fighting discrimination in society is the duty of all citizens. In our conversation, Ramesh emphasized the accountability of the state, demanding reparations from governmental and non-governmental agencies and individuals that have created and been complicit in asylum seeker and refugee detention, the torture and abuse supply chain. Families of asylum seekers and refugees who were made lost, and/or died in custody should also be given recognition, compensation and ongoing community and welfare support. RISE’s Advocacy Program aims to challenge and effect policies in order to generate positive social change for their communities, envisioning a society in which refugees and asylum seekers are safe and respected. This advocacy program is another aspect of mobility in opinion and civics, where mobility does not depend on persons, but on collectivities and representation.

Mobility in the Rural Bishan Commune ///

Bishan Commune was an initiative by Chinese artist Ou Ning and Zuo Jing, which took form in the rural landscape of Anhui province in China. The initiative began in 2011 with a harvest festival organized by Ou Ning, who temporarily moved to Bishan village and started writing his notebook named How to Create your own Utopia. It was a call for a return to the countryside and a renewed relationship between urban and rural areas. In 2013, Ou Ning left Beijing and relocated permanently to Bishan with his family. In 2016, the initiative was cancelled by the State.

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First gatherings of the group after the Kitchen was officially opened, and workshops were organised with open calls to women in Gaziantep. / Photo by Merve Bedir (2017).

The issue at hand with the Chinese government is its politics of population and mobility control within (disputed) national borders. China instituted the Household Registration System (Hukou) in 1958, according to which a household has to obtain permission to move permanently beyond the area it is registered in. As migration is controlled amongst the different categories of cities and villages, there is continuous urbanization and sprawl in cities, while mobility is restricted in rural areas. This does not mean that there is no mobility towards industrializing cities — it is just not officially allowed — and thus migrant workers live and work in extremely precarious conditions that disable them from their rights to many state services. This means that borders within borders are created to control people’s movements and their rights.   

Bishan Commune was an initiative which projected a strong position for the rural, mobilizing villagers outside the aforementioned roles preordained by the State. It was imagined as a dynamic temporal, gradual and spatial proposition that took place within selected spaces in Bishan village. The Commune was realized amongst the party discourse, urbanization process, investors, traditional structures, and local power dynamics, all of which often played out as politics of development and progress in local and national levels.

In the case of Bishan Commune, mobility paradoxically defined the participants’ mobility and the fluid boundaries of the Commune (spaces between actuality and imagination), as well as the uncertainty experienced by village officials in recognizing the initiative as a legitimate practice and spatial proposition. The Commune had three main components: Ou Ning’s house in the eastern part of Bishan Village, a large Hui-style compound he named Buffalo Institute, the Bishan Bookstore, another monumental heritage building on one of the main alleys of the village, and the School of Tillers.

Ou Ning’s house, the Buffalo Institute (2013), served as a hub for arriving visitors including artists and activists who also contributed to the Commune’s activities. Bishan Bookstore was opened in 2014, while the School of Tillers — a gallery, library, and education space — was opened in 2015 in the house adjacent to the Buffalo Institute.The Bookstore and the School of Tillers focused on dialogue and collaboration with the villagers through reading groups, small exhibitions, researcher-in-residence programs, concerts, publishing initiatives, and preservation of local handicrafts traditions.

Insurgent Architectures of Mobility ///

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Left page. Logo of Bishan commune, Xiaoma and Chengzi, (2011). Above. Page from Ou Ning’s notebook How to Start Your Own Utopia (2010).

Mobility is a concept that defines the movement of people, and the dynamic relationships that disrupts the ethnocentric and racist processes of the nation state, but also holding space for precarious bodies to self-determine their own forms and relationships. The cases documented in this text are proposed as insurgent architectures and urbanisms, grounded in the movement and mobility of people. They are formless, and create diffused boundaries as part of their mobility; they disrupt borders, and the predetermined forms for resulting from them.

The work in the Kitchen in the Turkish neighborhood of Bey mobilizes directions of inquiry that evade the State, through which intimate insurgency against ethnic politics of the nation state is explored. The Kitchen space reflects this movement, organized from the movement of women’s bodies in the space. RISE in Melbourne, Australia implements an example of insurgent space by making themselves visible in the CBD, and staying visible through the self-governance of ex-detainees. Ou Ning’s notebook The Bishan Commune: How to Start Your Own Utopia presents a utopian ideal of a leaderless society, where decisions are made at common meetings with the participation of all. Referencing alternative communities, architectural utopias, collectivity, rurality, and the relationship between city and countryside, Bishan Commune proposes tactics of an insurgent rural way of life against state control of people’s movement.