Embracing the Transitional: Interview with Merve Bedir
Merve Bedir is an architect currently based in Hong Kong interested in spatial practice as it relates not only to architecture and design but also to multi- or non-disciplinary collective acts. As she explains in this interview that extends to forms of commoning and alternative modes of learning. Here she reflects upon the importance of embracing the transitional and improvisational, and refers to the notion of custodianship as a way of navigating ever-changing circumstances.
You’ve written that the 2013 Gezi Park protests “retaught” you many things about politics and the everyday. Could you expand upon the circumstances of that “learning”?
I feel now that the park was the school because I learned so many things by being there and being in touch with the people and experiencing that space in that particular moment. Our presence in the park may have lasted a couple of days but the kind of relationships that were established within that space endured – learning is continuous. If we take it as a long-term experience as such, then first of all it taught me to change my daily life, to act upon agreement by all in matters that regard the group, to embrace confrontations, to consume less, to identify and take care of our commons, and so on. Also, my ethics towards my practice has changed – what/how I do as an architect, as a researcher, and also in terms of what I can achieve as a “teacher” at school. Many of the alternative learning methods I curated later draw upon our experience in Gezi.
I’m teaching a course on design, community and environment at Hong Kong University this semester in which we discuss the idea of social practice, and the social and environmental responsibilities of the architect. In the course, I talk about the Gezi Park experience in relation to this; where the knowledge of the commons was produced considering not just people but also the trees and the park, and how sometimes the architect should choose to not design or build. It’s worth remembering that the reason for the protests was the newly planned shopping mall that would have erased the park. The presence (and the destruction) of a tree actually brought forth a greater and very real understanding of the larger ideas of community and ecology: how one can socially and environmentally engage with a space in a very local way, but also in at a planetary scale. But of course, I’m not sure if this “teaches” my students in the same way my being there did.
Is this an example of what Andé Gorz meant by directly stimulating subjectivity, rather than trying to educate about it?
Certainly. Elaborating on Gorz’s idea, one tree does not necessarily have an agency of its own but it can definitely teach something to people about their own agency. Not only about learning by experiencing, but also by engagement; as an active, dynamic, evolving agency. Northern Forest Defense, a collective gathered around the Northern forests of Istanbul, is a great example of this. The collective was established during the Gezi protests and they describe their philosophy not as “for” nature but as being with or as part of nature.
Could you talk about the education project you have brought to the 2018 Istanbul Design Biennale, the Transitional School and its relation to your ongoing work with the Aformal Academy?
Aformal Academy is an experimental school initiative that started three years ago during the Urbanism/Architecture Biennale of Shenzhen. The idea was to “relearn” Shenzhen, by learning from the ways that the city and its inhabitants live and work, as well as the built environment itself. Its methods were: “a school outside the classroom”, “learning by doing”, “floating school” (a mobile school visiting different neighbourhoods of the city), “unlearning and relearning”, and “travelling school” (for schools that wanted to visit us temporarily). Since the beginning, we have been thinking a lot about creating an exchange programme between us and other schools and institutions, persons, collectives, and organisations we feel close to. Transitional School is an outcome of this intention of translocal connections among different pedagogical experiments and initiatives.
Transitional School will hopefully take different routes and forms in time but for the Istanbul Design Biennale the main locations were Bangkok, Saigon, Doha and Istanbul. In Bangkok and Saigon I think we managed long-term engagement. In the former, we joined the inhabitants of the Ban Bat neighbourhood and Chulalongkorn University’s International Program in Design and Architecture (INDA), led by Gianmaria Socci and Rebecca van Beeck, to build an entrance shading structure to Ban Bat. The inhabitants are craftspeople making bat (monk bowls); they were some of the first to settle in Bangkok and have been making bowls for centuries for the monks in the temples district, located next door. During this programme, we also learned about the labour of making bat and how the process organises the neighbourhood. The bowl making includes seven different steps and each household’s skill involves one of the steps, so they all need to collaborate with each other to finish one bowl. There is almost no economy of the individual; they cook and eat together, the same person does laundry for the whole neighbourhood, and so on. There is a community centre that functions as a neighbourhood parliament, with all decisions regarding bat making and community organisation taken there altogether. In front of this centre is a shrine with the main tool (a stirrup) that is used for bat making in the middle – Thai people always have shrines in front of their houses, in honour to the good spirits. This particular one is a shrine for learning, and the knowledge of bat making is represented by this tool placed inside it.
This and other examples from Asia might sound very peculiar and distant to many, but it is those principles that could be learnt from, and worked with. I also often think about the Erasmus programme and how it could be further articulated. This program is the most important component of the European Union – honestly maybe the only important component. This kind of exchange enables you to have different learning experience, but it also does something else: it brings you together with people you don’t know, and facilitates different interactions. When you get to know someone personally, you also begin to care for them – and consider that other person. I strongly believe that the Erasmus programme should be extended outside schools as exchange programs. In a way it also served as an inspiration for Transitional School.
How do you understand the different components involved in that education process – understanding vs engagement or knowledge acquisition vs dissemination – and the relationship between them?
I will give an example from Transitional School. It follows a transitional and improvisational process during each programme and across locations. It is impossible to set up a model or method and then repeat it throughout different contexts. Every time we come back to a location we need to acknowledge that we come back to different conditions. People, cultures and contexts have unique and dynamic existences – as we change so does everything else. So how do we operate within these kinds of changing contexts? That’s why I find it important to be transitional and improvisational, and the kind of flexibility or fluidity this brings that allows this kind of travelling within the context of a learning process.
We presented Aformal Academy in Hong Kong, where our work was referred to as custodianship – serving and facilitating processes with continuously changing roles. What I am trying to say is that there is no one single answer to your question. The principles of the school remain, but the methods can change. For Aformal Academy, these principles are: no hierarchy (everybody learns from each other); publicness (open to everyone, no fee for participation); and critical observation, amongst others. The principles are carried on wherever Aformal Academy goes. And then, depending on the context, the methods shift; for instance Bangkok entails a 3-year exchange programme at least, with work undertaken together with INDA and the community in Ban Bat, where in the coming year we hope to work on building a cultural centre in the village. This kind of exchange requires – naturally – an engagement with the community, where knowledge production, acquisition and dissemination is very organic and complex among everyone. In Istanbul, however, we deliberately chose to take an observer position within the market we were working in. We had to remain at a similar distance to all small businesses so that we could develop, as much as possible, a clear observation of how the network functions. As we go further in Istanbul, we will articulate the method.
Why the term “aformal”?
Simply because it’s not formal, but it’s also not informal. Informality has several meanings attached to it and if we had gone in that direction we might have been associated with those different concepts and would have struggled to express our position clearly. There is a dichotomy or opposition that emerges with formal x informal. Aformal, for us, defines everything that is not formal; that is outside the formal, or let’s say that has a more dialectical relationship with the formal. It can encompass what doesn’t have a (specific) form, or that is formless; and prioritises those beyond or behind form.
Merve Bedir is an architect currently based in Hong Kong. She is a member of Matbakh-Mutfak, a transnational women collective in Gaziantep, a founding member of MAD (Center for Spatial Justice) in Istanbul, and part of Aformal Academy, an independent school for urbanism and art in Shenzhen. We invited Merve to join the Making Futures “Engaged Education” Mobile Workshop that took place in Istanbul, Turkey in September 2018. Picture by Lena Giovanazzi