The closing day of the Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam offered a fascinating trip around the metropolises of a globalized world, from the politics of garbage and a unique local system of recycling in Cairo ('Garbage Dreams') to Japanese deliberations about preserving the Metabolist curiosity of the 'Nagakin Capsule Tower' in Tokyo.
Another global city, Istanbul, served as the troubled protagonist in 'Ekümenopolis: City Without Limits', also the opening film of this year's AFFR. Looking at the disruptive and chaotic forces of globalization through the prism of a city, this documentary shows how Istanbul is fast reaching the limits of its sprawling growth fueled by global capital and local neoliberal policies.
As the word ecumenopolis (from Greek, literally 'a city world') indicates, the modern global city indeed threatens to devour everything in its path of unbridled growth, with dire consequences for social and ecological conditions. In Istanbul, as the filmmakers put it, the result is "a megashantytown of 15 million struggling with [a] mesh of life-threatening problems".
Apart from the obvious problem of Istanbul's lack of coherent public transportation (it has only one subway line), and hence an infrastructure choking on cars, the wider problem 'Ekümenopolis' addresses is the general lack of urban or any sort of planning in a city in the throes of megalomaniac urban development schemes - with all their usual disregard for the people living there. In one scene, the contrast between the TV commercial of luxury apartments with swimming pools ("Everyone will be able to live like this") and the people living in tents on the bulldozed rubble of their former houses is downright cynical. And as the film shows, many neighborhoods in Istanbul are undergoing the same treatment.
The huge gap between the rich and the poor in Istanbul is reflected more and more in the urban landscape, and at the same time feeds on the spatial segregation. While the rich isolate themselves in gated communities, residences and plazas; new poverty cycles born in social housing communities on the perifery of the city designed as human depots continue to push millions to desperation and hopelessness.
A sharp and suitably enraged piece of activist filmmaking, 'Ekümenopolis' may yet influence the public debate on the future of Istanbul, and should certainly serve as a cautionary tale for urban planners and municipal politicians around the world.
Update: For a different perspective on Istanbul, see the recent documentary/fiction hybrid 'Men on the Bridge' ('Köprüdekiler', 2009). While 'Ekümenopolis' has mostly a planner's bird's eye view, and discusses for instance the city's plans for a third bridge over the Bosphorus, 'Men on the Bridge' takes a much more up close view of three men whose lives, dreams and daily struggles intersect on the first Bosphorus bridge.