Honors architectural studies and history graduate Hannah Breshears recently presented research at the Environmental Design Research Association’s annual conference in Providence, Rhode Island. While there, she received valuable feedback from other participants and rubbed shoulders with big names in the field.
I spent the week in Providence, Rhode Island, communing with some of the world’s most influential (and surprisingly friendly) designers, researchers, and policy makers at the Environmental Design Research Association’s forty-fourth annual conference.
I was one of few students invited to present undergraduate research at the conference, which is designed to showcase cutting-edge professional and doctoral research in the design disciplines, and found myself with a surprisingly relevant topic in light of the ongoing protests in Gezi Park.
The Turkish government has approved the construction of an exorbitant number of shopping malls and luxury hotels in the name of increased globalization in recent years, angering the population at large. Though Gezi Park could hardly claim itself a site of conscience before the protests, it is a newly minted symbol of public advocacy for green and good in Istanbul’s development. As thousands of urban planners, architects, journalists, artists, elected officials, and students flooded into Istanbul’s last significant urban park to protest their government’s latest offense, I faced a room of similarly decorated and invested citizens in the States.
As globalization continues to draw the cities of the world into closer economic and intellectual dependence, Istanbul stands as a bridge between two continents and a city poised for urban transformation. Massive tracts of informally designed communities, called gecekondu, are being cleared to accommodate the structure of the modern, tourism-driven city. This attempt to purge the city of its squatter heritage is startling and raises questions of cultural and architectural integrity in urban development. My project, though not sited in Taksim Square specifically, looked critically at the nature of formal, informal and blended development in the city of Istanbul. Intrigued by the self-made neighborhoods called gecekondu I’d observed during an early study abroad trip to the city, I chose to address the contested form of urban expansion in my undergraduate thesis.
My research not only illuminated the successes and failures of user-generated design and construction, but also began to set the formal, informal and blended fabric of the city on an even playing field for comparison. Such determinations are particularly poignant for Istanbul, and other global cities whose cultural heritage is closely tied to the chaos and wonder of informal settlements. The series of performance ratings I’ve produced could serve as an analytical base for further research in the city and even expanded to create a GIS model of spatial performance as questions about the risks and benefits of mixed-use and development arise.
Airing my research at the EDRA conference was cathartic in many ways, for it allowed me to test my ideas in the professional world of research and get feedback from some of the biggest names in environmental design. As one of few undergraduate students in attendance, I chose to use the gathering as a reverse-recruiting event of sorts, and spent much of my time between sessions chatting with deans and professors from potential graduate programs. In the space of a week, I chatted over coffee with representatives from 11 different universities, and loved every minute of it. One of my favorite conversations took place with Dean Robert Shibley from University of Buffalo (Dr. Kory Smith’s new home!) after a confessional-style video session for the EDRA website. Dean Shibley is a longtime member of the organization and was more than willing to share his wisdom with a rookie designer like myself.
Moving forward from the conference, I feel much more confident in my abilities to speak publicly about my work. Though I do plan to pursue graduate studies in the future, I’d first like to test myself in the field and have accepted a position with an architecture and prototyping firm called Modus Studio here in Fayetteville. As the latest member of the marketing and communications team at Modus, I hope to use my experiences as a student researcher and presenter to showcase one of northwest Arkansas’ most up-and-coming firms and to get a closer look at the professional world of design in the process. I’ll keep you posted!