Dezeen Magazine

Turkey-Syria earthquake destruction

"We should hold the mirror to ourselves" say Turkish architects in wake of earthquakes

Improvements to both architectural education and practice must form part of the recovery plan to prevent history from repeating itself, argue Turkish architects following last month's deadly earthquakes.

Architects in Turkey believe that the scale of destruction caused by the earthquakes on 6 February was exacerbated by poor construction in the country caused, in part, by a disregard for legislation.

"Buildings built with competent architecture, competent engineering, competent construction and competent control mechanisms do not collapse even if they are directly on the fault line," said Altinisik, who is director of Turkish studio Melike Altinisik Architects.

"The buildings that have not been demolished today are proof of this fact," she told Dezeen.

"Earthquake-proof standards were not followed"

Architect Alper Deri̇nboğaz, the founder of the studio Salon Alper Derinboğaz, agreed, explaining that the earthquake's destructiveness was "not attributable to numerical values".

"[The damage] is due to the poor quality of the buildings in the affected region," he told Dezeen. "The fact that some buildings with the same topography remained standing while others collapsed emphasised this issue."

GEO_ID's founding partner Tugce Rizeli Bilgi believes that this is due to "the roles of architects and civil engineers being undermined" in construction in the years leading up to the disaster.

"This earthquake was expected in Turkey and the main reasons for this catastrophic consequences are unplanned urbanisation, negligence and disregarding of experts' opinions," Bilgi told Dezeen.

"Besides the older buildings, some new apartment blocks in the affected areas have also been damaged and destroyed because they were not constructed properly and the earthquake-proof standards were not followed."

Scale of disaster "could have been prevented"

The reason for the failing buildings in Turkey is currently the subject of much dispute, with blame being directed at the government, built environment figures and the public.

Many local architects, including Emre Arolat, believe that the government is at fault. In his view, if it had properly enforced building standards in the country, "the catastrophic situation today could have been prevented".

Turkish building standards have been under scrutiny since the tragic 1999 Izmit Earthquake, which led to stricter construction regulations in the country.

However, it is widely believed that these have not been properly implemented due to so-called "construction amnesties" – legal exemptions for fees for structures that are built without the required safety certificates.

People observing destruction caused by Turkey-Syria earthquake
Architects believe that last month's earthquake destruction was exacerbated by poor construction. Photo is by Doga Ayberk Demir via Shutterstock

"It was possible for the rulers of this country to learn from this earthquake [in 1999] and rehabilitate the precarious building stock, especially in regions where the fault lines are known to be active," reflected Arolat, who is the founder of Emre Arolat Architects.

"This period could have been used more efficiently and in line with scientific truths," he continued. "The laws passed could have been abided by."

According to Salon Alper Derinboğaz's founder Deri̇nboğaz, in 2018 over seven million buildings were granted construction amnesties. Most of them were residential.

Architect Merih Feza Yıldırım said that this reflects a wider societal view of "houses as an investment tool rather than for meeting the need for shelter", which he believes needs to change.

"Architectural usability and robustness do not determine the value of buildings, therefore, these values are not taken into consideration," said Yıldırım, who is a partner at Not Architects.

To avoid this scale of disaster from happening again, he said "it is imperative for society to lower its expectations of income generation, speed and profitability in this sector".

"Earthquakes do not kill"

Architects Altinisik and Nevzat Sayın echoed this sentiment, blaming "ignorance" in society for this attitude towards construction. They fear it will result in a similar disaster in the future.

"Earthquakes do not kill," Altinisik explained. "But actually unawareness, ignorance, unsystematic urbanisation and uncontrolled construction that has spread to the whole society causes such an extensive destruction."

"In any region, this [scale of destruction] would happen," added Sayın, who directs the studio Nevzat Sayın Mimarlık Hizmetleri. "Worst of all, it will happen again."

While many architects blame the government for the scale of the disaster, governing officials are blaming contractors and has issued numerous arrest warrants in recent weeks.

Some residents of apartment buildings that collapsed have even been criticised for not ensuring their homes were safe, GEO_ID's founding partner Bilgi told Dezeen.

"It's said that the residents should have checked whether their buildings are safe enough or not and if not, they should have moved to a safer building," explained Bilgi.

Yet according to the architects interviewed, this is unfair, as many people occupying unsafe buildings would not have been able to afford a seismic retrofit.

"This was not a rational expectation as many of the people in the region didn't have enough economic welfare to move to another house," Bilgi continued.

Motto Architecture partner Onur Özkoç agreed, adding: "residents may have ruled out any structural reinforcements due to insufficient financial power".

Time to "question education in the building sector"

Some Turkish architects believe they and their colleagues must look inwards at the architecture industry following the quakes, and call for improvements to architectural education.

This includes Geomim's founding partner Ali Çalışkan, who suggested that greater awareness and use of earthquake-proof construction techniques are critical.

"We are frustrated and angry, and we are frightened about the next earthquake because we are not ready for it," said Çalışkan.

"In a country like Turkey where millions of people live on the fault line, my reaction from now on will be to question education in the building sector," he continued.

Çalışkan thinks education must be improved in "all disciplines involved in engineering, from planning to construction" in order for architecture to withstand future disasters.

People observing destruction caused by Turkey-Syria earthquake
Architects in Turkey are calling for improvements to architecture education. Photo is by VOA

Melike Altinisik Architects' director agreed, telling fellow architects that "we should also hold the mirror to ourselves, rather than blaming the contractors, who are the last part of the chain".

"In any circumstances, people who are not competent should not be given the right to be a part of this system," Altinisik continued.

Motto Architecture partner Özkoç added that the public must also be educated on the importance of earthquake-proof architecture in order to create more demand for safe buildings.

"I believe it is evident that the real challenge ahead is not the update of building codes or structural system choices, but coming up with mechanisms that ensure proper following of [existing] codes and requirements," he said.

"That of course begins with the governmental organisations, but should also be supported by the public."

Supranational disaster organisation "must be established"

Several architects are calling for organisations that oversee how affected cities are reconstructed to be established quickly following the quakes.

For Derinboğaz, this will prevent hasty reconstruction efforts and ensure that building to withstand earthquakes becomes "a primary design parameter".

"Currently, there is a discussion about initiating rapid reconstruction efforts to provide housing for those affected by the earthquake," he said.

"However, constructing buildings of poor quality will only exacerbate the situation. Instead, the reconstruction area should be carefully planned and designed by a team of professionals."

Arolat agreed, suggesting this could take the form of a team of scientists from various disciplines who are "above politics and away from shallow power grabs".

"A group of people who might have ideas about how a city should be built should include geologists, experts in load-bearing systems, representatives of other engineering fields, sociologists and anthropologists, educators, experts from different walks of the culture industry, doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists, as well as the previous and potential future users of those cities," he said.

For Altinisik, the earthquake recovery plan must involve the creation of an even larger group – an international organisation dedicated to addressing natural disasters.

She believes the Turkey-Syria earthquake should serve as a reminder of the other natural disasters that could be coming as a result of climate change.

"Although the earthquake is a great disaster reality in front of Turkey today, on the other hand, climatic disasters that involve the whole world such as floods, fires and storms are increasing day by day," Altinisik explained.

"In this context, considering the increasing climatic disasters in an earthquake country like Turkey, a supra-political Ministry of Disaster must be established."

Since the first earthquakes last month, Turkey's president Erdoğan has rejected claims that the scale of the disaster is the government's fault, instead blaming it on fate.

Meanwhile, Turkey's justice ministry has set up crime investigation bureaus in the affected Turkish provinces.

"We will follow this up meticulously until the necessary judicial process is concluded, especially for buildings that suffered heavy damage and buildings that caused deaths and injuries," Turkey's vice-president Fuat Oktay said.

More than 100 people are understood to have received arrest warrants for their ties to buildings destroyed by the disaster, with at least 12 having already been taken into custody.

The main image is by Çağlar Oskay via Unsplash