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Middle East Technical University: A Modern Cultural Landscape and the Building of a Highway
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By Bilge Köse,
“Cultural Landscapes” are defined in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of World Heritage Convention as the “combined works of nature and of man”, which are “illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time, under the influence of the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by their natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces, both external and internal” (World Heritage Committee, 2013, article 47). Ankara Campus of Middle East Technical University fits this description perfectly with its natural and built environment in unity. The campus area is cultural landscape with a combination of various cultural properties; modern buildings from 1960s, a human made forest with Aga Khan Award for Architecture, archeological sites with remains from Early Bronze and Phrygian period and members’ relations with these aspects.
Photo (above): METU Department of Mathematics, designed by Behruz-Altug Cinici in 1962 (Photograph by METU FAPA, Anonymous Photographer, retrieved from METU Journal of the Faculty of Architecture, 2011).
Today, the campus is on the focus of Turkey’s architectural agenda, with a highway project that passes through the premises of it. Although the campus offers many further study opportunities with its richness in terms of cultural heritage values, the aim of this article is to narrate the importance of the campus as a cultural landscape, threats against its presence with the highway and efforts to keep it preserved in unity.
What is Middle East Technical University?
Middle East Technical University was founded in 1956 in Ankara, as an urbanism institute under the name of Middle East High Technology Institute. It was one of the ten universities that were financially supported and founded by United Nations and UNESCO in order to find solutions for the unplanned growth and slumming issues in developing cities (Tan, 2013). Thus, the aim of the institute was to “contribute into the development of Turkey and Middle East countries and especially to train people so as to create a skilled workforce in the fields of natural and social sciences” (Metu History, 2013). In 1957, it took the name Middle East Technical University (METU).
Photo (right): Ankara, borders of the city and Middle East Technical University and it’s forest area (Borders are drawn by author on Google Earth Image).
What is the significance of METU Campus as a modern heritage site?
The METU campus was founded in 1962 and developed over time. It is located 4 miles away from the city center on a rural area at the southwest direction, covering approximately 111.000 acres of area. This area was mostly covered with moorland, which is the typical vegetation type of central Anatolia. Also, the site was accommodating three archaeological settlements; Ahlatibel, Koçumbeli and Yalincak settlements. 
The campus was designed by Behruz and Altug Çinici, who won the national architecture competition opened to design METU. According to Cinicis’ design, the core area of the campus was formed around a pedestrian alley as the main axis. Educational facilities; the faculties, are located on the west side of the alley, whereas administration and social facilities; the auditorium, cafeteria, social building) are settled on the east side.
Photo (right): METU Campus, when it was recently founded. Architects: Behruz-Altug Cinici, designed in 1962. (Photograph by METU FAPA, Anonymous Photographer, retrieved from METU Journal of the Faculty of Architecture, 2011).
The main spatial characteristic of this core area of the campus was provided via some architectural features such as water elements, semi-open spaces and small courtyards. These elements define the relationship between the interior and exterior spaces, while creating visual and audial meanings and also used as microclimate units (Tanyeli, 1999, p.50). As stated by Tanyeli (1999, p.40), the integration of alley and the surrounding buildings constitute a smooth transition and continuity between interior and exterior. This pedestrian-friendly setting not only aims to connect buildings to each other, but also presents the opportunity of creating social interactions in a comfortable, modern environment.
A ring road surrounds the aforementioned pedestrian core, in order to provide motorized transportation around the campus. Another axis, which leads to the accommodation units: dormitories and lodgings, intersects this ring road and alley. In between the core zone and accommodation zone, there is a green zone, composed of recreational areas, sport halls, swimming pools, medical center and shopping center.
Photo (right): Zoning of Metu Campus Settlement. (Base drawing from Cinici & Cinici, 1965, colored by author).
As Yücel (2005) states, “just as political events are ‘historical landmarks’ which lead too social change, so too in architecture some buildings can be considered as the main turning points of the history of form” (p.133). METU was one of these pioneer buildings, which constitute significant examples for postwar-modernism in Turkey. Tanyeli (1999) refers METU as the architectural laboratory of Turkey in 1960s, where the limits were questioned and pushed forward both in design and technology (p.36). The campus complex is more than a group of brutalist buildings; it is a host of an architectural variety. As stated by Tanyeli (1999), the campus design was inspired by many modernist architects such as Le Corbusier, Aalto, P. Rudolph, K. Maekawa, and many other post-war Japanese architects and Bakema and bringing a variety to the architectural approaches (p.17). According to Tanyeli (1999), diversity in the planning (creating corners, level differences and building heights) and use of many different building material types (exposed concrete and brick, plasters and masonry in various characteristics, wall and floor coverings, concrete blocks, wood types etc.) created an architectural polyphony (p. 17). In addition to this, it was for sure, without the glimpses to modern art works on the alley and in buildings, an important part of this polyphony would be missing.
What is the significance of METU Campus as a cultural landscape?
The realistic planning and execution of the campus project is another important aspect that should be mentioned. The campus project was divided into phases, which were annually planned according to the budget availability of the respective year and was to finish the overall project including the landscape and plantation projects, in 20 years (Tanyeli, 1999, p. 40). The initial campus plan was also including plantation of several trees in order to create a forest area. This was also a very significant act for barren Ankara’s ecologic structure. Yavuz (1995) narrates the progress of the campus:
“Bearing in mind that only five years ago, on this very campus, there was nothing but vast wheat fields, one can easily get what has been achieved so far. Approximately 40 modern buildings, with 7 or 8 new buildings added each year, extremely modern laboratories and libraries, various student facilities and a reforestation campaign of 13.317.500 trees of many species, as well as the revival and beautification of Lake Eymir, are the core of this dynamism and of this invaluable endeavor”.
The landscape design and foresting project of the campus started in 1958, under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Alaaddin Egemen, in order to find a solution to the air pollution in the city (Re-forestation Programme of Metu, n.d.). As stated by Kemal Kurda?, who was the president of the university between 1961-1969, first trees of today’s METU forest was planted by the students and academicians in 1961. (Tan, 2013). According to Yavuz (1995), “the reforestation project seems to be the one of the main concerns of the president”. Kurda? points out that, this event eventually became a tree planting festival and they planted 135.000 saplings with excitement, which gave him the encouragement for his next steps towards university’s future. (Tan, 2013). Later this first planting festival became an annual tradition, which still continues today. METU members come together each year during spring and plant trees in order to sustain and continue the presence of “their forest” under the name of “METU Traditional Eymir Lake and Planting Festival”. In 1995, METU won Aga Khan Award for Architecture with its human made forest. Today, METU forest accommodates many endemic species with its special fauna and flora.
What is METU spirit?
In order to understand the unity of METU Campus is, mentioning METU’s spirit is a sine qua non. Its presence in political history of Turkey should be underlined as contributor of what it presents in collective memories. Starting from 1960s, METU students were “leading actors” in political scene of Turkey. They were at the frontline of many political student upheavals, which affected the history of the country. Since its foundation, METU campus has witnessed many historical incidences that were significant for country’s history. Students’ ideology is united with the campus in physical aspects as well. The inscription of the word “Devrim (revolution in Turkish)” on the stands of METU Stadium is an example of the physical traces of their political ideology on the campus. The important part of their relation with campus is also formed around their political ideologies. Following the tradition of the alumni from 60s, students still write “Devrim” with candles on the ground of the stadium each year during the spring break festival and call the stadium as “Stadium of Revolution”.
Ever since it was founded, METU campus has offered its students not only a place for, but also a lifestyle within its natural and modern settlements. Students create a social life in the campus, where they collect memories at the same time. For instance the lawn areas are social gathering points during summer and they turn into huge playground for snowball wars during winter. Students embrace their environment and give identity to even the smallest details. The social areas furnished with red armchairs in the library can be given as an example to their feel of belongingness. These areas and red armchairs are joyful hangout places for many students, and even has a facebook page. In short, the campus is a living city with ~30.000 population. It’s significance for members, especially for students goes more beyond than being just place where they are gaining professional talents.
What is the highway project?
In the summer of 2013, the implementation of “METU Highway” came on the agenda. Although it was in the grapevine for a while, things got serious with the Major Gökçek’s statements in the social and mass media about construction of METU highway. Actually this “highway project” was not a recent project, far from it, it was known by academia from the beginning. But it created a massive impact with its official announcement to the public, with its scale and open to discussion implementation process.
Photo (right): The relation of Middle East Technical University’s premises with City’s transportation network (Borders and transportation lines are drawn by author on Google Earth Image)
1957 Ankara Master Plan by Uybadin and Yücel was offering the development of the city toward west and two axis; Eskisehir Highway and Konya Highway have the key importance in this development. METU campus was locating just on the junction of these two highways; the campus’ borders were limited with Eskisehir Highway on the west and Konya Highway on the east (Çinici & Çinici, 1965, p.109). Kurda refers to this critical location of the campus in an interview as by creating a forest in METU, they actually aimed to preserve the unity of the premises and protect campus area from the growth of the city towards west direction. He was referring to slum area on the east side of the campus. According to him, a forest would give the message of “do whatever you want on the east side but you should stop by the forest” (Tan, 2006).
The construction of connection that passes through the premises of METU was planned as a part of city’s development towards west and involved in 1982’s “Ankara Master Plan 1990” as the extension of Anadolu Boulevard. According to the presidency’s declaration on the METU’s official website, METU allowed this connection and did not make any plantation on this area since 1980s (Presidency of METU, 2013). The construction of the connection was approved 1994 with “Ankara Master Plan 2015” as well. According to this plan, a 1.1-mile long highway was connecting Anadolu Boulevard and Konya Highway while was passing through the East border of METU Campus.
Photo (right): The relation of Middle East Technical University’s premises with City’s transportation network (Borders, suggested future highway, subjected highway routes are drawn; names of highways and districts are written by the author on Google Earth Image)
This connection also exists in 2007’s “Ankara Master Plan 2023”. However, while Master Plan 2015 was offering the METU connection of as an urban transportation road, with Master Plan 2023, this connection was re-offered as a highway (Öncü, 2013, p.4-5). Moreover, with this plan, another highway that directly passes through the METU premises, which is connecting Bilkent Road and Konya Highway was suggested. METU objected this secondary highway and for now, the execution of this second road is a vague issue and not touched upon in this article. However, it is important to underline that this second highway had a potential to be another nightmare for activists, who are against the current project in the near future.
In 1995, Ankara Preservation Committee of Cultural and Natural Assessments defined METU campus as an Archaeological and Natural Site, where METU Highway and the archaeological and natural site of METU overlap for 0.2 miles (Presidency of METU, 2013).
While the master plans were being approved one after another, urban dynamics around METU campus were also changing day by day. High-rise luxury residences and shopping malls were appearing on Eskisehir Highway and Konya Highway in addition to “urban transformation” projects around this area.
Photo (right): METU, Faculty of Architecture, designed by Behruz-Altug Cinici in 1962 (Photograph by METU FAPA, Anonymous Photographer, retrieved from METU Journal of the Faculty of Architecture, 2011).
In 1960s, while METU campus was just founded, Eskisehir and Konya Highways were out of the city center and the lands around them were whether empty or slum areas. In time, empty lots filled up with buildings; new residential districts such as 100. Y?l and Çigdem had formed. On the other hand, Çukurambar District, which was a squatter area once upon a time, had faced with an “urban transformation” project. Actually, these “urban transformation” project implementations were being executed supposedly to renovate the poor districts of the city, however and unfortunately, these actions were mostly ending up with gentrification. In Çukurambar case, the result was the same; the slums leave their places to high-rise luxury apartments and restaurants.
What is happening around METU Campus was a part of reality of the bigger picture. Urban transformation areas become the most demanded districts by the rich with rising real estate values. Along with the increase in real estate incomes, more construction projects emerges, where a vicious cycle starts; the dense construction causes traffic problems, traffic problems mean new highways –as METU highway- and new highways welcome new construction sites. When there is no more space to expand through, the real estate market aspires green areas or public spheres. In this case, it would not be wrong to say that METU, which is a squeezed green area between inhabiting districts and created new relations with its surrounding.
Photo (right): Study Room of a METU Dormitory, designed by Behruz-Altug Cinici in 1962 (Photograph by METU FAPA, Anonymous Photographer, retrieved from METU Journal of the Faculty of Architecture, 2011).
The critical issue is unfortunately the approval of this road connection in all Master Plans with de facto assumptions, without considering METU’s archaeological and natural essences and the surrounding area’s new urban dynamics. The main reason of these absolute decisions can be seek in the planning, which does not give enough importance to public participations. The process of project implementation and public participants’ decisions could not work together, where the public was informed about the project via announcement and a few public meetings but according to public, it is so open to discussion if any hearing was accepted from public as participants.
What is happening around METU Campus now?
In the autumn of 2013, the construction of the highway has started and municipalities’ heavy equipment came to the edge of the campus. This caused long lasting demonstrations in front of the gates of METU. Most of the activists were METU students, but many academicians and neighborhood area also supported the protests. For the activists, highway was not only an action towards a university campus or a district, but also treats their belongingness and home, where they have collected many memories.
Students are against the project in order to protect the unity their campus. This highway project means to destroy trees from METU, which are the symbol of their labor of creating spirit from the beginning. According to them, this project is a threat against campus’ unity and opens a way to further attempts to get some more portions from the campus premises.
Most of inhabitants of neighborhoods are against the project as well. They want to protect their everyday practices and environment and prefer a public transportation instead of a highway. Most of the inhabitants are METU students, who do not want interruption with their relation to METU Campus with a highway project as well. On the other hand, there is another group who supports the project to get their share from the high real estate incomes, which should be mentioned.
Photo (right): View from entrance of METU Department of Architecture towards alley, designed by Behruz-Altug Cinici in 1962 (Photograph by the author, 2012).
Despite the whole complexity and diversity in the public’s ideas about the process of the project, nothing was illegal. The demonstrations did not stop during the whole process, activist were decisive to not allow construction in METU Campus. On the other hand, Major Gokcek was insisting on the execution of the construction.
The execution of the highway occurred on an official religious holiday night. While many students and academicians were on vacation, construction equipment of Ankara Municipality came into the premises of METU, so to say as breaking in. According to some students, it was not only an attack to their forest campus in physical aspects; the action was also towards what METU represents in political arena in Turkey. It is open to discussion METU’s attitude in the Turkey’s political history is contributed to this hasty action of Municipality, however, in fact, the METU premises, which overlaps with the highway was de-forested in one night. According to the declaration at the official METU Website, although the area left unplanted since 1980s, 3000 trees would be affected from the construction (Presidency of Metu, 2013). On following nights and days of the incidence, a serious conflict between policemen and activists had occurred and continued for a while.
Photo (right): Interior – exterior relationship in the canteen area of METU Department of Architecture, designed by Behruz-Altug Cinici in 1962 (Photograph by the author, 2012).
Today, the construction of the highway is nearly completed despite the all rejections and complexities in the process. Now, for an important portion of the public, it is not a matter of constructing highway, but a symbol of attacking one of the few surviving green areas in Ankara. Actually, it is a fact that, the highway does not only treat METU forest, but also the unity of a METU Campus, which is a modern cultural landscape cultural landscape, with the lifestyle and collective memories being lived in and around it.
Special thanks to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Elvan Altan Ergut, Assist. Prof. Dr. Guliz Bilgin Altinoz, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Neriman Sahin Guchan for reading and commenting; Mesut Dinler and Elif Sudan for their fruitful discussions on this article.
Bilge Köse is a Ph. D. Candidate in Middle East Technical University in the Graduate Program of Preservation and Restoration of Historical Monuments and Sites and also working as a specialist in Çankaya University Department of Interior Architecture. She is currently a visiting scholar in Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. She graduated from Bilkent University Department of Interior Architecture and Environmental Design in 2006 and got her M.A. degree from Istanbul Technical University, Department of Interior Architectural Design in 2009. Her research interests include industrial heritage and preservation of modern heritage sites.