Aliye Çelik’s mission: Illuminate a blueprint hiding in plain sight

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Cover of the Pidgin Magazine Spring 2022
Princeton University School of Architecture
 

One hallmark of pioneers in any field may be a habit of focusing on the profession itself rather than the status of being a pioneer. As an inherently collaborative activity, architecture embeds contradictions in the concept of personal recognition, whether the tools and thought processes of architecture are directed toward building design and construction or elsewhere. The career of Aliye Pekin Çelik, co-founder and current board chair of the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU), reflects a conviction that architectural thinking need not be confined to the single-building scale, along with a style of leadership that pays little attention to the limelight.

Yet strategic use of certain forms of limelight, Çelik suggests, may be indispensable as communities and societies develop responses to the global climate emergency, contending with institutional resistance and striving to persuade populations to muster political will appropriate to current conditions. The perennial question about any form of limelight is the appropriate balance between the light itself and what it’s illuminating.

As trailblazers go, Dr. Çelik has kept a surprisingly quiet public profile. She has smashed glass ceilings, opened doors, and built institutions; she has received awards from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Soroptimist International, and the American Institute of Architects (both the national AIA and the New York chapter); yet her focus throughout her career has been on the needs of the public. One looks at her achievements over five decades and wonders why her name is not a household word; one hears her discuss the motivations behind her work and recognizes that seeing her name in boldface type has never been the point. Far more important than her own recognition, she emphasizes, is recognition of the emergency and the well-understood measures that architects and their colleagues can take to address it.

In her native Turkey, she earned her Masters in Architecture at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara and then won a 1968 Fulbright Scholarship to continue her studies at Princeton’s School of Architecture (SOA), where she focused on the challenge of eliminating squatter housing in her homeland and became the school’s first female graduate (M.F.A. in Architecture, 1970, a year after the university’s transition to coeducation)“I always think that architects are educated to solve problems,” Çelik comments. “But they are educated not only to solve problems regarding the design of a building, but everything to do with the building and the built environment and the neighborhood and the city. So I always thought that architecture doesn’t only involve designing buildings, but it should be larger.” Her work has progressed through a succession of environmental concerns, she recalls: “First, it started as bioclimatic design; then it became energy conservation. Then it became prevention of pollution, better insulation. And so now it is climate change.” The connectivity of local and global problems is a recurrent theme In the story of any woman who has become a “first” in her profession, the role of male mentors belongs properly in the background. Çelik, however, readily credits architecture professor Robert Geddes, now Dean Emeritus, for helping her navigate the profession’s and the campus’s boys’-club atmosphere (distinctly more exclusionary in the 1960s than today) and develop her philosophy of architecture in service to the Earth and its least fortunate inhabitants. .”.. Geddes was not only an architect but an urbanist as well, so he brought this multidimensionalism to the architecture school, which was wonderful.”  Among other influential SOA scholars of her era, she hails Victor Olgyay as “the guru of green urbanism and bioclimatic design”; Kenneth Frampton for honing her interest in “minimal housing” as practiced in Soviet Russia; and Eduardo Lozano, her thesis advisor, who encouraged her investigations into the building practices of Latin American favela Çelik’s experiences at Princeton and elsewhere fostered a conviction that architecture should address the most pressing needs of the populations in developing nations. These occupants and their public-sector representatives, not private-sector developers and investors, were the primary people she came to believe architects should work with, along with related professionals such as engineers and landscape architects. Her orientation from the outset was toward organizations that built for the underprivileged, emphasizing local materials, energy efficiency, and affordability. Private clients, she says, held negligible appeal.

Çelik pursued constructive research in energy conservation, solar design, housing, environmental resilience, and design for indoor comfort. She also increasingly observed how these problem areas were connected to each other and, eventually, to the broader climate emergency. “I was very lucky to work in the Building Research Institute,” she continues, “because it was a brand-new institute, and it was very advanced in its thinking.” We were just doing the thing we had to do, bringing scientific approaches and considerations on what could be done, what should be done. And we were publishing what we found out, and then we were trying to spread the word by both publishing results and also by the TV program that I prepared at that time. But we were not limited by what was going on in the government at that time. There were no such limitations; we did what we thought needed to be done and whether they were impacted or not, we didn’t try to convince them. It was just out there.”

Communicating to the Turkish public about energy use through television, alongside her professional publications and a book for the general public, gave Çelik insights into the challenges of idea transfer between professionals and laypeople. “When you do such PR, the impact is very difficult to measure,” she notes. She moved to UN-Habitat’s Kenyan headquarters and began a long engagement with international institutions, organizing conferences on development, women’s empowerment, and urban poverty. She was transferred to UN-Habitat New York office and became Director in in a couple of years, helping to organize Habitat II (1996) and Habitat III (2016), the UN Conferences on housing and sustainable urban development. Çelik was a key player in Habitat II, the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, held in Istanbul in 1996, a gathering that among other things helped establish the principle of shelter as a human right. In preparation for that meeting, she organized the 1995 Conference on Cities in North America in partnership with Prof. Geddes, the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, and UN-Habitat’s New York office.

She has also discovered through her UN service that governments often lack either the mechanisms or the desire to bring the full range of affected stakeholders into planning processes. Later serving as Director of the Interorganizational Cooperation Branch of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (ECOSOC) she saw that translating factual observations and widely accepted goals into action by national-level bodies remains the UN’s chronic challenge.

The UN recently can bring large resources to bear to investigate global-scale problems and report on them in each “High-level Political Forum” it organizes; negotiating and adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a General Assembly resolution in 2015 has brought particular coherence to the UN’s efforts to address those 17 interlinked aspects of sustainability, resilience, and justice. Whether public- and private-sector actors respond purposefully to them is a different question. “Now during the High Level Political Forum of the UN member nations report on how they achieve sustainable development goals. There are the commissions where people report on how they are impacted by the UN,” she notes; “now it is easier, but I personally don’t know what the impact of the conference that I organized [has been] on others.”

The conviction that her fellow architects can and should make enormous improvements in urban conditions by working with the UN and advancing its principles has animated much of her work between Habitat II and the founding of the CSU in 2010, a nongovernmental organization that emerged organically from her collaborations with the architectural community centered around AIA-New York. Çelik and the other architects and scholars who conceived the CSU – Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, the former chair and director of CUNY’s Spitzer School of Architecture and 2014 president of AIA-New York; housing specialist James McCullar, FAIA, 2008 AIA-New York president and organizer of the UN Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development’s first Forum on Sustainable Urbanization in the Information Age; and Urs Gauchat, Hon. AIA, dean emeritus of the College of Architecture and Design at New Jersey Institute of Technology and former professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design – recognize that the professions of architecture, urban planning, engineering, and construction exist at some distance from the realms of diplomacy and policymaking. The CSU exists to bridge those gaps and to ensure that information moves through that space as multilaterally as possible.

A recurrent narrative in her work, as Çelik went on to write, is convincing design professionals that “there is a blueprint for sustainable urbanization that has been developing in the United Nations System for the past 50 years.”2 Illuminating a blueprint that has been hiding in plain sight is the CSU’s raison d’être. She notes that even among architects and urbanists, the SDGs and New Urban Agenda are not as familiar in the United States as they should be, despite the UN being located in New York. The CSU strives to improve these communications through conferences, advocacy, networking, online information, its Newsletter, website  and paperback books derived from its conference proceedings.

CSU Publications. Photo credit: Aliye P. Celik

“Whatever you do is not enough,” she comments. “So there needs to be more distribution of information, and maybe even putting something like UN studies or sustainable urbanization [in]to the curriculum for children, because once something is even in the elementary schools, then they grow up with it and they understand now that is the change that has happened with climate change. It is why young people are very much into climate change, but that hasn’t happened with the need of public housing for all yet. And architects are usually just concentrating on what they are working. I mean, knowing their schedules, it is easy to understand why. But so that is why we want to them to see what is being discussed and decided at the United Nations and what are the tools that they can use in their work.”

Habitat III, held in Quito, Ecuador in 2016, augmented the SDGs by ratifying the New Urban Agenda, a detailed elaboration of SDG 11, “Sustainable Cities and Communities.” “Everything that needs to be done is there,” Çelik comments, “but who uses that is the question. The more we spread this information, the easier it will be. One doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel through that.” Yet for all the urgency of Goal 11, now that the world’s population is majority-urban (a threshold crossed in 2008; the urban proportion was 56.2% in 2020) and mass migration to cities complicates the problems of poverty, health, and climate, this critical goal remains unrecognized in the same media institutions that dutifully report the minutiae of daily COVID case counts and vaccination protocols. Perhaps the steady slow-motion effects of climate change on the quality of urban life are less immediately visible than the pandemic’s effects. Still, the COVID experience implies that the nonspecialist media and large parts of the population can focus on technical information when necessary, and the needs outlined in the SDGs and New Urban Agenda are no less urgent. Çelik suggests that a public communication strategy that includes accessible, charismatic persuaders as well as the research, architectural, and diplomatic communities may make the kind of inroads that have been inadequate to spur politically effective public responses to date.

At the recent Glasgow COP26 sessions, Sweden’s student activist Greta Thunberg was again prominent among spokespersons articulating critiques of the fossil-fuel economy and the lethargy of the political sector. Çelik notes that her youthful American counterpart, Alexandria Villaseñor, has been prominent among CSU honorees for her work with Earth Uprising and related efforts. The CSU’s  Visionary Award, given to Villaseñor in 2020 at the group’s virtual gala, will go this year to Imbolo Mbue, author of the novels Behold the Dreamers (2016) and How Beautiful We Were (2021); the latter, Çelik points out, directly addresses oil spills and environmental racism, concerns “very much related to the work that we are doing.”

The UN’s similar partnerships with recognizable “good-will ambassadors,” Çelik finds, can help overcome the tendency for the public to notice the organization only when war or crime draws attention to it. “When there’s bad news, they’re interested. When something is improving, they’re not interested. So that is the reason why people, when they hear ‘United Nations,’ they only think about the Security Council, which is only half of the United Nations; the other half is the advancement of countries and development, and nobody pays attention to that part. Although in every disaster one can see that WFP [the UN’s World Food Programme] is there, UN organizations are there, but [there is] no interest in that, only the problems. When peacekeepers cause a problem, only the bad gets multiplied and referred to…. Nobel Prize winners, controversy: these are things that attract attention.”

Within the UN, where her initial areas of concentration (energy and building infrastructure) expanded around the time of the 1985 World Conference on Women in Nairobi, where she represented UN-Habitat and studied ways to include more women in the architectural and construction sectors. Inclusiveness is more than a matter of demographic fairness, she believes: “I feel that women are completely equal when it comes to design. But women are more sensitive to environmental issues and protection of the planet. For that reason, I think women will be more sensitive to Sustainable Development Goal 11 and climate change, and they will apply these principles much better than men, and they produce wonderful buildings.”

The reasons the profession can benefit from more members with such an orientation should be obvious during the climate emergency. Çelik has observed, however, that members of underrepresented groups sometimes choose fields more remunerative than architecture. “Architecture is of course a very prestigious career but does not pay well,” she says – noting the prevalence of architect-heroes in cinema relative to allied professions like engineers, if media representations are an indication of public esteem – but the long hours relative to compensation are a barrier to entry.

Other aspects of the field’s insularity, she finds, include the lack of public recognition beyond a small number of prominent names, a condition that could be easily corrected. “When we go around the city, we wonder why they can’t put the names of the architects and the designers at one corner of the building. I mean, some sort of recognition that this person had done this building, because the buildings survive for hundreds of years, hopefully.” Conversely, professional institutions have certain policies tightening borders that she would prefer to be more porous. “Even AIA doesn’t give the status of being a member take in to architects who work outside the world of practicing architecture, like people like us. I can only be an associate member, because I’m not a practicing architect; I don’t work in an office. Architects, if they have this education, even if they are not registered, should be recognized as architects as members especially if they dedicated their lives to architecture. Then we will see many more architects who want to be members to AIA and who want to put their signature to whatever they do, even if it is writing rules and regulations.”

Çelik advocates more interchange between the architecture/planning and policy making sectors, particularly at local levels. Citing the experience of certain Latin American cities with architect-politicians (Jaime Lerner as former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, and later governor of the state of Paraná; Enrique Peñalosa as former mayor of Bogota, Colombia), she sees the problem-solving skills of the design professions as a good fit for civic priorities including transportation, infrastructure, environmental resilience, economic justice, and quality of life. She bases this view on direct experience with municipal officials through their international organization: “I have worked in the United Cities and Local Governments as a consultant and as their representative at the UN. And what was always said about UCLG is [that it’s] one of the biggest organizations and the least-known organization in the world. Nobody knows about them, although they are doing great work; they have been supporting the work of the United Nations for years now, and they are doing a great job to bring the SDGs  to the cities and even very small countries.”

Circulating information about the various success stories, best practices, and cautionary tales about local approaches to sustainable development is how she believes the CSU’s flagship conferences, alongside efforts by likeminded organizations such as the UCLG, can have catalytic effects. “In one country,” she finds, “there are some very good examples of cities which have done development with great sustainability, and there are some cities which haven’t done it at all. In the same country, neighboring cities can have very different performances.” The assumption that the developed nations outperform the developing world on green metrics, she adds, is untrue. “Look at the U.S. example of motor-vehicle domination of transportation. It has set a very bad example in many countries. There are many countries who are trying to solve that problem, so it is important that we have an open communication between developed countries and developing countries.”

“50 years ago, we were saying how important is to stop using oil, and we need to have renewable energy sources. In the seventies, everybody knew that…. Now, there is a promise that use of renewables are increasing and getting cheaper. Can you imagine how long it takes to implement the use of renewable energy? So we cannot wait for another 50 years for all these systems to increase their production, because climate change doesn’t wait for us any longer. We are in the middle of a disaster.”

Floods, fires, environmentally driven migration, infrastructure decay, and all the other manifestations of climate damage, Çelik contends, have an immediacy and tangibility that verified evidence and rational arguments have not provided. Because political and economic actions are required to mitigate further global warming and adapt to the conditions already in place, there is an inescapable persuasive component to the research that characterized her early career. Her own long professional arc, in a sense, has bent from investigations of design technologies toward the ancient arts of rhetoric. For the architectural profession to expand its own definition to accommodate such an arc, she suggests, would be a local response well-suited to the enduring global problem.


About the author: Bill Millard is a freelance journalist covering architecture, health, and interdisciplinary ideas, whose work has appeared in Oculus, the Architect’s Newspaper, Icon, Architect, Metals in Construction, Architectural Record, the Annals of Emergency Medicine, OMA’s Content, and elsewhere. In between magazine articles he is working with glacial speed on a book manuscript, The Vertical and Horizontal Americas, launched with a Graham Foundation research grant. He is based in NYC’s East Village.


Notes

1. Çelik, Aliye P. Sustainable Urbanization at the UN, for Architects and Other Design` Professionals. CSU, 2020, p. 38.

2. Ibid., p. 79.

3. Ekincioğlu, Meral. “Hacking the Politics of Gender on Architecture: A Documentary on Aliye Pekin Celik, from the ‘Old-Boys School’ to the United Nations.” Architexx, June 10, 2016. https://www.architexx.org/subtexxt/hacking-the-politics-of-gender-in-architecture-a-documentary-on-aliye-pekin-celik-from-the-old-boys-school-to-the-united-nations 4. Aliye Celik Story. Video, Turkish-American TV, 2016. Hürriyet Aydın Ok, producer.