Street Cats of Istanbul


Why are there so many cats in Istanbul? I've heard they're everywhere, inhabiting public space as if it were their own. These cats are apparently very social as well. One of them famously greeted Barack Obama when he visited the city.

Some explanations point to Mohammed's love of cats inspiring popular tradition in places with large Muslim populations. Whether or not most Istanbul residents love street cats, they certainly tolerate them. In response, cats have become remarkably comfortable in the city.


An article on Istanbul's cats in Pet Connections points to fascinating examples of these inter-species social dynamics at play. A professor from Bosphorus University speaks of the school's reputation for adopting stray cats, offering food and free "admission" to classes.


Nükhet Barlas created an exhibition on cats in Istanbul for the city's term as 2010 "European Capital of Culture." She points to their friendliness and unique personalities, making them beloved members of many neighborhoods.


Others tell of cats walking into open windows and making themselves at home. My favorite quote in the Pet Connections article is from Özgür Kantemir: “Cats are lazy anarchists. This is one reason why they conform with us just fine in big cities.”


In the United States, we're more likely to put nonhuman animals to death than allow them to roam the streets unsupervised. So there tends to be a mutual unease between humans and strays. This unease is less evident in places where strays are a constant presence.


Is it possible that cultural traditions in Istanbul have genetically influenced local cats, making them more social in public space than their global counterparts? It seems that the behavior of cats can be explained, to a great extent, as a response to our behavior towards them. Based on a quick web search, the article "Behavioral Genetics and Animal Science" looks like a good starting point for finding out more about this phenomenon.


Urban strays survive by their own means, suffer silently, or rely on the kindness of strangers. Considering how our behavior influences them over time could help us develop more humane and healthy cities.


Credits: Photos by Nayer Khazeni.

Henry Miller's Paris, Part 2

Part 1 of "Henry Miller's Paris" can be found here.

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"Sometimes Henry went as far down as the Saint-Lazare train station to watch prostitutes accost the men, and to see the 'thick tide of semen flooding the gutters'( Tropic of Cancer)."

Henry would likely be disappointed that Saint-Lazare is now a central node in a shopping zone that stretches down the Hausmannian boulevards to Opera and beyond. Likely Henry and I have different circadian rhythms, and I rarely haunt Saint-Lazare late at night, nor can I claim to have ever seen semen or sex workers in the gutter or elsewhere. Welcome to the contemporary Paris train station, which is more about bikes, Blackberrys, and baggage.

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"For many years he had only one permanent address: 11 Rue Scribe, the location of the American Express office."

I am not sure why I was so excited that the Amex folks were still there. I think it is the Blade Runner syndrome, where we are almost nostalgic for old brands which tend to be consumed in capitalism's creative destruction, even if we have no relationship with them whatsoever, and pretend to dislike brands, especially those involved in international finance. In true post-industrial style, the office is now owned by another chain and only licensed by Amex.

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"The offices of the Chicago Herald Tribune, at 5 Rue Lamartine, were located in the middle of Paris's red-light district. All Henry had to do was walk through the door of Chez Paul, two doors down, and he found himself in the dark heart of the district among the men who ruled it."

The old CHT building is still there, but Chez Paul could not be found, nor men who rule much of anything. As you can see, love is still easy to find on the street, but not perhaps in the way that it was in Miller's time. Lamartine does not seem to be the heart of anything but typical bourgeois Paris, as the red-light district seems to have been curtailed geographically and qualitatively, more strip clubs and sex shops for tourists rather than the quotidian urban sex trade. That, for better or for worse, seems to have been largely driven to the edges, to the woods of the Bois de Boulogne, the underpasses of the péripherique and darker places, which I imagine to be more vicious and cruel and more dependent on the young and the trafficked than in the libertine days of Miller.

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''The Cemetery Montmartre.. . shot from the bridge at night is a phantasmagoric creation of death flowering in electricity; the intense patches of night lie upon the tombs and crosses in a crazy patchwork of steel girders which fade with the sunlight into bright green lawns and flower beds and graveled walks' ('The Eye of Paris'). Henry also loved watching the ghostly evaporation of night, giving way to the first glow of day spreading across the city. Sometimes, to better capture this fleeting moment he prowled through the night all the way up to Sacre Creur to catch dawn's arrival on a Paris still shrouded in sleep."

In all honesty, even the great Brassaï had a tough time shooting from the Montmartre bridge at night, for "intense patches of night" make for tough photography, especially with an 80-euro point and shoot. I feel a bit of sympathy for the dead of Montmartre, always relegated to secondary status over the more famous dead of Pere Lachaise, boasting only Degas, Ampere and the utopian socialist Charles Fourier to go against Balzac, Chopin, Jim Morrison, and a virtual who's who of French cultural history. But perhaps it is my urban clock which doesn't mesh with that of Miller and Brassaï, preferring the view of the 18th's modernism in the glow of a fading day to any Parisian dawn.

"He explored it all, from bottom to top-from the Moulin Rouge to Place Pigalle. The long sequence of cafes, restaurants, cabarets, movie theaters, residence hotels, and 24-hour pharmacies reminded him of that stretch of Broadway between Forty-second and Fifty-third streets. The difference was that Montmartre was even more of a flesh market. With its little dives jammed with prostitutes, pimps, thugs, crooks, and other local color, this boulevard at the foot of Sacre Creur (Bd. Rochechouart) seemed to him the raunchiest corner in all Paris. Vice lurked over everything like an erotic gargoyle."

This is a brilliantly global urban moment about Pigalle and Rochechouart, in that it still reminds me of Times Square, even if it has kept the sex shops and the strip joints that became victims to Giuliani's "cleaning" of New York Ciy. With the possible exception of the South American trans prostitutes and old time dives on Rue Germain Pilon, Rouchechouart has also been sanitized, and is still a collosal tourist trap. The rest of Montmartre has decided to bank on artsy and old, hipster and bobo, and is now packed with seemingly nice places to eat and have apéritif, which I will only ever run past on my way up the mountain. It is almost impossible to get into the Moulin Rouge for under 80 euros, and I think I would probably splurge for the seafood platter at Wepler's first.

What interests me is not that Pigalle and places like it have been cleaned up or transformed into tourists spots, but that the tourism is based on this imagined sexual urban past. Sex is just as much for sale as ever in the city, but it seems that one has to choose between upscale spots like Les Chandelles — a purported favorite of DSK, located right across from the Palais Royal — and the seedy and exploitative zones of clandestine, criminalized, and generally exploitative prostitution. My generation missed the libertine days, missed the free love days, missed life before AIDS and the Albanian mafia and global sex trafficking, so now we go buy postcards and, vaguely if uncomfortably, dream of an earlier era that maybe would have been nice to visit, just for a night.

Credits: Photos by Alex Schafran.


Picking up on a theme from a previous post, there are multiple ways of engaging with the city for the audiophiles out there looking to capture literal and interpretive soundscapes. The Domus Mixtape series explores one such method — so far covering Mexico City, NYC (Harlem), Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Milan, and London. By curating mixtapes / DJ sets based on specific cities, they test out the idea that a certain essence and energy can be captured and channeled into audio files that speak directly to the city that inspired them. At points this happens literally, with voice-overs supported by the ambient background music.

On a more literal level, you can simply explore the natural sounds of your neighborhood and its overlapping textures of traffic, footsteps, exchanges, and animated expressions of economy, culture, and society. Would you be able to tell one city from another by sound alone?  What distinguishes them other than the accents of their inhabitants?

Credits: Image of Bowers & Wilkins P5 noise-isolating mobile hi-fi headphones from

Construction Materials and Social Status

Nearly half of the world today — about three billion people — live or work in buildings made of raw earth and wood. This number is rapidly decreasing, which is normally attributed to rapid urbanization. The real reason seems to be that earth and wood are rarely used today as construction materials. In fact, raw earth and wood are excellent materials that can be used in modern architecture, drawing upon ancient yet sophisticated techniques.

I've had the chance to work as an architect in Vietnam and South India, and in both places I experienced the dilemma of having to design concrete houses in contexts where earth and wood were more appropriate (in terms of climate, durability, and ecology). Construction materials in Vietnam, India, Brazil, and many other countries where earth and wood have been traditional materials for thousands of years, have a strong social meaning to most people, particularly to poor people who have lived all their lives in houses made of such materials.

It is true that most traditional houses in developing countries are poorly built and maintained and can hardly accommodate modern life. Perhaps that is the main reason why most poor people, whenever they have the chance, build with reinforced concrete and cooked bricks. When asked why they do not use raw, earth, and wood, they say that these are the materials of the poor. Reinforced concrete and cooked bricks are generally seen as symbols of wealth; changing from an earth and wood house to a brick and concrete house is directly associated with escaping poverty and gaining social status.

A traditional earthen house and a contemporary interpretation made of concrete and bricks, in Nagercoil, South India.

A traditional wooden house and a contemporary interpretation in Xishuangbanna, South China.

A traditional earthen house and a contemporary interpretation in Florianópolis, South Brazil.

Concrete and cooked bricks are now cheaper than traditional materials, and it is easier to find masons qualified to work with them. However, concrete, steel, and cooked bricks require large quantities of energy to produce, while wood and raw earth need no energy apart from labor. Cement production alone accounts for five percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

Architects have an important responsibility in their choice of construction materials. Raw earth and wood (from tree plantations rather than deforestation) are slowly becoming popular choices among young architects, but there is still a long way to go before it becomes mainstream.

Credits: Opening photo of a building in Auroville, India, by Satprem Maini. Photos of homes in China, South India, and Brazil by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca. Photo of a rammed-earth house in Australia by Morris Partnership. Photo of a rammed-earth office building in London by David Marchetti Architetto.

Typography in the City: Phnom Penh

Just as a stroll along a few New York blocks inspired an analysis of signage, typography, and communication, a recent visit to Phnom Penh provided a visual feast of typefaces and character sets, reflecting the city's history and contemporary reality.

From the realm of the official, with its necessity for utility and clarity

to a handwritten ad for a piece of property, slapped on a passing wall

to a tri-lingual hand-painted sign in Khmer, French, and English.

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan.

Reading the History of Bucharest in its Buildings

CEC Bank Palace (built in 1900) in front of the Bucharest Financial Plaza (completed in 1997).

One of the most striking visual elements of the architecture in Bucharest is its eclectic nature. As you walk down Calea Victoriei which winds through the city center, you pass buildings from the late-19th or early-20th century, buildings from the communist era in the mid-20th century, and structures built since the fall of communism in 1989. Styles range from medieval to neoclassical to art nouveau to modern, all within a few blocks or even on the same block. Seeing Bucharest’s architecture gives a sense of its history from the “golden age” in the late-19th century to the communist era to today, and its buildings — block housing, stunning churches, modern office buildings — tell a fascinating social, political, and economic story.

The foundation of the former headquarters of the Securitate (secret police) serves as the base for a modern building, as parts of the city's history are literally paved over.

Credits: Photos by Anna Fogel.

Hometown Love-Hate

"Plates, they will shift, houses will shake, fences will drift. We will awake only to find nothing's the same."

— From "Home Is A Fire" by Death Cab for Cutie

With the beginning of summer and its enchanted evenings comes a strange feeling for those of us spending it in our hometowns. The season brings a feeling of freedom and great expectations but also a sense of desolation and being stranded, as we stay while others seem to leave. Finding ourselves in the city we know by heart, the blocks, quays, and sidewalks suddenly seem oddly different.

Pop band Death Cab for Cutie’s new music video "Home Is A Fire" captures this atmosphere flawlessly. Recorded in some forgotten alleyways of Los Angeles, it reflects love-hate relationships with hometowns where we belong but often also wish to escape.

The video is a collaboration between Death Cab for Cutie bassist Nicholas Harmer and renowned street artist Shepard Fairey, known for his "Obey" sticker campaign and his Barack Obama "Hope" poster. In a personal essay, Fairey shares his thoughts on the sequence and what he calls the duality of "home." For Fairey, home is a place you inhabit and that inhabits you, but it is also a space of possibilities if we are brave enough to try to make a change:
"The city can be an impersonal place, imposing, simultaneously anonymous and claustrophobic. However, there are opportunities for us to affect the city (and life) experience rather than accepting things as passive voyeurs. We all have fears and insecurities about ourselves and our circumstances, but if we have the courage to take risks and participate we can adapt and embrace the flux, rather than fear it."
"This video is about illustrating these ideas and the multiple dimensions of the city experience by taking the viewer on a journey to encounter the Home Is A Fire lyrics as street art. Street art appeals because it makes the landscape a little less dreary for the viewer, and it is a bureaucracy free creative outlet for the participants. I would say that a street art call to action is 'if you don't like your home... reshape it.'"

Featured Quote: J. S. Anjaria on Hawkers in Mumbai

“'When I was growing up, there used to be a coconut man,' fondly recalled Maya, a civic activist in Mumbai. 'He carried a basket of coconuts on his head and walked around. If you wanted one, he would stop and cut it open for you.' Telling me this, Maya smiles and laughs, warmed by the nostalgia for an earlier era of the city. However, 'In the 1980s [things changed],' Maya continued, 'migrants started coming specifically to hawk on the footpaths. They are not the traditional hawkers. They have come to set up a business; to occupy a place on the footpath and call it their own.'"

J. S. Anjaria, from "Guardians of the Bourgeois City: Citizenship, Public Space, and Middle-Class Activism in Mumbai," City & Community, 2009.

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just things that may be interesting. Please feel welcome to add others. 

Credits: Image of Coconut Vendor from Shokichka.

Learning From Iceland’s ‘Kitchenware Revolution’

Hördur Torfason, the Icelandic artist and human-rights activist who was instrumental in the protests surrounding Iceland's financial crisis and "silent revolution" in 2009, paid a visit to the protest camp-outs in Madrid, Barcelona, and Palma de Mallorca a few days ago. In the latter, the visit was quite an event, since Palma’s main plaza was popularly renamed Plaça d’Islàndia over a month ago as a salute to the movement Torfason helped lead. Hundreds of people gathered in the plaza on Monday evening to hear just one of the talks Torfason was giving during his packed day-long visit to the island.

Torfason addressing the crowd in Plaça d'Islàndia in Palma de Mallorca.

Nestled in the plaza, he shared his story about starting as a human-rights activist in the early 1970s and being the first openly gay celebrity (singer, songwriter, poet) in Iceland. After 38 years of struggle, he thought that adoption of the equal rights bill by Iceland’s parliament in 2008 meant that his work was over.

However, the start of the country's massive financial crisis pushed Torfason back to action. On October 11, he began standing in front of the Reykjavik parliament with a microphone. Passersby were invited to talk about their dissatisfaction with the freefall of their country, to speak their minds.

Over the next five months, these sessions turned into open meetings and rallies every Saturday afternoon. Three claims predominated: resignation of the government, resignation of the board of the National Bank, and resignation of the board of monetary authorities. Torfason spoke about the variety of strategies and tactics used during the protests, from direct, yet respectful, letter-writing and meetings with politicians to what was dubbed the "kitchenware revolution": banging pots and pans in protest, known as cacerolazo in Argentina. This culminated in late January 2009 with thousands of people protesting for days on end, resulting in the collapse of the Icelandic government.

Protesters gathered in Reykjavik as members of parliament met for their first session in January 2009.

What does this mean for the 15-M movement in cities across Spain? Torfason explained that, since January 2009, Icelanders have remained mobilized and refused to pay the private debt of politicians and reckless bankers who systematically robbed the country and its people. There are also 25 people driving a collaboration with thousands online to write a new constitution for the country, on track to be completed this summer. Since political groups in Iceland own the media, Torfason spoke of the critical role of the internet as a lifeline for organizing within the country and globally.

In response to a question from the audience, Torfason noted that no claims have emerged from the 15-M in Spain. “How can you speak to politicians even though you don’t like them?" he asked. "They are people we put to work for us.” He advised making a few clear claims and developing more when these are achieved. “Remind them [the politicians] of their job,” he said. “They seem to have forgotten.”

The movement’s next challenge is to determine clear claims and act collectively to achieve them. This is much more complex to coordinate in Spain (with its decentralized population of 46 million) than in Iceland, where two-thirds of its 300,000 residents live in the Greater Reykjavik Area. But Spaniards appear to be up to the challenge.

Credits: Photo of Hördur Torfason's talk in Palma de Mallorca by Ruben Ballester Lopez. Photo of protesters in Reykjavik from The Guardian.

Urban Photography: A Matter of Perspective

When I was working in informal settlements in Mumbai a couple years ago, I remember hearing that carloads of tourists were driving to a spot on the outskirts of Dharavi, a huge township in the center of the city, and taking pictures without getting out of the car. "Drive-by shooting" took on a whole new meaning.

My gut reaction was to be appalled at the blatant voyeurism. But then I thought: Were these tourists perhaps more conscientious than the majority, who did their best to ignore the less-than-glamorous sides of the city? If they had overcome their fear or laziness and gone into Dharavi's lanes to take pictures, like participants in the controversial "reality tours" there, would they be any less voyeuristic? For that matter, what was the difference between them and the students, professionals, and philanthropists that snapped up pictures during the visits I regularly led in Dharavi? And what about me? I took photos mostly as part of documentation work for an NGO, but had done my fair share of capturing crumbling houses and shoeless children.

I don't buy arguments that photographing in places like slums is always exploitative — a "fetishization of poverty." If we never photographed people or places that were materially worse off, for many of us, there would be little of the world left to photograph. If we turned our lenses away from everything that was difficult, photography would lose much of its potency and purpose.

I think the ethics have to do less with the subject matter and more with the intentions and actions of the photographer. Stealing photographs of private moments, taking pictures after the subject has refused, barging into lives and spaces without asking — this is what crosses the line. Asking permission and engaging with people creates a totally different interaction than acting like you're on safari. More subtly, how you frame a photo affects how you portray people: you can capture someone walking alone in a field of garbage or cooking with his or her family. You can take an aerial view of a slum, or you can photograph the neighborhoods and people below.

In reflecting on how to better portray a city through photographs, I am inspired by the work of Brendan Bannon, a Nairobi-based photojournalist that I interviewed for an article on ethical travel photography. Tired of photographing only refugee camps and health crises for his editors, last April he put out Daily Dispatches to paint a fuller portrait of Nairobi. His warm, quiet photographs are brimming with dignity — you don't realize how skewed the typical portrayals of African cities are until you see his counterpoint.

Daily Dispatches |Technology by Brendan Bannon

In Dharavi, it wasn't whether someone was a tourist or a philanthropist that made his or her picture-taking more tasteful. Although time spent in a place matters, intention and actions matter more. When you're behind the camera, you can always feel the difference.  

Credits: Photo of boy in Dharavi by Katia Savchuk.

On View: 'Augmented Window'

Windows, by means of their framing, are viewports into subjective realities. When mediated experiences of a landscape are presented on top of the landscape itself, how do they negotiate with each other regarding their different points of view?

"Augmented Window," a research project coordinated by Thierry Fournier at the research laboratory of Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs de Paris, brought together critical readings and original works from sixteen artists and authors on the Halles district of Paris. Each piece was geo-tagged and presented on a touch-screen window that looks out onto the landscape that is simultaneously displayed as a live video feed on the window itself. Viewers are invited to explore and interact with the different points of view, creating a complex sensory experience.

"Augmented Window" is on view from June 17-26 at Centre Pompidou

Credits: Image from

Assorted Links #36

    Credits: Trailer of H2Oil (2009).

    Cholombianos: A Mexican Urban Subculture

    In the midst of notorious drug violence in northern Mexico, a peaceful but curious subculture has emerged in the city of Monterrey. Known as Colombianos, this group of Mexican urban youth is bound by a love of Colombian cumbia and vallenato music mixed with more local, mellow beats. This cultural borrowing mixed with proud localism has given birth not just to a new musical style, but also to a dance and a "look." Although this style borrows from hip-hop and reggaeton fashion, it is shockingly unique.

    Vice Magazine, which recently published a complete article on the Mexican Colombianos subculture, names them Cholombianos and notes a stylistic similarity to the Norteño cholos fused with elements of hip-hop and reggaeton.

    Aside from the more common baggy pants and plaid shirts, Colombianos often wear apparel with prints of religious imagery. Hung from their necks are large hand-painted banners displaying their names, neighborhoods, and favorite radio station. The most remarkable and original fashion statement is their hairstyles, usually characterized by long sideburns glued to their faces (sometimes even reaching their chins), plastered bangs, and most of the back of their heads shaved. They seem as extreme as mohawks must have looked in the 1980's.

    Although it's easy to chuckle at the styles of these youths, it can also be imagined to be an early phase of a subculture like the steam punks and harajuku kids. The fact that a musical genre, a non-violent attitude, and a social status bind these kids gives this style an appeal to a wider audience.

    Credits: Portraits by Stephan Ruiz for Vice. Group photo by Amanda Watkins.

    Featured Quote: Chantal Mouffe on Agonism

    “What we need is a hegemony of democratic values and this requires a multiplication of democratic practices, institutionalizing them into ever more social relations so that a multiplicity of subject positions can be formed through a democratic matrix - It is in this way and not by trying to provide it with a rational foundation – that we will be able to not only defend democracy but also deepen it. Such a hegemony will never be complete, and anyway, it is not desirable for a society to be ruled by a single democratic logic. Relations of authority and power cannot completely disappear, and it is important to abandon the myth of a transparent society, reconciled with itself, for that kind of fantasy leads to totalitarianism. A project of radical and plural demoncracy on the contrary, requires the existence of multiplicity, of plurality and of conflict, and sees in them the raison d’etre of politics.”

    Chantal Mouffe, from The Return of the Political, 2006.
    This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just things that may be interesting. Please feel welcome to add others.