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„You can replace your homeland or have none, but you have always, no matter where, to dwell.”

(Vilém Flusser, Heimat und Heimatlosigkeit)


Migration signifies not only the dynamic movement of bodies and spaces; humans bring with them their cultural spaces as well conceptions of them, in which each place is linked to another. The idea that identity articulates itself in various different ways through architecture and spatial imaginations is inherent to this investigation of German Turkish returned migrants’ spatial conceptions and built spaces. Both spatial conceptions mutually influence each other. In this study, space itself is the object of analysis.

Over the course of four years (2012–2015), an interdisciplinary team of artists and academic researchers investigated the design and spatial characteristics of houses built in Turkey by returned or circulating migrants who had previously lived in Germany. On a total of eight field research trips, we visited twenty Turkish provinces in order to draw conclusions about continuity and change in returned migrants’ lifestyles from the analysis of their architectural culture. To do this, we catalogued, examined and documented 132 houses and apartments, and we interviewed 37 owners and analysed their environment with regard to spatial organisation and symbolic representation.


Identity through architecture

The link between identity and architecture reflects the relationship between the remigrant as house builder and the finished building. The finished building is the main focus, in the sense that it is a sign that refers beyond itself. When a building becomes an architectural work as the result of a creative process and demonstrates attributes not inherent to its nature, Schoper calls this the ‘identity of architecture’: “The specific ‘identity of architecture’ must be regarded in each case as the result of its variance from the ‘identical’. […] The architecture of selfness therefore means that the architectural work itself is the centre of attention, not the designer; design as a process is invisible, it merges into the architectural work itself.” (Schoper 2010)

In our view, identity through architecture is a more comprehensive self-understanding of architecture, which cannot be reduced to individual descriptions of architectural works: “Architecture is a socio-environmental art form rather than a fine art – its criticality is at once aesthetic, environmental and social.” (Dovey 2013) In this broader social understanding of identity through architecture, we can assume that there is two-way process of influence at work. The social identity of the person who built and designed the building is expressed in it and, vice versa, the building also determines the identity of its builder. Identity is therefore not exclusively viewed as a culturally or economically determined fixed target, with the intention to make an impression on a social environment in a deliberately defined form, but rather as a self-definition based on experiences in social situations (Berger et al. 1973).


Migrating spaces

We understand the process of space formation itself as a transformation and translation of spatial conceptions from both the countries of origin and destination through design. It is not only people, but spaces and images that migrate too (Bürkle 2009). According to the the concept of relational space from geography and sociology (Löw 2001, Massey 2005, Werlen 1997), space constitutes itself through the relationship between physical, material conditions and social actions.

This perspective makes it possible to view the material characteristics of places in relation to how they can be used and appropriated. People identify with their environment to the extent that it supports the development of their own selves, their own identity (Proshansky 1978). This project follows transnationalism research in its premise that transmigration is determined by the frames of reference from both nation states – Turkey and Germany. Thus, the migrants’ living spaces are not only an extension of the communities they originate from, but also form an autonomous way of life (Preis 2011). Furthermore, “critical migration studies” (Yildiz 2009) offers a theoretical approach in which flexibility explains the contextuality of cultural identities. Here identity is understood as dynamic and negotiated according to the specific situation (Römhild 2009). This idea provides a good framework for our project, since it explains how migrants adapt their behaviour to different contexts based on expectations of roles in various different social spheres, such as in the design and use of their living space (Bommes 2003).


Homonymous versus anonymous architecture

One selection criteria for the interviewees was the lack of any professional training in housing construction, because the aim was not the analysis of architecture by returned migrant architects, but of self-designed or even self-built houses. These buildings can therefore be described as architecture without architects: “Architecture without architects [original emphasis] attempts to break down our narrow concepts of the art of building by introducing the unfamiliar world of non-pedigreed architecture.” (Rudofsky 1964) The returned migrants have developed a variety of strategies for incorporation and practices of localisation (Yildiz 2011). On the one hand, their buildings have the features of migrant architecture as a transformation of spaces, but on the other, they can be viewed as vernacular architecture. “All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the value, economies and ways of living of the culture that produced them.” (Oliver 2006) ‘Vernacular’ therefore means less a general cultural identity, but rather is used as contemporary term for identity related to locality. The lack of a professional and thus intentional design makes the architecture ‘legible’, since different role models and spatial conceptions are expressed consciously and unconsciously in the built space and do not merely have a representative function.

In German language use, the literal translation of ‘vernacular architecture’ (einheimische Architektur) as opposed to ‘pure archictecture’ by architects, or ‘pedigreed architecture’ has not become established. Instead the term ‘anonymous architecture’ is used when discussing architecture without architects. In this sense, a non-architect cannot produce a work of architecture in the sense of a sign that refers to something beyond itself, but can only build a building, or housing (Posener 1981). These houses are precisely not anonymous, but extremely personal, individual and indeed the visible form of the identity of the person who built it. Rather than describing the Turkish returned migrants’ houses as ‘anonymous architecture’, we prefer to speak of a ‘homonymous archictecture’ instead, in which identity is constructed through architecture and embodied in the subject’s housing.


The role of building a house in remigration

Property ownership in rural areas is particularly common for Turkish migrant workers in Germany and rooted in the everyday life of village communities. Both the living situation (built spaces as embodied living space) and desires for how to live (images of spaces as projected living spaces) are influenced by migration processes.

Owning one’s own house is widespread desire, especially for the first generation of (at the time) younger, male migrants, who often promised this to the family before leaving for Germany. Since a migrant worker in Germany usually lived in very simple accomodation without their family at first, the desire for their own home grew stronger. The unfamiliar, in comparison to their country of origin, urban and social spaces in the industrially dominated cities that were usually their destinations further motivated them to invest their savings in building a house in Turkey. As the initial certainty that the migrant would only live and work in Germany for a limited period gradually becomes a more permanent residency over the years, the idea of return turns into a projection as a counter-image to lived reality in Germany (Sauer and Halm 2009). Spatial experiences in Germany, but also concrete knowledge about materials and floorplans, served here as reference points for construction of the future house and became the basis for the reciprocal influence the spatial conceptions had on each other.

No matter whether construction was begun early or was only as a result of the imminent realisation of intentions to return, first-generation migrant workers with a Turkish background all have in common that, when making purchases, they differentiate between objects and furnishings that will be used permanently in the future (in Turkey) or to be used immediately (Caglar 2002). The cellar, unknown in its common German form in Turkey, offered additional storage space and led people to collect objects that could be of use some time in the future. Many migrants developed businesses out of this and opened secondhand shops, which subsequently influenced an entire flea-market culture. The habit of keeping and repairing used objects, combined with an increased awareness of quality with regard to building materials or ideas about sustainable construction, mean that returned migrants did not just import individual objects, but also construction elements like doors, door frames or garage doors and materials like bricks, tiles or construction tools back to Turkey for their house construction project. Over the course of several trips, a complete set of furnishings and fittings ‘made in Germany’ was sometimes transported to Turkey.

Images of spaces, memories and conceptions also travel with the objects. Our interviewees also placed a lot of value on organisation, order and cleanliness. This social practice, regarded as a German accomplishment, is also translated into German construction methods that Rottmann identifies in architectural elements like the pitched roof or painting the house white, rather than bright Turkish colours like pink, blue or orange.

During the interviews, we identified a variety of motives for building a house. While some returned migrants wish to demonstrate their social and economic success as “Almanci” by building their own house in the village or at least region they come from, thereby hoping for social recognition from non-migrants as well as easier integration into the local community, others see their house less as having a representative function, but rather a recreational one, a place to enjoy one’s retirement. The recreational function of the home for retirement is also underlined by the need expressed in numerous interviews to keep busy with work on the house. The house construction project becomes the bridging phase between the end of working life in Germany and the start of retirement in Turkey. Another significant reason for building a house is building for the family. Regardless of the fact that the family, the children and the grandchildren are usually still in Germany and only rarely plan to permanently move to the house in Turkey, the dimensions of the house are usually based on this desire, providing enough space to accomodate two or three generations of the family. In this way too, the return illusion is sustained, this time in the form of an illusion of remigrated family life in the spaces built in Turkey.

What emerged from the narratives is that migration is a ‘resource’. Migration consists of a relationship of mutual exchange, which first of all expresses itself in the appropriation of spaces and objects, and later in a changed understanding of gender-specific roles or social role relations, as well as in cultural spatial practices, and is given a physical form in the architecture built.

Migration has long been a part of our globalised world. Dramatically growing, global movements of refugees on the one hand, the increasing demand for extremely mobile, flexible and internationally trained top-level employees along with tourism as a global economic factor on the other, have an effect equally as strong as the disappearance of national differences between the Western metropolises and delocalisation through the global availability of internet services. It is precisely for this reason that physical spaces are more important than ever for the construction of identity. To view migration as a window through which locals can view the world (Flusser 2007) means understanding the migrants’ view of us too, for they are pioneers in comparison those who remain at home: they know the frictions and contradictions of the experience of migration and have not only integrated these into their biographies, but also into their spatial sense of being-in-the-world (Heidegger 2001).


Photographies from the series „Migrating Spaces“ © Stefanie Bürkle / VG Bild-kunst Bonn 2016. All rights reserved.


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05.Aug.2019 2306 views
Stefanie Bürkle Stefanie Bürkle

Prof. Dr. Stefanie Bürkle is a berlin based artist and Professor of Visual Arts at the Technical University in Berlin. Her artistical practice reaches from painting, photography, urban interventions and video installations. In her artistic research projects she explores themes such as ‘stage‘, ‘artificial worlds‘, ‘facade architecture‘ and ‘placemaking‘. Some of the explored research topics are “The City as Stage/Architecture as Scenography”, “Facade-Space-Architecture” and “Migration and Space”.

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