How Utopia Became a Real Estate Leaflet?
Discursive formation of branded housing projects in Turkey
“Ever wanted something more? Ever thought there could be a better way to live free from shackles of old tired world?”
As Edward Said (1994, p. 6) reminds us, the struggle over geography “is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.” The discursive formation of real-estate futures has long been part of this struggle. The above slogan, for instance, is from an advertisement for a fictional housing development in the recent movie High-Rise. The movie is an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel written in the 1970s. This fictional advertisement for a housing development has many similarities with actual ones, and it presents a global trend in the representation of housing and everyday life in mass media.
When it comes to gated communities, recurrences of similar everyday life images and spatial representations in mass media form a discourse of the future everyday life. It depicts an ideal living environment that aligns neoliberalization with an idealization of private urban services, commodified forms of housing production, enclave living and exclusiveness, as well as the glorification of consumerism. This aligns with neoliberalism’s “pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world” since the 1970s (Harvey, 2007, p. 3).
Understanding the role of this discourse in the imagining and producing of future everyday life in cities is critical for the production of urban space in the future and for the role of utopian thinking. In this respect, a critical investigation of the representation of future everyday life in housing developments would provide some insight on these issues. This particular case study focuses on mass media representations of the branded housing projects developed in Istanbul, which provide some clues.  Branded housing projects are housing enclaves developed initially in Istanbul (as the financial capital of Turkey) following the deepening of neoliberal urbanization in this country in the 2000s. In fact, housing enclaves have been produced widespread globally with variegated forms and production patterns. Some examples can be named as condominium estates in Singapore (Pow, 2009), barrios cerrados in Latin American countries (Borsdorf and Hidalgo, 2010), gated communities in Gulf countries (Bagageen, 2010) or private neighborhoods in the US (Glasze, 2005). Branded housing projects emerged in Turkey as a particular version of this development pattern.
One distinctive characteristic of branded housing is that, by definition, these projects are produced under certain brands while implementing branding techniques and strategies. The conceptual emergence of branded housing has been part of the development of branded housing as a phenomenon. The concept of branded housing per se is a product of the mass media and become a part of daily language, which is a direct result of the production processes and marketing strategies of the projects.
The projects are physically segregated from the surrounding urban environment with gates and walls. In many branded housing projects, the buildings are located on the perimeters of the project area forming a spatial boundary. In other words, the projects are designed as introverted clusters, fostering this spatial segregation. The projects offer private and exclusive services and facilities for their residents within their confines such as parks, playgrounds, recreation areas, cafes, social and health facilities, and most of the services that municipalities provide in public spaces. Access rights to these facilities and services are usually gained by being residents of the projects. In this sense, buying or renting a house in the project grants residents the access rights to these facilities and services in return of monthly payments to private management companies. This private provision, together with spatial segregation, enables the packaging of the urban space within tangible borders and the selling of this slice of urban area as an urban spatial commodity.
Mass media discourse plays a critical role in the normalization and legitimization of these commodified forms of production of urban space. The mass media discourse in this case study was captured and analyzed through the contents of project catalogues, advertisements and newspaper articles. As Mosco (2009, p. 156) points out, “[n]either economics (e.g. money controls the media) nor culture (e.g. people’s values shape the media) contains the only key to unlock our understanding of communication.” Therefore, in addition to the content of mass media discourse, it is also crucial to understand the economics behind the production of media discourse. A simple way to do this is to analyze news-gathering practices. According to Kumar’s (2007) neo-Gramscian dominance-resistance model, the news source and the news collection methods explain how the news content is produced and reveal the dynamics of producing a hegemonic image for the projects through mass media. Identifying the news source unpacks whose views are represented in its content while the news collection method (e.g. event attendance or interviewing the news sources) reveals the practical limitations of contemporary journalism in the selection of news content.
The results in this case shows that news articles about the branded housing projects are mainly based on the views of the executives of the development companies, along with ready-made content distributed by these companies’ PR departments through press releases. Among those news articles for which collection methods were identified, one-fifth of the articles are based on project events such as meetings, ceremonies, or press conferences. The counter-views, on the other hand, are not represented in the articles. References to alternative sources (such as the project residents and NGOs) are extremely limited. Therefore, the media discourse is produced extensively by the hegemonic groups themselves.
The content of this mass media discourse is as striking as the dynamics of its production. The mass media discourse, firstly, presents branded housing projects as superior places to the rest of the city, which contributes to the idealization of these so-called luxury housing developments. The discourse also presents these developments in relation with extremity (e.g. the best development in Europe or having the largest sport centre in the country) and affirmation (by claiming that living in these places gives the resident rights to access world-class facilities). An interesting point is that the discourse emphasizes the brand similarly to other commodities on the market. Being branded is presented as a positive input, and as a way of guaranteeing a high standard of living and certainty. Therefore, the similarity of the project with other projects of the same brand becomes a positive aspect and a desirable characteristic.
On the other hand, the brands are ironically associated with unique experiences and living environments for their residents by being framed as different, and better than the rest of the housing stock (and other housing developments). To illustrate, one print advertisement associates the superiority of the project with its uniqueness and boldly claims “There is not any [project like this] in Dubai, Hong Kong, Sydney, New York, London or Tokyo. The best mixed life project [referring to mixed use] in the world has been rising in Istanbul” (Sabah, 2014).
Secondly, the discourse presents these projects as places creating opportunities and advantages for a variety of groups such as individuals, the city, and society as a whole. For individuals, these developments are presented as investment tools, as well as homeownership opportunities. For the city as a whole, the housing projects are presented as assets contributing to the city through improving the quality of the environment and urban life. On the other hand, for the society the projects are tools to create economic value for the benefit of all.
As a result, the discourse veils the high profits that the developers gain from these projects as well as the raison d’être of these profit-oriented developments by framing them as places for opportunity that every party can benefit from.
Thirdly, the media discourse, presents the branded housing projects as providing something more than housing:
“From now on, while buying a house, the having a ‘roof over my head’ period is over. Branded housing projects add many activities from social facilities to pitches where professional sports can be played, even hobby rooms, while selling the houses.” (Taş, 2012)
Thus, the media discourse promises the quality provision of key urban infrastructures and a better life and living environment for the future residents of branded housing projects. The discourse also propagates the idea that these developments contribute to the welfare and well-being of the residents through this better provision of urban infrastructure, solving urban problems and meeting the residents’ everyday needs. It also claims that the projects are places where the residents find happiness and peace and places that provide abundance of open-green spaces for their residents, which contribute to people’s health and mental well-being.
As Kipfer (2002) suggested, for both Gramsci and Lefebvre, hegemony is “the contingent process through which capitalist totality is constructed” (Kipfer, 2002, p. 126), which is produced by the “links between popular culture and ‘relations of force’ among socio-political forces (Gramsci) and the connections between everyday life, the state, capital and dominant knowledge (Lefebvre)” (Kipfer, 2002, pp. 126–127). Hegemony as the contingent process constructing capitalist totality plays a core role in the production of contemporary urban space, while it is being constructed within urban spaces and everyday life.
The results of the analysis of mass media discourse in this case presents an example for these contingent hegemonic processes at work. The representations of branded housing projects provide some clues on how hegemonic ways of production of urban space under neoliberal urbanization are constructed through the contribution of mass media. The discourse frames the projects as ideal places to live for the future, while contributing to the production of space via representation of space (Lefebvre). It propagates the idea that these projects are a win-win situation for individuals, society and the economy; therefore, building more and more of these projects is good for everyone on the society. As a result, the discourse also contributes to the production of social consent for these developments by shaping (Gramscian) the common sense for housing imagination around this idealized image of branded housing. Through this contribution to common sense for housing imagination, it also contributes to the commodification of urban space by legitimizing this private and exclusive way of producing living environments.
All in all, this case raises the question of how the struggle over geography links up to the struggle of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourses on everyday life and housing imagination. Answering that question becomes a key for reclaiming the utopia for producing counter-hegemony to present urban practice and challenging the normalization of these commodified practices of everyday life.
Bilge Serin is a Research Associate at the School of Political and Social Sciences, University of Glasgow; and is currently on the representation of housing futures in mass media and its discontents.
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 The case focuses on the branded housing projects developed by Emlak Konut Real Estate Partnership (Emlak Konut GYO) – the major state developer in Turkey – in Istanbul between 2003 and May 2014. For details see the research website promisedlandsofistanbul.net