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Apartment janitor flats in Turkey


An attempt to show what is below the surface through drawing, Istanbul. Author’s own drawing and photograph, 2020.

An apartment janitor (kapıcı)[1] is a person who takes care of common areas of an apartment building and watches the door. According to the Turkish Standards Institution, there are 40 basic and professional skills that an apartment janitor must have.[2] Cleaning the apartment’s common areas, removing the refuse, keeping the garden tidy, operating the central heating and the generator, and helping tenants with their daily shopping constitute the main workload.[3] They also need to watch the door during the day to prevent peddlers and beggars from entering the building and foreign vehicles from entering the parking lot. An apartment janitor’s job includes, but is not limited to, being a cleaner, security guard, gardener and repairman.

This dissertation investigates the apartment janitors’ living spaces, located in the basements of the apartment blocks in Turkey. This housing type has been severely under-researched, leaving the urban histories and discussions about these spaces curiously incomplete. For this reason, this dissertation aims to locate the apartment janitors’ living spaces in the city and in the apartment building, and open them up for discussion. While doing that, I rethink the processes of urbanisation, apartmentisation and modernisation of Turkey, through ascertaining how apartment janitor flats connect to or are isolated from the urban environment. Two main questions drive my curiosity for this topic: could we read the inclusion or exclusion in society through an apartment building? More specifically, what would the apartment janitor flats, which have been excluded from architectural history so far, add to the discussions of modernity, social equality and architectural discourse in Turkey and beyond?

Since the apartment janitors are predominantly rural migrants, I begin by considering migrants’ positions in cities and the ways in which they were produced as 'rural others'.[4] I suggest that both on the urban and apartment scale, migrants had to build their lives on the margins. Moreover, a rural migrant worker’s existence in the habitat of an apartment in the city is perceived as border violation by the middle and upper-middle-class tenants of the apartments, and creates a state of anxiety. Because of this anxiety, the janitor family is quite literally hidden underneath the tenants, consequently leading to their further stigmatisation. The search for traces of this stigma and the boundaries set by the tenants in the movie spaces of The King of the Apartment Janitors (Kapıcılar Kralı) revealed that although janitors are physically segregated, to a certain extent, they do share spheres of knowledge with the tenants. As part of their jobs, they acquire much private information about their employers; spatial boundaries do not work in the world of knowledge. Moreover, the mapping of movie spaces showed that the physical limits differ according to gender and age amongst the members of the janitor family. While the female members of the family and the children could physically be in the tenants’ flats more often, even sometimes informally, the male members are bound to the public spaces of the apartment.

The desire to make janitors invisible by means of class segregation manifests itself as an inability to 'find a place' both literally and symbolically. One major layer of exclusion regarding janitors is their representational invisibility. I search for the representations of apartment janitor flats in legal documents, online platforms and archives of the architectural journals Arkitekt and Mimarlık and closely analyse texts and drawings. After laying out the lack of visibility and representation, I investigate the architectural and social implications of janitor flats’ positions in the basements. The basement here, is a place where janitors can be both invisible and close to the machinery they maintain. I argue that their invisibility, the basement and their identities as workers are intertwined, and that together, these aspects largely define their perception as 'dirty others'. Furthermore, their physical and representational invisibility is intimately linked to their location in the basements. I argue that the workers’ hierarchical position at the bottom of the system manifests itself in the general allocation of the janitor flats in the basements of the apartments.

Socially subordinate groups are segregated by social establishments and class divisions. Their positions in the buildings support their roles in society, and the lack of awareness reinforces this division. Therefore, it is necessary to include subordinate groups and their living spaces into the discussions and histories of cities and architecture for overturning the periphery-centre split.

In this dissertation, my aim was to contribute to the creation of an awareness towards unequal and segregated living conditions of apartment janitors in Turkey who are architecturally bound to their jobs. During this study, I took the first step by acknowledging their invisibility and steering the research towards an analysis of their (lack of) representations. I explored the extent to which these living spaces are engaged or disjointed with the urban environment and the apartment building. This dissertation then, could be understood as the first attempt to include apartment janitor flats in architectural history by investigating these overlooked spaces and their social dynamics.

[1] The literal translation of kapıcı would be the "doorman", but a kapıcı’s job is more exhaustive. After considering and reading about other options (doorkeeper, apartmentkeeper, concierge, caregiver etc.) I decided to go with the North American term “janitor”. For the occupational descriptions and living conditions of janitors in the US context see Ray Gold, “Janitors Versus Tenants: A Status-Income Dilemma,” American Journal of Sociology 57, no. 5 (1952): 486–93.

[2] Turkish Standards Institution is a public standards organisation whose mission is to enable industrialists to produce goods and services in compliance with rules, laws, codes and standards.

Doorkeeper - Residence, Standard No. TS-12896, (Turkish Standards Institution, December 2002), 1.2.1.

[3] Throughout the essay, I use the term “apartment” as a building consists of several independent “flats” which share common areas such as a staircase, lift and garden.

[4] I borrowed the term 'rural other' from: Tahire Erman, The Politics of Squatter (Gecekondu) Studies in Turkey: The Changing Representations of Rural Migrants in the Academic Discourse, Urban Studies 38, no. 7 (2001), 983–1002.






Copyright of image: © Mine Sak

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