Established in 2015 at Istanbul Technical University IT Park, Caps and its young, fresh and dynamic team have churned out an impressive body of urban design, architecture, and landscaping projects-large and small alike. Since 2010, they’ve won 34 prizes in various national alongside eight international contests. Their most recent project proposal for the City of Metropolitan Istanbul’s Salacak Urban Design Contest won first place upon popular vote, and earned a prize of equivalent value. We recently sat down with the design firm’s co-founders, landscape architect Mehmet Cemil Aktaş and architect Pınar Kesim Aktaş, to learn more about their research, solution, and sustainability-oriented approach both to design, as well as to natural stone, a material they incorporate into just about all of their projects.
To start, what was it that led you to pursue landscape architecture? What is your education background?
Mehmet Cemil Aktaş: I’d be lying to you if I said that it wasn’t the final score I got on my entrance exams, they dictate our fate, after all. It was only after I began majoring in landscape architecture proper -out of my own conscious choosing- that I got a chance to really get to know and explore my career-to-be. I’ve never looked back since; the further I go down my journey of discovery, the more excited I get.
How did you come to found Caps? Where does ITU IT Park come into the story?
MCA: We launched Caps in 2015 at ITU IT Park with the help of a Technoventure fund that the Turkish Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology had given us. Its story, however, differs somewhat from other architecture firms. We’ve always been one to actively chase down contests. Everything started with a project that me and mine now co-partner Pınar had entered into a competition. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that the product we had to offer hadn’t existed anywhere else in the world. We pursed that product for two years as a business idea, only for it to bring us closer together. Conditions during the period were anything but optimal; nevertheless, we managed to turn architecture projects into proper work, and the rest is history. Now, we take on public and private sector projects, namely for competitions.
We see that urban landscaping projects take up a sizable chunk of your portfolio. What lures you into doing them?
Pınar Kesim Aktaş: We actually want our breadth of design work to be broad, scale-wise. Of course, as you’ve just mentioned, a large portion of that comes from public projects. On that note, we as a firm are good at blending landscape architecture and urban design together. This most likely lies in the fact that we’re multidisciplinary. Our ability to understand cities from an upper scale and to explore its dynamics, and then apply that to solving design problems in a user-centric manner -via user scenarios- has expanded our scope not to mention give it depth. What really excites us is when we reach the stage where we get to finish a large-scale project off with furniture. That’s when we get to really play around with things and let our ideas run wild. When you approach a city, the relationship that you establish with the urbanite goes far beyond physical design; it’s also sociological, its ecological, and its economic. This motivates us to put forth a decent end product.
What roles do taking an interdisciplinary approach to things, plurivocality, finding local solutions (to local problems), research, and being sustainable whilst thinking outside the box all play in how your projects turn out?
MCA: That motto helps us plot out each project’s design limits so that we can push them. Every issue and location we deal with may seem similar on the surface; however, in reality, it is anything but hence the need to chart out a course of action on certain fronts. The bulk of our projects focus on public spaces. We have to come up with plurivocal, multi-scenario solutions for more than one user profile, and do that within a local context using local materials, with an ecological mindset. This forces us to be in a constant exchange of ideas with different disciplines. All of the above ties the project with its setting, makes it unique, and establishes a healthy relationship between city and city dweller. In essence, our projects have the power to create bilateral alliances… Between the location and nature, between nature and the user, etc.
You’ve mentioned previously that you draw a lot on user-fed data thanks to modern technology, going so far as to state that is a key design component. Could you elaborate on that a bit?
PKA: As a firm, we firmly believe that design ought to be multidimensional. Therefore, we consider different user profiles and scenarios in order to enhance functionality in design. That said, data collected directly from users can prove to be misleading. Take questionnaires for instance: the public expects A, whereas what they actually need and use might very well be B. We try and obtain what is often referred to as “big-data” in other words, data on users’ needs, their routines, their habits, and the like. This also includes other bits of information such as a space’s usage density, including when it is most heavily used both of which you can learn with a relatively high degree of accuracy. The same likewise applies for information regarding censorship, Internet use, open-source sharing, etc. all of which you can obtain from different contexts. All of the above prove incredibly valuable when it comes to giving design direction.
Your Salacak Seawall competition entry for the City of Metropolitan Istanbul won you 51,405 votes and first place. Did you think that you’d win from the start? Can you tell us more about the project?
MCA: We were not expecting to win at all or to get that many votes, for that matter. It’s simply marvellous that 70% of the competition’s votes went to us. It moreover shows us just how much the Salacak project means to the general public. Cliffs were our main source of inspiration. We took an approach based on biomimicry, and used a cliff face as our point of reference upon designing the observation deck. We were able to come up with something that was unique -i.e. a cliff visible from the coastline that stretched as far as the eye could see. We worked day and night on the project’s details so that we could personalize the observation experience as much as possible, as it is a spot that observes exquisite sunsets. Pedestrians are at the centre of our design, which starts along the coastline and finishes in a proposed park in the district of Harem.
You’ve also won countless other national alongside international awards and prizes most notably Europe 40 Under 40. What role have they played in your career thus far?
PKA: I feel that awards are a means rather than an end. Putting forth unique designs that speak volumes alongside getting butterflies in our stomach every time we begin a new project motivate us. On that note, promoting our work on a multitude of platforms and achieving consistent success is very special. In our view, it is the ideas, effort, and project behind the award that are the real winners, not us. When you believe in something and follow through with that, then the awards accompany you on your journey.
Contest projects also make up an important part of your portfolio, obviously. How do you view contests in terms of their outcomes?
MCA: Contest projects constituted our first journey, pretty much. It is by no means easy to get work if you’re a no name on the market, or if you lack a network. Putting yourself and your projects out there is one way to solve that. Contests also offer us the chance to hone ourselves and push our limits. We feel that they are one of the best personal development tools out there. They also force you o cultivate your ability to think and reason, for the public eye is on you and your creation. Literally dozens of entries get submitted for one particular field; this strengthens your ability to view what’s out there with a critical eye, they turn us into keen students. We also like the adrenalin. The very notion of competing is motivating; the impulse inside you drives you to race. They’re a fantastic way to put your ideas out there on an open platform.
How much natural stone do you use in your landscaping projects? What is your opinion about the material?
PKA: Virtually all of our projects utilize natural stone in one form or another. It more than just a lining material-it’s a dwelling element. It has many faces is our designs, be it as sculptures, planters, or otherwise. We place great importance on using local stone when possible. If material native to the environs of site our project sits on exists, then we’ll try and use that somehow. It is imperative that the material be tied to and belong to the land; that’s been the tradition since antiquity.
Do you have any preferences when it comes to public spaces?
PKA: Granite, basalt, and marble. We go for anything local.
You’ve done a number of public space projects for the City of Ordu. What can you tell us about them as well as your choice of natural stone for them?
MCA: Our first project for the City of Ordu was the Rüsumat Seawall. Successive projects focused by-and-large on taking rather innovate approaches to transformation pre-existing high volume spaces, one of which being a park square. We based our decisions both on the emotions that they imparted on us, as well as on material references in sync with not only the texture, but also the spaces’ history and character, namely marble, for its colour and grain.