An investigation of modernization process and a reading of the construction of local identity in Turkey

Nazlı Eda Noyan (İ.T.Ü., Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü)

Recently a friend of mine sent me the funny story of a couple’s adventure with the toilet signs:

over the years, Raluca Ioana Rosca’s husband and she have usually managed to decode the cute but confusing gender signs sometimes put on restaurants' restroom doors (Buoys and Gulls, Laddies and Lassies, etc.), but every so often they get stumped.

Recently her husband Dave wandered off in search of the men's room and found himself confronted by two marked doors. One was labeled "Bronco," and the other was designated "Cactus." Completely baffled, he stopped a restaurant employee passing by."Excuse me; I need to use the restroom," Dave said. Gesturing toward the doors, he asked, "Which one should I use?"

"Actually, we would prefer you to go there," the employee said, pointing to a door down the hall marked "Men." "Bronco and Cactus are private dining rooms."

Sometimes so extraordinary, sometimes so mundane and expected, the public bathroom signs penetrated in our visual culture. Within the nature of these pictographs and signs, a global visual language resides with local cultural or social details. The WC signs which are the subject of this investigation are digitally photographed by me primarily in various parts of Istanbul then western and middle regions of Turkey since 2002. The signs within this collection challenge the way our thinking is ordered with unsettling juxtapositions in the way they portray the “proposed” modern identities as well as the expression of certain local identities on the public bathroom doors in relation to the place, people and time.

The significance and ideology of these everyday design elements would be discussed within the context of the westernization and modernization process in Turkey starting from the 1930s and the tension of global and local. This investigation would be carried through brief information on Turkish graphic design, WC sign-makers in Turkey, pictographs and public bathrooms and the comparative interpretation of WC signs among themselves and in relation to the public space they occur in, like restaurants, bars, cafés, mosques, cinemas and heterotopic places like museums and gay-transvestite bars.

We are most probably in a hurry or rushing when we see the sign of the toilets. But those should be the signs that make us most happy too! The signs on the toilet doors are meant to make the decision in front of the door faster. Sometimes so extraordinary, sometimes so mundane and expected, the public bathroom signs penetrated in our visual language and culture and “they do matter” too.

I have been always interested in and amazed by the signs and wanted to collect them. The primary tools for the observation you’re about to see are the eye and the associated equipment, digital camera. My journey with the WC signs started out with my little keyhole. The wc signs which are the subject of this investigation are primarily collected from or digitially photographed mostly in Istanbul, and some are from western and middle regions of Turkey. The signs within this collection try to portray the different “proposed” identities on the public toilet doors.

My aunt calls the toilet elegantly “the room that matters”. Toilet is a critical place for the history of the human civilization where private and public, good and bad environment reside. In Anatolia, the piece of land where Turkey exists, so many different kinds of public toilets can be observed through out the history, where so little is written about. Public toilets of the Romans like the one in Ephesus is one of the most significant social buildings and served as a gathering, meeting place. “Abdesthane” the term used for the place to get cleaned in mosques also served as the public bathrooms and toilets for ages. Through out the middle ages, there were over 1400 public toilets in Istanbul. Today in Istanbul there are 3500 public bathrooms and 3000 of them are in mosques or foundations. A question arises whether in terms of the Muslim religion the public toilets for men and women would be separated in mosques like it’s today. According to Dr. Bindeswar Pathak, the written historical account, though, states the first separate toilets for men and women were in 1739 when a restaurant in Paris put up “Men Toilet” and “Women Toilet” signs at a dance party.

In Turkey, there are a couple of words used for the public toilets like “number one hundred, 00, VC, foot road, sink and shit hole”. I assume the most significant and interesting one comes from the word “the loo” and it’s resemblence to the number one hundred. The public who didn’t speak english replaced one of the systems of signs, the letters with the numbers and interpreted this foreign word as a sign indicating numerical quantity which has no obvious logical relation and transformed it into something else. The biggest public toilet association is called “Number One Hundred”.

A true pictograph functions as an image whose meaning is communicated through its visual form as a picture of something. In 1974, the standard symbol set for U.S. Department of Transportation designed by Cook & Shanosky Associates collaboration with the American Institute of Graphic Arts. The new breed for ABCs, the ancestors of the standard symbols which populated the pubic space today were called “isotype” and were created by Viennese philosopher and social scientist Otto Neurath in 1920s.

A sign standing for an idea, a concept rather than a material object is called ideograph. These are usually considered to be a forerunner of true writing and are characterized by stereotyped execution and by omission of all details that are not necessary for the expression of the communication. Reduction and consistency are important. The sign is a token for memory, a souvenir for words.

The difference between icon and symbol according to the American philosopher Charles Peirce can be exemplified as the drawing of an icon is similar to the shape of the object depicted and is thus instantly recognizable. Symbols, on the other hand, may have no visible resemblance of the object at all. Their meaning has to be learned. The meaning of an icon is more or less independent of the person interpreting it. Thus icons can be used for international communication. However there are limitations. Concepts such as freedom and country, or feelings like anger and melancholy are invisible and cannot be iconized. Secondly, there are cultural dependencies which influence perception. An icon may have a different meaning in a different culture, because the context changed. It may even be unrecognizable. Symbols are not restricted to objects and can represent complex meanings and ideas Symbols for `Fast Forward', `Love'. Though some symbols have become part of our culture (for instance the symbol of love), some are culturally specific and their conventional meanings still have to be learned like the sign of toilet signs from a hospital in India. The clean, geometric character of a sign of a man and a woman is hardly a geometric essence of being a man or a woman but it’s a useful cliché for storing a range of experiences and ideas and mostly it’s loaded with cultural associations of public, modern and they seem neutral.

Although restrooms were available the major problem of toiletry is knowing what they are called and how to use them. The first problem was when were told to find the WC signs. I though this stood for Women Could so I looked for 15 minutes trying to find the MC (Men Could)! Finally, I realized the WC (Wash Closet) was for both sexes.

The dissemination and acceptence of the signs and our ability to read them are a part of the globalization which is a social, politic, economic and cultural process that started with the economic reforms and caused a cultural transformation. It had been criticized as ruining or threatening the progressive and local culture. There are three approaches to cultural globalization in order to figure out its significance: the cultures homogenized with the influence of western mass media and consumption ideology; global culture is a superficial culture without depth; the cultural globalization means the formation of new cultural networks and hybrid forms. Media technologies, global media cooporations’ structure, popular cultural products like pop music, TV shows, cinema and tourism are the basic elements of the process of globalization.

The traditional societies are those whose continuation has conquered their transformation. Their local qualities are effected by the global whereas likewise the global is being effected by the local. They both transform each other. With the disentegration of historical bonds an other cultural formation called popular culture occurs. Folk art is anonymous like most of the modern pictopgraphic language’s elements. Nevertheless sometimes a personal mark is needed to be included in the product. According to Koçan,

modernist Republic project had aimed the transformation of production tools, the integration of technology into life, the construction of ways for bringing people together and suceed in it... the self as a member of a closed society have met “the Other” and fascinated by its glamour. As the production relations have changed he started to look for words to create meaning for his new life. But failed to do it and used an already exixting one.

Global culture is being fed up from so many sources. A text from a firm’s website indicates the cultural defense for cultural identity loss and globalisation while in a way empowering it:

Let us help you build or solidify a British brand by establishing an authentic look and feel for your business. From high-level strategy to personal shopping and in-house design consultation, UK Goodies can help your business build, enhance, and leverage a British brand.

UK Goodies is based in the US, but we understand how things are done in the UK. All to often businesses that attempt to build a British Brand in North America fail to achieve the authentic feeling of "Britishness". Typical pitfalls of American "British" pubs, for example, include:

• Unrealistic decor: e.g. blending Irish and British accessories, neglecting to use pub optics (e.g. spirit brackets) - even if only for visual effect, no bar towels or pint glasses, "bathroom" rather than "Toilet" or "WC" signs, etc.

• "American" wording and spelling on menus and signs

• Not carrying authentic British beer, bar snacks, or food or carrying the American equivalent (i.e. Cadbury's in the US is made by Hershey's and has a different flavor than British Cadbury's)

• Playing music that doesn't work with the theme.

As a branding advisor, we can provide you with advice on designing your pub/ restaurant/ showroom, selecting popular British music to play in your establishment, successfully marketing your products to ex-pats as well as natives, personal shopping, and much more!

Sait Maden mentions we do not really have a solid graphic arts history as that of western world. The mistake in the Turkish art and intellect had been repeated in the graphic arts: instead of integrating the vigorous parts the traditional forms into a contemporary sensiteveness, forming a unique identity like that of Polish or Japanese design, we turned our back to our local resources and turkish graphic arts was molded into a western ready-made matrix. Turkish graphic design couldn’t flourish smoothly with the big political and social changes in 1920s and their impact on every aspect of culture, the Alphabet Reform in 1928 and the new visual possibilities it brough up as well as the western world with lots of new intellectual and visual overwhelming exitement. Maden continues saying it’s unfair to say that Turkish society has no cultural heritage or tradition to build its art upon and mentions especially the seeds of graphic design as a bridge between all layers of society had been indeed planted before the Declaration of Republic even way back to the first print house of İbrahim Müteferrika. This has been followed by the opening of other print houses and the publising of newspapers and magazines in begining of 19th and 20th centuries. The first caricature in magazine in 1870 and the first advertising agency in 1909 had been important landmarks for graphic design. Nevertheless the world wars and economic diseasters stopped this bloom till 1927.

With the help of the new republics regulations on enhancement of industry, the demand of the market grew rapidly and since there were no all ready existing examples and experienced designers the majority of the first graphic design products like labels, packages, postrers had been made by calligraphers, lithographers, metal workers and talented printers copying the western examples. One thing that comes out significantly is the modifications of the professionally manufactured signs by other manufacturers or by the people themselves who own or take care of the toilets. The difference may be observed in typographical treatment or the figures.

Maden marks the end of 1960s as the time when Turkish graphic design evolved in terms of quantity and quality. Sadık Karamustafa mentions in the 1980s Turkish graphic artists have confronted new concepts like visual identity, cooporate image and started to build cooporate identities. That meant an understanding, a process, an experience, an approach almost academic towards the design problem and included research, the building of a philosophy and principles in terms of design. This underlined the division between the vernacular labour and the educated designer.

Ahmet Arabacıoğlu, has been in the metal label and sign business for 40 years. He learned this craft from his Armenian neighbour. In 1960’s, in Istanbul, this type of business was in the hands of Armenian masters. The customer was less involved in the design process and with the advantage of less cost they had the possibility of buying the already designed material. Later on, the Turks started to run their own business with their relatives or neighbors. In time, since they started to make designs according to the customer’s wishes and hence had a diverse collection to choose from. The business’ nature varies from metal sign making to promotional pieces, souvenirs and trophies. Sometimes even props are designed for movies or television series. The customers also vary from engineers, managers of hotels, restaurants, bars, etc., tourists, the interested people.

Since the metal template for the sign is the most expensive part of the production cost, if there’s a new design order, and if say, the order has a quantity of 10 units then the sign maker produces 15 of them and keeps the remaining in the catalogs for the new customers. If the design becomes popular it’s produced in large numbers for the retail customers or for the tourists. Within the catalogues there are design examples from 20-30 years ago coming from foreign countries, specifically Germany. In 1927’s Turkey, it was a German called Weber who first had started a graphic arts programme in Istanbul Fine Arts Academy. Then with the leadership of other German speciallists in 1957, public fine arts school was established in Istanbul. German school, taste and vision was surely very effective in graphic design in Turkey. They retouched or recolor these signs (in fact made them usually black and white) according to their likes or dislikes. Since the customer didn’t want to pay high costs for different designs, usually similar signs were preferred. The things making a difference in the signs are usually not the conscious choices of the sign-maker but his intellectual or artistic capability or talent, or the choices of either the customer. Bülent Erkmen says some designers look at how things are done without questioning why they were done in the first place. The designs are imported mostly with the problem of transfer, without telesis , without achieving one of the very crucial functions of design as Victor Papanek mentions.

For the public toilets in the rural areas or the Eastern region, the people prefer image-oriented signs. They ask for “striking” images. In general, hotels and luxurious restaurants prefer more sophisticated, indexical signs like a hat for gentleman’s or a shoe for the lady’s room. The cylindrical hat is normally chosen for the hotels in order to give the impression of more luxurious or serious.

During the creation of the new character of the nation, both the conservatives and the liberals define themselves and “the other” in terms of the local culture, Islam religion and modernization through the expression of gender and specifically through the image of the woman’s body. According to Hasan Bülent Kahraman “The recent history of Turkey is indeed a visual history. Because the Turkish modernisation have started primarily as a visual reality.” Falih Rıfkı, an other Turkish writer, said “the holy revolution of the republic and the quality level of the toilets have to become one”. In this respect, not necessarily the quality of the toilets which is not the subject of this presentation but the signs reflect the influence of the republic’s revolutions. Like the “Hat Reform” which was issued 25th of November, 1925. The law abolishes the use of religious headgear of the citizens except for the religious officials who are authorized, approved and appointed by the government. Mustafa Kemal arrived to İnebolu Turkish Nationalist Club wearing a modern hat and during his Kastamonu trip he spoke a lot about the dress reform. In 2 September 1925, the reactionists in Sivas revolted on closing down the convents and on the subject of "hat" Atatürk, himself propogated the use of Hat and as a part of this campaign the use of public images of man and women wearing hats became popular. The impact of the Westernization might be observed in the evalutionary, European look of the toilet signs. Especially in the ones with the American 50s look and the ones with damous movie stars.

Since the signs are used for naming places and defining places. There’s a higher order of representation within which the ideogram exists: the environment, the interior that the ideograms operate in. And the interaction between the two, articulate some messages. According to Nocolete Gray:

... arhitectural lettering cannot be reduced to function in the sense of legibility. Its function is to convey an impression, as well as to spell out words; also it is a part of a whole, and must be related to the junction and design of that whole.

This is the reason why I’ve started to take pictures of the environments and people with the signs. The image of a modern looking woman figure with a hat juxtaposes with the lady wearing a scarf in Urfa where most of the Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish population wear traditional or conservative clothes. Or the authentic Turkish cousine restaurant Şehzade and its image contradicts with the modern, western looking toilet signs. Despite its German name, Kafehaus has a man and a woman in traditional Ottoman clothes.

In 1925 The Turkish women first time entered to a beauty contest that was organized in a ball in Istanbul. Those years were the years of liberation and gaining rights for women. In some areas of Istanbul, in some places like nightclubs, bars, restaurants there were even no signs for the ladies room since there were no lady using those places. But in time, since the lives and the culture change, so as the people using those places. And hence the signs for the ladies occurred. The public representation of life styles is mostly achieved through the position of the female. Ağa Mosque in Beyoğlu is an interesting example of how the pictograms are manuplated according to the status or the meaning of the place they are in. The skirt of the female figure is made longer according to the mosque’s rules.

Olgun Vardarlı, an advertiser with the specialty in public toilet advertising in Turkey who is the pioneer in the use of this media argues if you advertise machine-oil in the ladies room, you will sell it. So these are uniqe places to campaign or propogate. Gönül Kıvılcım in her article “Toilet Doors and Gender Differentiation” mentions the visual differences between the man and woman are emphasized with the use of dress for women, naked body with wide shoulders for men, high hill shoes or eyes with mascara or hair for women. She says womanhood is something with a learnt meaning. The women wore this meaning with the dress, the mascara, the high hills. The toilet doors are the frequent reminders of this meaning.

The “other” door is wrong or alien. Here’s a story that you might have come across: The boy have seen the sign of a woman with a ponytail on one of the doors. So the decision of which one was for men was quite easy. But when he entered the toilet and saw a guy with a ponytail near the fountain he screamed: “A Woman!” It’s obvious we internalize the signs pretty fast. But we make mistakes. Because the meanings we’re creating are not as flexible, changing and diverse as life itself. In which images do we see ourselves really? An example from England is interesting: in a night club, on a toilet door it’s written “Men” whereas on the other next to it, it says “Not Men”. The group belonging to “the other” is at least wider at this point. The reason that it’s insisted on the use of these signs might be the fear in us to lose the differences between man and woman or the need in us to build a consistent meaning.

In some cultures, defecating and excreting have been considered something to be ashamed of, even weakness. Toilets associated with these activities have been approached differently as well. Like “the other” place. The term I want to introduce here is “Heterotopia” coming from the Greek word "heteros" meaning "other," and the Greek word "topos" meaning "place." By 'heterotopia' Foucault means the coexistence in 'an impossible space' of a 'large number of fragmentary possible worlds’. Marginalised spaces. 'Heterotopia' has been used to denote sites constituted as incongruous or paradoxical, through socially transgressive practices; sites that are ambivalent and uncertain due the multiplicity of meanings attached to them; sites that have an aura of mystery, danger or transgression about them.

In the summer of 2002, I was in a workshop of an exploration of a main street in Istanbul with architects, philosophy and sociology majors. This workshop was specifically about “heterotopic” places. I thought it would be interesting to explore and theorize the significance of these everyday design elements within heterotopic places like museums, gay cafes, transvestite night clubs through this concept which is partially developed by Foucault. These marginalized sites are especially interesting in terms of how the gender nd sexual identity differences are communicated. One difficulty of the data collection process though, is the significant meaning of camera similar to that of a gun for the people of these places.

As Foucault suggests there is probably not a single culture in the world that fails to constitute real spaces that are absolutely different from all the sites they reflect and speak about, that set up unsettling juxtapositions which challenge the way our thinking is ordered. According to him, by contrast to 'utopias'- there exist 'heterotopia'. These 'counter-sites' are a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.

Crisis Heterotopias are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live: honeymoon, menstruating woman. Each heterotopia has a "precise and determined function" that may shift over time like cemeteries. Heterotopias are capable of "juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are themselves incompatible": libraries and Oriental gardens. Heterotopias "are most often linked to slices in time," as in the functions that a library or cemetery serve. These spaces always "presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable." Some heterotopias require rites of passage while others appear to be publicly accessible but "hide curious exclusions". Finally, heterotopias function in relation to all spaces that exist outside of them. At the same time that they mark a culturally definable space that is unlike any other space, they also act as microcosms reflecting larger cultural patterns or social orders.

In heterotopic places where I have been collecting some signs such as gay bars, rock bars and museums in Turkey, two interesting things came out: In gay bars the sexual difference is either earesed by making the pictograms or signs on the door unisex or it hasn’t been placed at all. And in the museums the signs reflect a different time and culture contradicting the reality of its time (fig. Bergama Museum; rock and gay bars in Beyoğlu).

My collection which now includes more than 200 images of WC signs and the investigation related to it may be carried out to other regions of Turkey so far as to portray the urban/rural difference in terms of visual culture. A questionnaire or interviews may be used. Toilets in big “han”s and big mosques as the first public toilets in Anatolia or the toilet signs of big corporations and their relation to the corporate identity may be the subject of the study. I’ve never mistaken the door for the ladies’ to that of gentlemen’s. I’m still looking forward to a sign that will surprise me. Still looking...