A Review of Burak Erdim, Landed Internationals: Planning Cultures, the Academy, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020)

Academic freedom and autonomy are once again topics of contention in the universities of Turkey. On January 1, 2021 the students and faculty at Boğaziçi University found themselves at the behest of an externally appointed university president, just like after the 1980 military coup. This time, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used an emergency decree to appoint Professor Melih Bulu, a long-time member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as rector in violation of the established rules and practices in the governance of Boğaziçi. Once again, students, faculty and their allies poured into the streets in protest. The government, in response, detained and arrested hundreds of demonstrators, especially targeting LGBTQ+ students as “deviants.” Erdoğan himself labeled the protesting students as “terrorists,” contrasting them with the “youth of our country who truly embody national and spiritual values” and will “carry Turkey into the future.” As in past decades, universities, such as Boğaziçi, are venues of contestation between authority and resistance, with the government imposing its singular vision of a “pious, homegrown, national youth” on a diverse and courageous student body.

Burak Erdim’s Landed Internationals is the story of one such institution, the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara. It became an iconic site of leftist student mobilization and anti-US protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1969, METU students famously set Robert Komer’s car on fire during his visit to the campus as US ambassador to Turkey, a post he took after heading the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program in South Vietnam. In 1971, students inscribed devrim (revolution) in giant letters on the bleachers of the METU stadium, a tradition that was repeated annually during the university spring festival until recently. As universities in Turkey continue to challenge the various epistemic, political and economic projects and practices that are imposed on them, METU, with its history of resistance to empire, presents a testament to the importance of independent academic spaces where alternative imaginaries can continue to flourish.

The 1969 protests bookend Landed Internationals, which is a meticulous investigation of the founding years of METU (1954–1969) in the broader context of the postwar politics of planning, design and technical assistance.
The 1969 protests bookend Landed Internationals, which is a meticulous investigation of the founding years of METU (1954–1969) in the broader context of the postwar politics of planning, design and technical assistance. After World War II, the US government accelerated its domestic suburbanization process with housing finance and direct public investments. To meet the demands of the manufacturing and finance industry that had expanded during the war years, US agencies also began to export these housing construction and finance models across the world through Marshall Plan and Point Four program funds. These efforts to create what Nancy Kwak calls a “world of homeowners,” Erdim argues, did not result in the uniform suburbanization of the world but in the transformation of US housing and construction models.[1]

As Erdim tells it, two visions of housing aid arrived in Turkey during those years. The first, which was put forward by the US architecture and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, aimed to export mechanisms of international housing and construction finance. Among their proposals was to create an agency modeled after the Federal Housing Administration. This agency, Erdim points out, would have engaged in the types of public-private partnerships that resulted in discriminatory policies in the United States. The results of these policies included the absorption of the racially discriminatory practices of the real estate and banking industries into federal government policies and the provision of African American families with subprime loans that placed them in racially segregated neighborhoods with overcrowded, unsanitary and inferior housing.[2]

It was the second vision, formulated by labor lawyer and housing policy expert Charles Abrams during a United Nations mission, that prevailed. While Abrams’ report also recommended housing finance policies, it was his proposal for the creation of a school of architecture and city planning in Ankara that was adopted. Among the results of the founding of this school and its expansion into a technical university was the emergence of what Abrams called “in-perts,” a type of local expert who had “dual knowledge of local conditions and international operations” (86). In-perts or “landed internationals,” in Erdim’s preferred usage, were professionals and bureaucrats who could continue to collaborate with the UN and other international agencies within the “postwar world order” of nation-states. At the same time, METU’s in-perts would also formulate new models of land tenure, citizenship and development.

Erdim’s book is full of insights from his detective-like and eye-opening work about both the cooperation and the struggles that marked the funding, administration, curriculum, location and design of METU. The founding years of the university coincided with Turkey’s transition from the single-party rule of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (1923–1950) to multiparty politics. Under the reign of the Democrat Party (1950–1960), Turkey bolstered its position as a member of the Cold War’s Western Bloc and a recipient of US and international aid. Marking a departure from the state-led industrialization programs of the founding years, the Democrat Party (DP) adopted market-oriented policies, favoring “US development models of the 1950s,” instead of “what it perceived as New Deal planning” (37).

The various agencies that funded METU over the years included the United Nations Technical Assistance Board, the United States Foreign Operations Agency and the Ford Foundation. These agencies insisted on different sets of priorities at various stages. Abrams also helped recruit an advisory committee from the University of Pennsylvania, including Holmes Perkins, Dean of the School of Fine Arts, and Harold Stassen, former President of the University of Pennsylvania. In Turkey, engineers from the newly founded Department of Highways, led by Vecdi Diker, helped secure a physical site for the university and served on the faculty. Together, these figures devised an interdisciplinary curriculum centered around architecture, city planning and community development. They also implemented an independent Board of Trustees modeled after universities in the United States. But the initial Board of Trustees along with two initial design plans that aimed to spatially reflect the novel administrative and academic structure of the university were overhauled following the 1960 coup, which deposed the DP government. The aftermath of the coup saw the adoption of five-year development plans and welfarist policies until a right-wing government once again came to power in the middle of the decade. International funding for METU, as well as the broad contours of the initial academic vision drawn up with the Penn team continued after the coup, but different ideologies also began to shape the university’s trajectory.

Erdim closely examines how the political and professional ideologies of the post-coup period, and especially the renewed emphasis on Kemalist conceptions of nationhood and citizenship, played a role in the subsequent transformation of METU. In 1961, Kemal Kurdaş, who also served as finance minister under the transitional government, was appointed as rector of the university. During this period, architects Altuğ and Behruz Çinici were named the winners of a new design competition for the campus. In these chapters, Erdim draws a compelling picture of METU’s mission and symbolism that Kurdaş and the Çinicis seem to have agreed on. Through their design of the campus, the architects “indexed Turkish youth’s modernity to Kemalist ideology of modernization and westernization” (198).

Through their design of the campus, the architects “indexed Turkish youth’s modernity to Kemalist ideology of modernization and westernization.”
Kurdaş, in turn, embarked on new projects, such as community development programs, archeological excavations and a vast forestation program on campus. By positioning METU as the steward of natural and cultural resources, Kurdaş sought to create “an imagined continuum of culture from prehistory to the present and position[ed] Turkish nationhood as the synthesis and rightful heir of these cultures” (211). According to Erdim, the model of nationhood and citizenship that was cultivated on the METU campus, created the in-perts envisioned by Abrams. It was METU’s local experts, Erdim argues, who also completed what Abrams referred to as the “welfare revolution” in his writings, describing the efforts to increase living standards and achieve a greater distribution of socioeconomic benefits across the world in the past 200 years.

Erdim describes the achievement of Abrams’ “welfare revolution” at METU through the models of stewardship and citizenship implemented by Kurdaş’s projects. It is true that many of METU’s graduates went on to work toward public solutions for housing and other problems throughout the 1960s and 70s. But one may question the extent to which Abrams’ decision to recommend a university to train a small segment of the population rather than policies for public housing and other redistributionist measures amount to a “welfare revolution.” Erdim presents the construction of METU as a “paradigm shift” in technical assistance programs from policy towards training and education. But in some respects, the proposal seems consistent with similar and problematic efforts to cultivate managerial elite classes in developmental circles.

It is also not clear to what degree Kurdaş and others’ “models of citizenship and nationhood” rested on the “decolonization” and “democratization” of knowledge, land and resources. We learn in passing that on the campus site, “a considerable portion had to be appropriated from farmers and villagers through eminent domain” (127). Erdim also discusses METU’s documentation and preservation projects around the construction of the Keban hydroelectric dam. But as he notes, these reports remained silent about the displacement of Kurdish populations, although a broader discussion of this issue understandably falls outside the scope of Erdim’s study.

In the end, the book interprets the inscription of devrim on the METU stadium bleachers as consistent with the technocratic conception of revolution rooted in Turkey’s founding doctrines and formulations of national heritage. Doing so may run the risk of foreclosing the alternative set of emancipatory and redistributionist visions that were available to dissident students of the period, including proposals by the Turkish Workers’ Party (TIP), which succeeded in securing 15 seats during the 1965 elections, as well as the resurgence of a radical Kurdish movement during this period. These visions have also continued to inform contestations of oppressive and neoliberal policies implemented by various governments since the military coup of 1980, which also abolished the relative autonomy that universities enjoyed in the 1960s and 70s.

A book about METU feels especially urgent now, given the escalating pressures the current government has been putting on its student body, including arrests issued for insulting the president.
A book about METU feels especially urgent now, given the escalating pressures the current government has been putting on its student body, including arrests issued for insulting the president. Many features of the 2013 Gezi Park protests were also rehearsed on the university campus. In 2012, police used tear gas and water cannons on students who protested Erdoğan’s visit to campus, and 45 students were jailed amidst the crackdown that followed the coup attempt of 2016. As part of AKP’s ecologically disastrous growth-oriented policies, up to 3,000 trees in METU’s vast forest were destroyed due to plans to build a highway through the campus in 2013. With its beautiful display of plans and photographs, Landed Internationals will be deeply evocative for anyone who has walked down the campus allée, the long pedestrian walkway connecting its diverse set of buildings and students. It is a richly textured book that meticulously demonstrates the role that housing and planning experts played in contestations over postwar visions of nation-building, development and expertise.


[Begüm Adalet is assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University and author of Hotels and Highways: The Construction of Modernization Theory in Cold War Turkey (Stanford University Press, 2018).]





[1] Nancy Kwak, A World of Homeowners: American Power and the Politics of Housing Aid (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)

[2] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019)


How to cite this article:

Begüm Adalet "Designing Nationhood in Turkey’s Universities," Middle East Report Online, June 02, 2021.

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