elii [oficina de arquitectura]


129 · MICROBIAL FRUITS of istanbul

New rituals in civics to revisit empathy



5th Istanbul Design Biennial, Istanbul

Microbial Fruits of Istanbul is a platform that narrates the complex histories of Istanbul’s community gardens (called bostans) from the microbes’ point of view. This is a garden of gardens, a cross between a soil microbiology laboratory and a fruit tree showcasing microbial cultures collected in this historic gardens for more than 1500 years.

Drawing its inspiration from the kiosks scattered around the streets of Istanbul, the MFoI platform stands in the middle of Özgürlük Park like a strange figure piquing the curiosity of passers-by, inviting them to meet these other “neighbors” in the city. MFoI is a meeting-place for humans and microbes, a nexus between History and bio-geo-histories; between the Istanbul molded by generations of its human inhabitants and the other, parallel Istanbuls that exist under our feet, in the soil, and that (as Isabelle Stengers put it) are the “product of a history of co-evolution whose first craftsmen and true authors throughout were the innumerable populations of microorganisms.”

When the kiosk opens, unfolding its roof, a chatty robotic parrot tells stories in the form of fables written for future generations. At the same time as it puts into practice this new “oral culture”, the MFoI station distributes a fermentation kit that includes a recipe and ingredients to make edible “microbial fruits”. By ingesting the microorganisms, citizens are invited to get closer to the city’s other (microbiological) heritage, and to wonder what it means to “belong” to a place (who’s the local here, anyway?).

MFoI is an infrastructure that relates apparently unconnected worlds that in fact have existed side by side for ages, in ordinary rituals such as cooking (in fermented foods such as wine, cheese, and beer), design (in materials, in pigments), or in urban development (in the sewage systems, in health and hygiene policies). By interacting with the platform and coming into contact with these microbes, which have evolved in the microclimate of the bostans, visitors to Istanbul experience in their own flesh how many of the phenomena that occur on a city-wide scale (e.g., gentrification, loss of biodiversity, climate change, and the problems affecting future generations) take place in parallel in their own intestines on a micro-biotic scale. Indeed, humans are not so different from the bostans in Istanbul: in the end, we’re all “architectures of microorganisms.”

Microbial Fruits of Istanbul is a project by Orkan Telhan + elii [architecture office] at the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial for the Mutant Institute of Environmental Narratives (IMNA), a coproduction with Matadero Madrid and the support of AECID, the Weitzmen School of Design, the Township of Kadıköy. At the Biennial, MFoI formed part of the New Civic Rituals. This project was carried out in association with the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Istanbul University and with the Kokopelli Sehirde and Nadas collectives.


1. “New Civic Rituals”. More than as a “showcase” of “new arrivals”, this Biennial is thought of as a space for experimentation to “revisit empathy from design” in the public spaces of the city.

Other rituals for other urbanities. 

2. Bostans. These historic community gardens make up a network of public gardening spaces available to the citizens of Istanbul and bear witness to many of the processes now challenging our times.

Ecological and environmental archives.

3. A world of many worlds. Istanbul is a millennial city adapted and rebuilt generation after generation. However, a few inches beneath our feet, in the soil, there are other Istanbuls inhabited by billions of microorganisms.

More than A History, many bio-geo-histories.

4. Strangeness. Drawing on the tradition of the kiosks that populate the streets of Istanbul, the MFoI platform stands in the middle of Özgürlük Park like a strange character, piquing the curiosity of passers-by. 

Unnamable beings, active citizens.

5. Co-habitate. The MFoI station is a meeting point between the worlds of microorganisms and those of the citizens: apparently unconnected universes that have always co-existed.

Cosmopolitical infrastructure.

6. Ancestors. We invite the “participation” of microorganisms that descend from inhabitants from thousands of years ago.

Who’s the local community here?

7. Interscale relations. When the “fruit tree” opens, it shares a fermentation kit for the citizens to make their own edible “microbial fruits”. When the ingest the microbes, the citizens are invited to empathize with the ecological and sociopolitical realities of these other (microbiological) heritages. 

Thousands of citizens = Thousands of bostans = Thousands of gardens of gardens.

8. Microorganism architectures. Many of the phenomena that occur on a city-wide scale, such as gentrification, loss of biodiversity, climate change, and the problems affecting future generations take place in parallel in their own intestines on a micro-biotic scale.

Bodies are ecosystemic battlefields.

9. Cosmopolitical diplomacy. Our bodies will become settings for the meeting between then microorganisms that inhabit our intestines and the ones that live in the community vegetable gardens in Istanbul. 

Our intestines are places to try out formulas of cosmopolitical diplomacy at the microbial level.

10. Dissemination. When the Biennial is over, IMNA’s partners in Istanbul will keep cultivating and disseminating these “oral cultures”.

11. Oral Culture. MFoI features a robotic parrot (the Diplomat) who tells stories in the form of fables written for future generations.

Towns and cities are not made of brick and asphalt alone. Fictions and tales are also architectural materials.

12. Questioning exceptionalism. MFoI tells Istanbul’s complex histories from the microorganisms’ point of view.

Are living human beings exceptional?

13. Complexity. The team that carried out the project is made up of scientists, artists, producers, cultural managers, local collectives, and architects. And that is why the project has different formats: the MFoI structure, some petri dishes with microbes, some fables narrated by a robotic parrot, a trial run, a website, workshops, a video, and a set of questions on IG.

Complex projects take complex teams and formats.

  • Microbial Fruits of Istanbul:
  • Orkan Telhan + elii [oficina de arquitectura]
  • (Uriel Fogué + Eva Gil + Carlos Palacios)
  • 5th Istanbul Design Biennial: 

  • Mariana Pestana - Curator of the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial
  • Sumitra Upham - Curator of Programmes
  • Billie Muraben - Assistant Curator & Deputy Editor
  • Nur Horsanalı, Ulya Soley, and Eylül Şenses - Curatorial group in Istanbul
  • Architects coordinators of the project: 
  • elii – Lucía Fernández
  • İKSV - Eda Hisarlıoğlu, Mert Karaçıkay
  • Collaborators:
  • elii - Lucía Fernández, Ana López, Raquel García, Marta Vaquero, Sofía Iatrou, Stefania Rasile, Teresa Martínez.
  • Production assistants:
  • İKSV - Esra Yavuz, Damla Ertem
  • Laboratory work:
  • Istanbul University Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • Local hosts:
  • Kokopelli Sehirde, Nadas Istanbul
  • Carpentry:
  • Özkan Şener, Abdullah Tutuk
  • Locksmith:
  • Birim Metal Works
  • Biomanufacturing:
  • Inovatif Ltd. Sti.
  • Graphic designer of the Biennial:
  • Studio Maria João Macedo
  • Exhibition designers:
  • Future Anecdotes
  • Sound Designer: 
  • Max Sterling
  • Fotography + video footage:
  • Engin Gerçek
  • Video montage:
  • elii –Sofía Iatrou
  • A project by:
  • Mutant Institute of Environmental Narratives (IMNA), Matadero Madrid
  • With the suppot of:
  • Acción Cultural Española (AC/E), Weitzman School of Design and Kadıköy Municipality
  • Developers:
  • 5th Istanbul Design Biennial - IKVS , Mutant Institute of Environmental Narratives (IMNA), Matadero Madrid (IMNA), Matadero Madrid.
  • Surface:
  • 5,00m2.
  • Date:
  • Abril 1st-30th 2021
  • Location:
  • Özgürlük Park, Estambul