Overview of Taksim Square development proposal and the Square, 1930. Courtesy the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality
Last October, when the New Museum organized the first international IDEAS CITY Conference in Istanbul, the city’s immense beauty, cultural and historical significance, as well as its hyper-ambitious urban transformation was palpable to the international attendees. However, the young practitioners—artists, architects, urban planners, journalists, and sociologists—participating in the panels and workshops told a different tale of their city: Istanbul was presented as a deeply fragmented city where decisions about public spaces were made without involving experts in building cities or civic organizations. As one panelist, Yaşar Adnan Adanalı, put it on Six Degrees last year, “The scale of urban transformation in Istanbul could only be paralleled by similar madness, such as proposing to build a new city right on Central Park.” 1
What seemed apparent to us at the time was a sense of an almost fatalistic acceptance of top-down authority. On the Sunday that our workshops took place at SALT Galata, the demonstrations in Taksim Square were sparsely populated and hardly noticeable. We also heard about the impossibility of the different ethnic, religious, and social groups coming together for a mutual cause. In light of the events at Taksim Square in recent weeks, however, it now seems that for a microscopic moment in history these groups have unified to express their frustration and dissatisfaction with an autocratic government. What began in May as a protest by environmentalists upset over the government’s plans to build on a park adjoining Taksim Square quickly grew into a movement against the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The following essay, detailing the Square’s architectural history and the Justice and Development Party’s plans for Gezi Park, comes from Vasif Kortun, Director of Research and Programs at SALT Galata, a cultural and research center in the heart of Istanbul. Kortun was the Founding Director of the Museum of the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, he also curated the Turkish pavilions for the 1994 and 1998 São Paulo Biennial, and the 2007 Venice Biennale. His text was first shared on the blog Official Opinion [Resmi Görüş] last week, where an earlier version in Turkish can be read.
What may just lie at the root of the recalcitrance of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (JDP) is that they tried and failed to materialize a significant visual and architectural expression of their own during their uncontested rule, from Erdoğan’s election in 2002 until the present. Erdoğan utilized all the potent tools of the state to socially engineer a worthy, “authentic,” and self-acclaimed conservative cultural milieu. During his tenure, the Prime Minister’s government has reshuffled the universities (positioning sympathizers of the JDP as rectors), the education system, and the theaters; introduced partial-policy institutions like the Yunus Emre Institute with a very dubious mission of supporting “Turkish culture, art, language, and history abroad”; routed public money in the interest of its constituencies at state and city levels; launched ideas such as “conservative art and culture” from close cultural representatives; and announced an arts council directly connected to the Prime Minister’s office. None of the JDP’s efforts have yielded any results other than gaudy marble palaces such as the dreadful conversion of the Sütlüce slaughterhouse to a cultural center, the Halic Congress Center; the Miniatürk architectural theme park, a large collection of scaled miniature models of notable Turkish architecture; and the Panorama 1453 Historical (conquest) Museum, a panorama painting about the conquest of Constantinople. The pressure to make a historical mark has been building on Erdoğan as he will have to step down next year at the end of the current term.
The JDP’s hardheaded construction frenzy is paired with insolent profit maximization and nepotistic real-estate interests. While this coupling has worked in a remarkably harmonious way generally for the execution of major construction projects, it totally imploded in Taksim on May 28. The all too obvious bottled-up conflict between the modernist impulse of historicization of power and neoliberal contemporaneity broke wide open; The JDP’s frantic attempt to make a mark on the square with its symbolic architecture of power was met with epic resistance in the case of Gezi Park. A modest evening hangout of 1,500 on the evening of May 28 swelled to hundreds of thousands by the afternoon of May 31. All around the country, people from all walks of life joined in pitching bottles at the security forces. The next day, police withdrew from Taksim. Turkey had never seen anything like this before: die-hard political enemies and soccer fans, first-time protestors, environmentalists, mothers and daughters all took the park back.
Gezi Park may mean different things to different people but it means the same thing to everyone: a nice patch of orphan green overlooking the square. Taksim Square is abutted by early modern town planning solutions and one landmark work of architecture: the Atatürk Cultural Center, a multiuse cultural center and opera house built in the 1960s. The square is a twentieth-century project, and hence a project of the different phases of the Republic. One could even say that it was a stage for the new citizen public that replaced the nineteenth-century cosmopolitan subject of the trade city that had vanished. All the photographs of Taksim Square from the late 1930s onward are witnesses to the development of a new subject that had no visual form before then; in Bourdieu’s terms, the Square became a representation of a represented society. The Square is the terminus for the mid- to late-nineteenth-century city of Grande Rue de Péra (the region to the Southeast of the Square, now called İstiklal Caddesi). The JDP’s absence is not unambiguous, and, in fact, historically frowned upon by hardline Republican secularists, who enforced the city center as a privileged spaced for the so-called “citizens,” along with all forms of undesired difference.
The park and the center were both historical public projects that manifest the ideologies of the modernism of their respective times. However, the JDP’s “Artillery Barracks” proposal is a more complicated story. The primary mission of this new Taksim plan is to destroy the vestiges of a particular time (the 1940s park) and replace it with a reconstruction of the artillery building, one that used to be there eighty years ago before the place was turned into a park. The artillery building was built in the late eighteenth century and played a role in the Young Turk revolution of 1909. Demilitarized later, it came to be used for public and private functions, and was razed to pieces in the late 1930s. The building was a manifestation of the modernizing Ottoman rule, a phantasmagoric representation of the late Empire desperately seeking a representation for itself. It looked at itself through the fractured bricolage of a fantasy of how a European traveler might anticipate the Empire’s perfect representation. This is where it becomes interesting. Erdoğan seems stuck between the sixteenth-century Ottoman Classicism, that can be neither replicated nor revisited, and the late-eighteenth-century self-orientalizing Ottoman architecture. In other words, the Prime Minister has placed all his bets on falling between two architectures: a stately one, that was never meant to be a spectacle, and a later one that displays the clumsy integration of the capital city into a world that it could not avoid. It could be said that this oscillation reflects the JDP’s early and late power—somewhere between its humble and communitarian origins and its spectacular opulence at the present. If the mosque the JDP has proposed for Çamlica Hill would be considered a commissioned forgery of the Ottoman architect Sinan, the artillery barracks would be a forgery of another imperial Ottoman architect, Krikor Balyan. As pitiful as it may be, this distrust in new architecture is also a critical point here.
It is not a hidden fact that the Prime Minister has an inimitable disdain for cultural production that he has come to believe is elitist, exclusionist, and/or Western. Erdoğan approaches it with the idiolect and fury of a young disadvantaged male from the suburbs. He is angry at the cultural base of the secularist early Republic; he is angry at the left-leaning ’60s and ’70s generations; and he is angry at the nonpartial cultural practitioners of the post-dictatorship years. Erdoğan is distraught because he has not been able to invent a cultural offering. The question is: Does the JDP understand that culture is not an efficient and quantifiable form of production—it is not like making bread. Rather, it just happens as it has been happening every single day in Gezi Park over the last three weeks. It is authentic and unannounced. It produces a surplus from a gap—one that wasn’t known to exist before.
It is not a conundrum. Ten years and almost no interesting architecture, visual art, and/or other forms of culture instituted by the state. Ten years spent plagiarizing the past, but not producing an archive of the present.
For more information on the JDP’s proposal for the Square:
“When Urban Planning Gets Political: The History of Taksim Square” R
“Generation Y on the rise in Turkey” R
1 This prescient statement has been resurfaced in protestors’ banners this past month that draws a parallel between Gezi Park’s redevelopment and a commercial takeover of Central Park in New York, or Hyde Park in London.