When Urban Planning Gets Political: The History of Taksim Square

Courtesy of Plataforma Urbana

Over the last two weeks, the world has witnessed history unfold in a small park in the heart of Istanbul, .  What started out as a peaceful protest to save Gezi Park and its trees from destruction has turned into a country-wide (and, to some degree, worldwide) movement that rejects the ever-increasing autocratic tendencies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The urban policies and projects that PM Erdogan and his government have been loutishly implementing in Istanbul offer only a few examples of the way this government has manifested its undemocratic attitudes. In that regard, it would be misleading to consider the protest over Taksim and Gezi Park as an isolated incident.  Instead, development over Istanbul’s quintessential square constitutes the last straw in a series of neo-liberal policies, themselves the result of a century of history, that have shaped Istanbul over the course of the last decade.

More after the break…

The greatest component of the Taksim Square redevelopment project involves taking the traffic underground and supposedly making the square pedestrian friendly (by building giant ramps at several boulevards around the square, directing the traffic to subterranean tunnels underneath the square). Urban planners, however, argue that, due to the erection of high concrete walls needed to build these ramps and the transformation of the boulevards’ sidewalks to service roads, that the lively street life in these surrounding streets will die out as a result.

However, the more controversial and arguably absurd part of the plan is the destruction of Gezi Park.

PM Erdogan would see the Park demolished so that the “Taksim Topcu Kislasi” (Taksim Artillery Barracks) and its courtyard can be reconstructed.  The barracks, built between 1803 and 1806, was the most prominent structure in the Taksim area upon its completion. In 1920s, however, the barracks lost its functionality and was evacuated.  The courtyard became the first football stadium in Istanbul, hosting important soccer games.

Taksim Kislasi. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

During the reign of Ismet Inonu, the second president of the Republic, the city, and Taksim square in particular, grew under modernist principles. An international competition was held for the land-use of the city, and the plans of Henri Proust (one of the participants in the competition), which involved a re-organization of Taksim Square in a modernist style, were put into action around 1939. One aspect of Proust’s plans was to expand the square, and this meant demolishing the already partially derelict “Topcu Kislasi”. The 26000 square meters of land it occupied was later transformed into today’s Taksim Gezi Park, otherwise known as “Inonu Promenade.” [1]

Within the current proposal by the Municipality, “Topcu Kislasi” will be reconstructed in its former spot, where Gezi Park is located now. While the municipality and Mayor Topbas have been trying aggressively to ease the criticisms that have resulted after the protests, one question still remains unanswered: “why are we reconstructing a building that was demolished a long time ago?” [2]

This question resonates strongly when one considers the fact that its construction would mean the destruction of one of the rare green spaces in the central area of the city, a non-commercial space where locals, especially the urban poor, can spend time without spending a penny.  Preventing this component of the project is where many people with different political backgrounds and life styles have found consensus. On top of that, the function of the ‘new’ building has been kept unclear – a shopping mall, cultural center, hotel, condos, and city museum have all been mentioned as potential programs for the building – which has further fomented skepticism towards the project.

Courtesy of Plataforma Urbana

So what reason can the government have to bring this architecturally insignificant building back to life? The answer can be partially explained with the current resurgence of interest in Istanbul’s Ottoman past.

Istanbul lost its capital position after the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.  Ankara became the new capital, and Istanbul, as the ultimate symbol of the Ottoman past, began to experience a period of negligence by the protagonists of the new Republic.  The main reason for this shift was to make a clear separation between the cultural, political ideologies of the collapsed empire and the ideals of the newly founded Republic. “Modernization” of society had to start somewhere, and Istanbul, the old empire’s capital, was the perfect place to manifest it.

Under Erdogan’s government, however, a new Neo-Ottoman context has emerged, and Istanbul, as the former Ottoman Capital, has played a central political and economic role. Ayse Oncu, sociologist, explains the correlation between Neo-Ottoman inclinations and the Neo-liberalization of large metropolises, like Istanbul, that present their ‘cultural heritage’ as a marketable commodity. [3] However, Oncu also notes that it’s not just about marketing, but also about forming a political identity for the city:

Many of the ancient monuments and heritage sites that symbolize the unique attractions of Istanbul in transnational markets refer back to layers of contested memories, dislocations and serial destructions that have been a part of nation-making. The designation of particular sites in the material fabric of the city (and not others) as ‘historical treasures’ has been accompanied by intense political debate, calling forth competing interpretations of different epochs in the city’s history.  More broadly, the mobilizations of Istanbul’s imperial legacy to articulate future aspirations for a ‘global’ future have challenged modernist imagination of the Republican past. [4]

Thus, Neo-Ottoman tendencies present in the city tend to challenge the official historiography set up by Republican period. These new interpretations of imperial legacy, which often collide with neo-liberal imperatives of development, are manifested spatially, as Oncu argues. There are some peculiar examples of this manifestation; most striking being recently built museums like Miniaturk and Panorama 1453, and the increasing number of new high-end residential developments that use Ottoman style facades and architectural typologies.

Courtesy of Plataforma Urbana

By rebuilding an old Ottoman-era building at what was once the most emblematic spot of Republican-era Istanbul, Taksim Square, we can assume that the government hopes to restore an imperial image to the core of the city. As Michael Kimmelman put it in the New York Times: “The prime minister’s vision of a big pedestrian plaza, with buried traffic, is intended to smooth out the square — to remake it into a neo-Ottoman theme park.”

Moreover, and most problematically for the Turkish people, the reconstruction is coming about simply because PM Erdogan would like it to. Erdogan, a product of his neo-liberal and neo-Ottoman beliefs, has always had a vested interest in the development and appearance of Istanbul. In the mid-1990s, when he was still mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan first stirred controversy by proposing building a mosque in Taksim Square. In the first speech after the protests first started, PM Erdogan announced that a mosque would be built next to the square, and that a new, larger opera house (in Baroque style, he added) would take the place of the AKM (Ataturk Cultural Center).

The AKM, a building which faces the square, is considered one of the most iconic modernist buildings of the Republican era – “professional groups, artists, and the intelligentsia in the left [have] claimed it not only physically, but also as an icon of republican modernism, as cultural heritage”. However, the municipality and the parliament decided to demolish it to build “a bigger and better” building in 2007.  After a brief renovation process, several lawsuits and disagreements between different constituencies brought the project to a halt. As a result, AKM – a symbol of modernism at odds with Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman aesthetic – today stands out in the middle of the square like a ghost building, supposedly under construction, with its doors closed to the public. It is little surprise that Erdogan’s plan demands its demolition.

Ataturk Cultural Center. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

After more than 20 years, Erdogan’s personal desires in regards to how Istanbul should look are finally being put into action, step by step.

And this is where the problem truly lies. Yes, the redevelopment of Taksim Square exemplifies the Neo-liberal tendencies embedded within the policies of the current government, solidifying the government’s reputation for trying to make a profit out of every single acre of land in the city, for turning public spaces into controlled and commoditized spaces. However, underlying concern with the government’s “‘visionary’ infrastructure and planning projects” – such as the Taksim project, or the 3rd Bridge over the Bosporus, or Canal Istanbul, or plans to build two new cities on the northern side of city – is not entirely about the projects themselves. It’s about the way they came about.

When Erdogan was up for election in 2011, a great part of his party’s platform were numerous, large-scale urban renewal projects meant to complement the centennial celebration of the Turkish Republic in 2023. Now that they’re in power, the elected government and the Municipality are not at all open to debate or criticsm concerning projects of such magnitude, giving the impression that anything can be implemented in the city without any dialogue with the country’s citizenry. Major decisions that have a direct impact on the city’s future, especially on its scarce greenery and water resources, are being taken under the orders of one man, the Prime Minister Erdogan, without consulting experts, in a totally random and highly authoritarian manner. Andrew Finkel of the New York Times calls the redevelopment of Taksim Square yet another example of a grand project “produced, not for the city residents, but despite them”. [5]

Despite this bleak picture, the public protests sparked in Taksim Square show the flipside of the coin, where rhetoric of “it’s the economy, stupid”, no longer holds the high ground, and the mounting resentment towards the government’s understanding of democracy, public participation, and urban policies in Turkey can be expressed.

Thousands of citizens crossing one of the bridges over the Bosphorus on foot as a demonstration. Image courtesy of Plataforma Urbana.

It is also no surprise that protests of this magnitude took place in Taksim Square. After all, the most essential function of Taksim Square historically has been as a “terrain of political practice”, where public political encounters, democratic negotiations, and political dissent have taken place. [6]

One only hopes that both the national government and Istanbul Municipality will eventually learn from what happened in Taksim and Gezi park, gain a better understanding of the dynamics of the city, and try to integrate different perspectives from various segments of the society into their plans, before the city finds itself in more mayhem in the future.

After all, a more democratic Turkey starts with a more democratically planned Istanbul.

Onur Ekmekci, born in Istanbul, is an architect and urban designer. He studied architecture at the City University of New York and worked at architectural offices in New York City.  He has also attended academic programs in Bauhaus Dessau (Germany), Berlage Institute (Netherlands), and obtained a master degree in Sustainable Urban Planning and Design from KTH-the Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden). Currently, he is an urban design researcher at City Form Lab at MIT/SUTD in Singapore. 

Sources Referenced

1. Polvan, Sinan, and Yonet, Neslihan Aydin, ”Story of Taksim Square’s Transformation: “From Death’s stillness to life’s Hubbub”, accessed at web.itu.edu.tr/~csuygar/iphs2010/abs/ID88.pdf

2. Ozdemir, Cuneyt, “Taksim’deki Cinayeti kor balikci bile gormuyor”, Radikal Newspaper, February 5th, 2012

3, 4. Oncu, Ayse, “The of Istanbul’s Ottoman heritage in the Era of Globalism: Refraction through the Prism of a Theme Park” accessed at: http://research.sabanciuniv.edu/9395/1/Ayse_Oncu.pdf

5. Finkel, Andrew, ”Ya ben Taksimi alacagim ya Taksim Beni”, accessed at: http://www.arkitera.com/haber/index/detay/ya-ben-taksimi-alacagim-ya-taksim-beni/6881

6. Baykan, Aysegul, and Hatuka, Tali, “Politics and culture in the making of Public space: Taksim Square, 1 May 1977 Istanbul, Planning Perspectives Vol.25, January 2010, 49-68

Cite: Onur Ekmekci. "When Urban Planning Gets Political: The History of Taksim Square" 14 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 01 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=388271>
  • nazanin

    Great article. It gives you a very comprehensive view on what is happenning to Taksim square intelligently by considering its history.I truly enjoyed readying it.

  • Mariano Managò

    taksim gezi parki: 74 acres
    tiergarten: 520 acres
    hyde park: 630 acres
    central park: 840 acres

    its not absoluetly the same size… but it means pretty much the same to them, because in Istanbul there is hardly any green public space.

    And anyway, they are not only fighting a demolishion but also their oppressive gouvernment… which is comprehensible…

  • Yaël

    Beautiful picture and a very well written article. Just stumbled over it. Go Onur!