Earlier this month, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the reconstruction of the Atatürk Cultural Center in Taksim Square despite potential hostility from Turkish activists and intelligentsia. At a time when President Erdoğan is working to consolidate his power in Turkey, his attempts to redevelop Taksim accentuate the regime’s intentions to place the heart of the city under Erdoğan’s ideological guise. The reconstruction of the opera house as a cultural and historical landmark reflects the regime’s intention to reconfigure Istanbul.

Word on the return of the redevelopment of the Taksim Square area is slowly making its way to headlines across Turkey, calling on a painful reminiscence of the four short years that have passed since protesters flooded the streets of the Beyoglu district with chants for reform. Taksim Square as we know it today continues to be the heart of modern Istanbul and serves as an important point of convergence for the city.

The redevelopment of the Taksim Square area is a sensitive subject among intellectuals in Istanbul – particularly the youth. When in 2013 Erdoğan announced he was moving forward with a plan to erect a shopping mall and reconstruct a defunct military barrack in the place of Gezi Park – one of the last green spaces in Istanbul – environmentalists and urbanists alike fought back. “Do whatever you want,” Erdoğan said at the time. “We have made our decision on Gezi Park.”

Shortly afterward, thousands flocked to Taksim to protest state violence and governmental corruption, resulting in the annulment of the redevelopment plan, among other concessions. In 2015, the plan enigmatically resurfaced on the city’s agenda, coinciding with the Ministry of Environment calling for regulatory exemptions of mandatory environmental impact assessments for shopping malls.

Gezi Park: History Unearthed

Gezi Park, which is located in the east of Taksim Square, was built in the late 19th century on the former Halil Pasha Military Barracks, the reconstruction of which was a part of the 2013 redevelopment plan. As significant as Gezi Park is to the landscape of Istanbul, the land it was built on speaks to a darker side of Turkey’s history. During excavation under the park in 2013, tombstones of the Pangaltı Armenian Cemetery were discovered (link in Turkish), revealing that the space was previously a graveyard of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenians who faced a gruesome genocide – one that Turkey has denied for decades. The discovery initiated a societal dialogue around the Armenian Genocide. Protesters in 2013 even erected a makeshift tombstone to commemorate the cemetery that served as a staunch reminder of the Republic’s past.

The discovery did not deter President Erdoğan from making plans for the Square, given that Taksim is one of the city’s most significant spaces. This is also true of his plans to reconstruct the military barracks of the army that exterminated the Armenian people in the 20th century, further highlighting how urban policy in Istanbul and the social and political dynamics of the city symbiotically feed into Istanbul’s fabric. It is no coincidence that Erdoğan and those before him have ignored this gross historical erasure since ideological histories are key in augmenting a strong regime intact. For Erdoğan, the hype around developing the city, necessary to maintain his vision of a “New Turkey,” has not spared residential and public areas alike.

Taksim Square. (CC: Leandro Neumann Cluffo)

Grandeur and Luxury in Istanbul’s Marginalized Communities

Under the Ottomans, ethnic, religious and linguistic plurality thrived in neighborhoods across Istanbul. But in today’s Istanbul, the neighborhoods that the Ottoman Empire’s Greeks, Armenians and Jews lived in no longer house the same people – although neighborhoods like Osmanbey, Balat and Fener, among others, still maintain a degree of cultural and historical influence. Urban policy in Istanbul has had a tendency to ensure the removal of these influences in order to maintain a “Turkified” urban fabric. These proto-nationalist policies have also tainted other areas that, for some reason or another, do not align with the government’s vision for urban spaces in Istanbul.

Tarlabaşı, a low-income and minority neighborhood, is a short walk from Gezi Park. The area is notorious for prostitution, a flaring crime rate and houses refugees and minority groups. The Taksim 360 development project is a real-estate project that began in early 2016 and is spearheaded by a private company aimed at rejuvenating the area surrounding Taksim − more specifically Tarlabaşı. In the process, the project is expelling lower-income and illegal tenants to make room for higher-income Istanbulites who will bring in more money. This is part of a more expansive movement in Istanbul that has been taking place since the early 2000s that has been evicting low-income tenants to renovate buildings and raise their value on the market.

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Conceptual sketch of Taksim 360 that is to be built in Tarlabaşı. (CC: Taksim 360)

Despite grandiose billboards and trucks crowding the streets between Istiklal Caddessi and Tarlabaşı, the project has inadvertently slowed down. Erdoğan’s plans to redevelop the Taksim area do not stem from concerns over affordable or sustainable housing, but, rather, hopes of building a lucrative real estate market in areas currently off the market’s radar and bringing in more high-income residents. As wide-scale as these projects are, other policy concerns are prioritized over urban policy, leaving no room for debate on how the government deals with development of the city. Some have considered these megaprojects an attempt to subtly gentrify areas to create an aesthetic to appeal for investors and house owners-to-be. While this seems to be the case with Fener and Balat, where Brooklyn-type, hipster cafes have sprung up, it is not necessarily what is happening with Tarlabaşı, which is more of a case of blunt socio-economic and demographic reconfiguration.

During his time as mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan was celebrated for restoring Beyoğlu, the district Taksim falls under, to its former glory. It was his efforts that closed down the brothels of Cihangir, allowing it to become a more affluent area, catering mostly to foreigners today. While mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan won over the support of many Istanbulites based on the premise of his success.

Although these successes are very well-warranted, the current redevelopment project cannot be attributed to the same premise. The neoliberalization of Istanbul’s redevelopment is coming at the cost of its most vulnerable and is for Erdoğan’s own benefit. According to Fred Paxton, Istanbul remains one of the ruling party’s most crucial electoral voting regions, giving the president every more reason to focus on shaping Istanbul to fit his vision of the city. It is clear that these projects follow the same agenda reflected in his policies, which serve to purge Istanbul of what he views as not conducive to the “New Turkey.”

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Tarlabaşı, the neighborhood that the Beyoğlu municipality is trying to privatize. (CC: Quinn Comendant)

Forced Rebuilding & The Nationalist Agenda

The unscrupulous reappearance of the redevelopment plan of Taksim Square on the city’s agenda in 2015 joins Erdoğan’s meticulous plan for the reconfiguring of urban spaces in Istanbul. The announcement of the plan for the refurbishing of the opera house comes after the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi (AKM) or Ataturk Cultural Center was closed in 2008 for renovation; a plan that never materialized. However, the politics behind the plan are deeply rooted in the larger scheme of Erdoğan’s rationale for Istanbul’s urban redevelopment.

Construction of the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi began in 1946 under architects Rüknettin Güney and Feridun Kip and was not completed until 1969 due to bureaucratic and financial constraints. A devastating fire broke out the following year, which took eight years to repair, with the center reopening in 1978. In 1993, it was registered as an “urban protectorate” and was ironically categorized “expired” in 2005.

During his announcement, President Erdoğan said he hoped the new Opera House will be a reflection of Turkey’s modernization efforts and a symbolic landmark of pride for Istanbul. The Opera House will borrow the design of the façade of the AKM, which bodes well for Erdoğan’s ambition to “draw inspiration from the past into the future.” The new opera house will hold up to 2,500 guests, almost double the capacity of the AKM, and will consist of two theaters, a cinema and a conference hall. The need for the new opera house stems from the closing down of AKM, leaving no adequate facilities to host the state opera and ballet performances. For Erdoğan, there lies much to gain from expanding his spheres of influence – especially at a time when his ideological inclinations and policies are under scrutiny from within and beyond the Republic. However, like the forefather of the Turkish Republic before him, Erdoğan knows that safeguarding his support needs a vanguard.

It is no surprise that Erdoğan chose not to completely level the AKM building, especially since the building’s minimalist architecture is a relic of the Kemalisation of Turkey. Desecrating or defacing symbols of Turkey’s founder is a criminal offence in Turkey, explaining why the general gaze towards altering statues or changing names that idolize Atatürk is one of disdain. This does not prevent him from changing how the building is perceived or the role it plays in Turkish society. In other words, the construction of the opera house, albeit maintaining the look and function of the previous cultural center, is still part and parcel of a larger campaign to transform the urban and social fabric of Istanbul.

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Frontal view of the facade of the old Atatürk Cultural Center. (CC: Graham Anderson)

Dr. Hay Yanarocak, in his comparison  between the Republic’s founding father and Erdoğan, believes Erdoğan’s policies can be characterized by two traits: paternal leadership and a monopolizing presence in public spaces. Today’s Turkish Republic, the “New Turkey,” as Erdoğan himself has called it, is no different from Atatürk’s Turkey. The two leaders, however, fundamentally diverge in matters of ideology. The attempted reconstruction of the military barracks as well as the 2013 plan to uproot Gezi Park are in tandem with Erdoğan’s vision for Istanbul as cultural capital of the Republic. And in spite of his efforts to reconstruct parts of the city, his policies – even during his time as mayor – exhibited an apathy for the gecekondu (squatters), ethnic and sexual minorities and immigrants – both legal and illegal. They have also consistently uprooted low-income tenants across Istanbul and in Tarlabaşı to be specific.

Taksim’s new opera house sparked outrage between Erdoğan’s political party members, AKP, and the Kemalists (supporters of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) since many expected Erdoğan to rename the AKM building in Taksim Square. Having survived an attempted military coup a little over a year ago, Erdoğan continues to tread carefully in order to maintain his monopoly on power. For now, the original development plan for Taksim Square has come to a standstill as part of the agreement between Erdoğan and the protestors in 2013. However, it does not seem like he has quelled his visionary ambitions for transforming Istanbul into the capital of New Turkey – a daunting, yet important realization for the future of Istanbul as an urban space.

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View of Taksim Square before recent renovations (CC: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo)