The Atatürk Cultural Centre and ideological "urban renewal"

In 2007, when the Chinese curator Hou Hanru arrived in Istanbul to organise the 10th Istanbul Biennial exhibition, the decision for one of that year’s venues was obvious.

“When you arrive in Taksim, you cannot miss this building, it is a monument”, he said, “you can tell from the first glance there is a very interesting history behind it.”

Hanru was describing the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM), the striking opera house and arts venue that dominates the east end of Taksim Square, and an important work of Turkish modernist architecture.In the halls within, the people of Istanbul have long enjoyed performances of plays, ballet, opera, and classical music. 

Yet, despite its iconic place on Istanbul’s landscape, the AKM was closed shortly after Hanru’s biennial, and remained in a state of limbo for almost a decade as plans around the centre were continually withdrawn or faced legal challenges.

Then, on Nov. 1, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced conclusively that the AKM was to be demolished, and a new centre erected in its place.

The announcement marks a final chapter in an unfortunate history; the building was finally opened in 1969 after a 16-year delay, only to be closed again for seven years when a fire broke out during a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible the next year.

It also spells the end of a protracted battle that pitted citizens, civil society groups and architects, desperate to renovate and preserve the centre, against a government that was unwaveringly eager to knock it down.

In fact, Taksim and the wider Beyoğlu area have been the ground for many such battles throughout the reign of Erdoğan's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).

These are evident in the many “urban renewal” projects around the area: the decision in 2012 to demolish and replace the historic Emek Cinema with a shopping mall; the gentrification of nearby Tarlabaşı, an old Greek neighbourhood that had become a run-down area of cheap housing; and the Galataport  project down the hill in Karaköy, which has turned over almost the entire seaside neighbourhood to Doğuş Holdings, one of Turkey’s largest congolomerates.

This “urban renewal” is one aspect of an unrestrained subordination of public space to commercial interests that has come to characterise the AKP’s municipal governance and fuelled the economy throughout its rule.

But in cases like the AKM project, it also represents a deeper debate on the country’s politics and culture: the demolition of republican monuments to build recreations of Ottoman structures is an explicit rebuke of republican historiography.  And the symbolic weight that Taksim, in particular, holds for republican Turks means that these schemes are interpreted not only as neoliberal profiteering, but as an attack on their values.

This sentiment was a driving force leading hundreds of thousands to protest another such project, which aimed to rebuild the Ottoman military barracks over Gezi Park – a structure that, naturally, was intended to house another shopping mall.
The shadow of the 2013 protests looms large over the AKM affair; in fact, Erdoğan himself tied the two together shortly after protestors occupied Taksim Square, by vowing not only to go ahead with the barracks project, but to knock down the cultural centre and build a mosque. Protesters, in turn, transformed the AKM into a giant billboard for anti-government slogans.

Atatürk Cultural Centre

Erdogan has, since then, dropped talk of the mosque, but his statements on the new AKM project are no less confrontational. Speaking at the Presidential Palace last Tuesday, Erdogan levelled a broadside at Turkey’s modernist period as a whole.

The forces at play throughout these years, according to the President, “alienated people from themselves, their families, their environment, the society they lived in, and everything else in the world”.

Yet Turkish modernism, of which the AKM is an icon, was a product of the early Republican years, and epitomises the Kemalist aspirations of that period.

For all the intricacies of the debate around it, the new centre’s design does appear impressive. In charge of the project is Murat Tabanlioglu, the son of Hayati Tabanlioglu, the old building’s architect. The new design retains the characteristic façade of the old building, while a modular design will increase the size of the centre, which will house a library and restaurant as well as a cinema and theatre stages.

Nevertheless, opponents of the project will take little comfort from this promise, and will take none from the circumstances around it. The centre, like the land on which the Presidential Palace was built, or land illegally seized from Middle East Technical University to build a road, was supposedly a legally protected site, having been registered by the Istanbul Protection board as a cultural asset in 2007.

But Erdogan has vowed, “whatever you do, the AKM will be demolished”, and it is difficult currently to imagine any legal challenge carrying more force than the president’s words.