The new Taksim, or the defeat of public space

Taksim Square, sitting at the top of a hill on the European shore of Istanbul, has always been a place to make an architectural statement. Until recent years, the bustling square and transport hub was bordered by a monument to Turkey’s secular founder, a large Greek Orthodox Church, a five-star hotel, a park and a cultural centre. Each generation sought to make its mark on the square.

“Every intervention in the square has been ideological,” said Mücella Yapıcı, the secretary of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, an umbrella group of architects, engineers and doctors that was among the strongest critics of the plans to build a shopping centre on top of the square’s Gezi Park, which led to widespread protests in 2013.

Yapıcı was arrested, along with other activists and many of those involved in the demonstrations that evolved into the biggest protests seen against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) since it came to power in 2002.

A new mosque, set to dominate Taksim Square, is almost finished, and the demolition of the Atatürk Cultural Centre (AKM), began a few weeks ago. A new opera house will be built in its place - backers of the project hope it will be as much a symbol of the city as the Bolshoi Theatre is of Moscow.

the demolition of the Atatürk Cultural Centre (AKM), began a few weeks ago.
the demolition of the Atatürk Cultural Centre (AKM), began a few weeks ago.

But Yapıcı said the government was taking a one-sided decision about a public space, which has been under the protection of the state since 1993.

“The construction of a mosque was first planned in 1980, but we stopped it. Now, they won’t listen to us. We have appealed the decision, but they haven’t even waited for the legal procedures to end,” she said. “It’s not a matter of agreeing or not with the current architecture. But with the concept of the square.”

The changes to Taksim Square are a threat to Istanbul’s historical heritage, but mostly to public discourse, Yapıcı said. “During the Ottoman Empire, there weren’t many squares to gather. This concept was taken up by the republic,” she said, “and since then Taksim has become the centre of the democratic fight.”

A new mosque, set to dominate Taksim Square, is almost finished
A new mosque is almost finished

At least 34 people were killed in Taksim Square in 1977 when gunmen opened fired on a May Day workers’ march. After that, the traditional May Day marches by leftist groups were barred from the square.

“Taksim has always been a meeting point. A representation of democracy,” said Yapıcı.

“It was an AKP government that allowed the May 1st celebrations again in Taksim. Although once they consolidated their power, they closed the square again,” she said.

The new layout of the square will not make gatherings any easier. “Taksim was a safe place to gather because of its many entrances. If anything happened during a large demonstration, people could escape to the nearby streets,” she explained.

“Since 2013, Taksim has become less of a place where spontaneous protests can occur,” said Professor Heghnar Watenpaugh, of the Art History department at the University of California Davis, and an expert on Ottoman architecture. “These new projects are making Taksim less relevant.”

Watenpaugh said the problem was not exclusive to Taksim, or Turkey. “We see how in many other places, like Beirut, public spaces have been turned into private spaces. Places for public demonstrations or public speech have become shopping centres. There is a visible change in how public spaces are beginning to function. More in line with commercial interests, than with political interests. We need to ask ourselves what will happen to human rights and free speech in transformations like these,” she said.

The significance of Taksim is not limited to the square and cannot be understood taking into account its surroundings. “Taksim is the representation of the liberal space and secularism,” said Yapıcı. In the 19th century, Beyoğlu, the district around Taksim, was home to many non-Muslim communities. The small historic houses, once characteristic of the area, are today disappearing and being replaced by new housing and offices projects. “It’s all about the money,” said Yapıcı.

Beyoğlu district mayor, Misbah Demircan, argues renewal is much needed and says some 650 historic buildings are about to collapse.

But some civil society groups have argued that many of the inhabitants of the old houses - mostly low-income Roma and Kurdish families, as well as refugees – are being summarily evicted. Short-term results are preferred over long-term goals that would help a larger segment of the population, the groups said.  

“There is nothing wrong with modernising,” said Watenpaugh. “But takeovers are not ok. If there has been no consultation, we should question how the project has been implemented and whether people agree with it.”

But for Yapıcı, there is a political issue at stake. “In the 19th century, Beyoğlu and Tarlabaşı were home to non-Muslim communities. Building a mosque in the heart of secularism is making a statement, and a display of power,” she said. “It is an environmental and social catastrophe.”

The origin of Taksim Square, whose name means ‘division’, dates back to 1732, when Sultan Mahmud I ordered the creation of a reservoir to collect water, so it could then be distributed, or divided, to the city. “In the 1730s all the water from Belgrade Forest was coming to Taksim. What remains of the water deposit is a small fraction. A piece of the wall, next to which they are building the mosque. This is an issue not only because of historical reasons, although under those remains there are probably more from the Byzantine area. It is a problem because that was a water deposit, and it is not a safe place to build anything there,” Yapıcı said.

If those weren’t sufficient reasons, as a woman Yapıcı said the new square also failed for women. “They are building tunnels everywhere. How do you think women feel about it? Walking through dark, underground areas where they previously fought for their rights”.

Taksim is clearly living up to its name.