Destruction for profit: the silhouette of "New Turkey"
The urban landscapes of cities are undergoing a rapid change all over the world, and nowhere more so than Istanbul, where the city’s architecture has been shaped for decades by the government’s ideological mission.
Huge shopping malls and public housing skyscrapers host a population that has leapt to around 20 million people. The government claims this is a sign of economic progress, yet municipalities had to start selling subsidized vegetables this week due to high inflation and exploding consumer prices.
Prestige projects like the country’s largest mosque and the world’s largest represent the ambitious political model of a “New Turkey” that was formally inaugurated last year, when the country transitioned to an executive presidential system under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Political decisions are now highly centralised, and the media is mostly under the control of the state. Sidestepping the limited space for pluralist political discussion, artists have started going deeper with their own forms of expression, developing metaphorical frameworks to analyse the dystopian realities of Istanbul’s changing topography and their political impacts.
“Speculative Spaces” is the title of an exhibition running until February 25 at Kare Sanat gallery in Istanbul’s European district of Maçka. It includes works from seven artists on the concept of space, its usage and its effect on the individual.
Artist Seydi Murat Koç uses motifs of the aircraft attacks on the World Trade Center in NYC on September 11 and combines them with current crashes in the landscape of Istanbul. The Atatürk Cultural Center was a milestone in the iconography of the modernist Kemalist republic. While a mosque was being constructed opposite of its ruins on Taksim square last year, the building was demolished. In Koç’s ironic interpretation this is an attack on central symbols in the city.
Buildings are used in Turkey as a manifestation of power. Turkish artists responded to this when they took an active role in the Gezi Park protests in 2013. Outcry at the government’s plans to build a shopping mall in the shape of a historic Ottoman barracks complex on the park caused demonstrators to occupy the central Taksim Square, where Gezi Park is located. The front side of the Atatürk Cultural center was used during the protests as a huge billboard for political messages.
Artist Murat Germen documents the central urban transformation processes in photographs and analyzes them in his digital montages. Using the latest digital tools like drones and specialist lenses, he displays apocalyptic dystopian landscapes in large-scale photoprints. To contrast this, the artist manufactures the effect of rapid urbanization on the individual in sensitively constructed small-scale collages.
Curator İpek Yeğinsü underlines that artistic forms are a way to continue a necessary public discussion that is no longer taking place in the political realm.
“At the moment, voicing criticism too directly is risky in the tense political situation,” she said. “That's why the language of art is much more sophisticated. It subtly provides a more stable platform to express our themes in the safe environment of a metaphorical language in an artistic space.”
Some artists are nevertheless doing extensive field work in public. Germen was trained as an architect and city planner before he shifted to the field of art and photography. He is the photographer with the most extensive archive on the contemporary transformation of Istanbul.
As a Professor at Sabancı University, he researches topics like the erasure of memory in Shanghai and Istanbul in a comparative international frame. “For me it is central to monitor and to analyze the development of a city. Where does it come from and where is it going?” he said.
For years, Germen has photographed the development of Istanbul's Fikirtepe quarter from a green patch to a dystopian urban landscape. Residents have been lured in recent years with the prospect of luxury apartments. Now many of them are on the streets because the construction company has gone bankrupt. The tenants’ houses have been demolished but have not been replaced.
Engin Akgüzel is one of those affected. His father migrated from the Eastern Anatolian Province of Tunceli to Istanbul. He bought land in Fikirtepe, where he built a three-storey house.
“As children we helped in the construction. Everyone in the family, my father, my mother, my brothers and sisters, worked hard,” Akgüzel said.
The house the Akgüzel family built became their home for 40 years, in a neighborhood that at one time had a close-knit, small-town character. People grew fruits and vegetables and would keep close ties with their neighbors.
In 2005, Fikirtepe was declared as an area for urban redevelopment, and the danger of earthquakes was used to convince people to agree to the replacement of their houses with large, earthquake-resistant apartment blocks.
But many like Engin Akgüzel resisted the development, until the government threatened to nationalize their property “for the public interest”. To avoid this, residents signed a contract with a company known for its good relations with the government.
“They came here with former prime minister Yıldırım Akbulut and promised to make our life conditions better,” Akgüzel said.
The houses were demolished in 2016, and up to now nothing exists in their place except a huge excavation site. Not a single flat has been built.
Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has pushed through laws facilitating the nationalisation of residential neighbourhoods “for the public interest” throughout its reign, which started in 2002. Critics say the practice amounts to a series of land grabs for the benefit of construction companies close to the government.
The Chamber of Engineers and Architects in Istanbul has embarked on a series of legal battles against the land grabs, which have included the seizure of its own building in the Yıldız district as well as historic buildings and areas around the city.
The chamber has set up a website to document its struggle against the rampant development in the name of the public interest, which is set to be launched in the coming weeks. A list of the cases examined on the site is already available, detailing the enormous amount of destruction that has already been incurred by development projects.
One of these is Galataport, a development still in progress in the harbor area of Karaköy, one of the most picturesque parts of the historical inner city. The character of this beloved part of the city will soon change completely, once the glass facades of the new project are complete.
Architect Gül Köksal knows well the dangers of opposing the AKP government. As one of thousands who signed a peace petition in 2016 that criticized the military response to Kurdish insurgents in the country’s mainly Kurdish southeast, Köksal and hundreds of her fellow signatories have been put on trial by courts that many say have become extensions of the government’s will.
Despite being dismissed by decree from her academic position and facing charges of “supporting a terrorist organisation” since signing the petition, Köksal has continued her work as an activist opposing the “urban crimes” carried out against vulnerable communities in the city in the name of the public good.
“I am researching the demolition of cultural heritage for ideological reasons” she said, explaining that her work has focused on the demolition of a historic Romani settlement in Sulukule, on Istanbul’s European side.
“Sulukule was planned to be a hip quarter for conservative Islamic intellectuals since it is close to Fatih, a historical quarter with some important mosques” Köksal said.
Instances similar to the cleansing of Sulukule have occurred across Turkey, and Köksal and other architects from Istanbul are planning a trip in March to the southeast Turkish city of Diyarbakır’s historic quarter, Sur, much of which has been demolished as Turkish armed forces suppressed a Kurdish uprising.
“Until today more than half of the old city’s structures have been demolished” Köksal said. “It is even forbidden to take photos to hide this reality from the public”.
Together with the Chamber of Architects in Diyarbakır, the group from Istanbul is planning alternative ways to visualize and document the ongoing destruction during their trip in late March, which will take place as the country heads towards local elections.
“We will do workshops on drawing, creative narrating and mapping to try to bypass prosecution,” Köksal said.
Art, however, is by no means a sure protection from legal pressures. Turkish-Kurdish painter and Journalist Zehra Doğan has been sentenced in 2017 to two years, nine month and 22 days prison for creating a painting which depicted the destruction caused by Turkish security forces in the Nusaybin district of Mardin, a city close to Syria, and photographer Leyla Rojin was forced to leave Turkey due to a collection of photographs of Diyarbakır, Nusaybin and Cizre, cities where large areas have been levelled in the recent conflict.
“In Istanbul most people don’t understand what is going on in these areas” Gül Köksal said, underlining the importance of continuing political activism despite the danger of prosecution.
“We need to keep being visible, we have no other chance,” said the architect, whose court-case continues in March.