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Urban Utopias and How They Fell Apart

[ ["Gezi Garden," photographed on 8 June. Image by Carole Woodall.]

Taksim: A Political Ecology

The uprising that started with Taksim Square’s Gezi Park in Istanbul on 28 May emerged as a unique movement of resistance in Turkey’s history and has continued without interruption in the last several weeks. The Gezi Park Movement will be remembered as a successful mass movement of youth activism whose main purpose has been to reclaim public space in the cities in Turkey and the rural countryside, a political ecology that is under threat from the government’s neo-liberal utopias of development and capital intervention. The protestors on the streets have proven that they care deeply for their environment and have put themselves at risk in reclaiming their rights to the public space in Turkey.

The movement erupted at a moment of deep frustration among the educated and young urban crowds across the country, following a series of radical interventions by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government against public space and human ecology. These include the decision to construct a third bridge across the Bosphorus; the ruthless opening of the Turkish countryside and its riverine landscapes to the construction of numerous power plants and hydro-electric dams; Prime Minister Erdoğan’s personally favored project of a massive new canal to connect the Black and Marmara Seas, and the opening of the canal’s environs to the construction of a new urban landscape; the recent consolidation of the ministries of public works (Bayındırlık) and environment (Çevre), which practically removed the checks and balances between urban development and environmental protection; and the gradual selling of Atatürk Orman Çiftliği, the forested landscape and modernist farm established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to secure a massive green space in Ankara and illustrate exemplary agricultural practices.

The examples are endless. According to news reports, Erdoğan’s canal project will open a currently forested landscape to development that will feature hotels, shopping malls, a convention center, a new airport, and housing complexes. The proposal is basically to build a new Istanbul beside the old one. With this project, Erdoğan connects himself with Ottoman imperial projects of opening similar canals between the Marmara and Black Seas: the historical precedents of such a project go back to Süleyman the Magnificent and his architect Mimar Sinan in the sixteenth century. This Ottoman legacy in the official discourse of Erdoğan’s government marks an important reversal of the long-term nationalist discourse of the secular state in Turkey, which had distanced itself from the Ottoman past for the construction of a Turkish identity fully entangled with European modernism. This is a massive topic to cover in such a short piece, but I believe it to be the core issue at the heart of the debate over Taksim’s Gezi Park.

Bruno Latour famously opens the introduction to his book Politics of Nature (2004) with a radical statement: “What is to be done with political ecology? Nothing. What is to be done? Political ecology!” Political ecology concerns the place- and space-based struggles of local communities across the world in coming to terms with development projects and the effects of globalization. It is about people’s very human claims to their rights to local resources such as water, land, clean air, biodiversity, and cultural heritage. It offers a platform for public debate and engagement for activists, public intellectuals, and civil rights organizations to connect with communities globally in their emancipatory quest for human rights. For academics also, such platforms of political ecological thinking offer extraordinary opportunities to ground their work in engagements with activist communities around the world, and to give support to those struggles for natural resources and human rights that are relentlessly challenged by national governments and multinational corporations.  

Topçu Kışlası: Artillery Barracks as Shopping Mall

Erdoğan’s long-term dream has been to claim Taksim Square’s Gezi Park in order to rebuild the “Topçu Kışlası,” which was the military barracks (a.k.a. Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks) completed in 1806 and designed by the Armenian architect Krikor Balyan as part of the military reforms of Selim III. These artillery barracks occupied a massive space in Taksim, with an expansive courtyard and rectilinear structures, and was located adjacent to a major Armenian cemetery in its vicinity—the Surp Hagop Pangaltı Cemetery. Topçu Kışlası remained historically at the center of a vivid, contested place in Istanbul’s urban landscape. By the second half of nineteenth century, it had already lost its significance as military barracks and had become the site of various public spectacles and events. It also was the site of 31st March Incident in 1909: the conservative religious uprising against the restoration of the constitution by the Young Turk revolution. The heavily damaged barracks were demolished in the 1940s, giving way to a landscape design by Henri Prost, a well-known French city planner.

Erdoğan found a brilliant solution for Taksim Square and Gezi Park: to revoke this controversial episode in late Ottoman history by building a replica of the early nineteenth-century design of the military barracks. To kill two birds with one stone, the barracks would also be turned into a shopping mall and hotel, a money-making urban development project. The symbolism of this takeover also seems to be related to the long-term Islamist desire to crown Taksim Square with a massive mosque and abolish its secular history; this has been discussed quite a bit in the past. So the conflict over Taksim Square is a long-term and thorny one, not simply a matter of keeping its gorgeous, hundred-year-old sycamore trees alive.

Urban Utopias

Two years ago, when I lived very close to Taksim, I saw an exhibit, funded by the Istanbul Cultural Capital of Europe Agency, called “Hayal-et Yapılar” (“Ghost Buildings”). It was a visually stunning exhibition about urban memories, ruins, and the imagination of a city’s own past meshed with post-modern scenarios that featured twelve examples of Istanbul’s long-lost buildings with an air of “if they still existed, what would they look like today?” Topçu (or Taksim) Kışlası was presented there as a live urban space beaming with life, and those images have stuck in my mind ever since. Recently, I was told that the Prime Minister actually appropriated this imagined, tongue-in-cheek visual scenario as if it were a real architectural project—and used it in a presentation in June 2011 to promote his plans for Gezi Park and Taksim Square.

The Gezi Park movement itself has shown the power of visual representation in the politics of public space, especially through iconic photographs and graphic art. So the case of the virtually re-imagined barracks requires us to take visuality ever more seriously in the debates over public space.

In the world of architectural design and historic preservation, where I come from, rebuilding or replicating a long-vanished building that existed in the distant past is an anachronistic and dangerous act, especially if you are rebuilding the structure in its original location. Benito Mussolini, for example, celebrated the two-thousandth anniversary of the first Roman Emperor Augustus’s birth by having his architects create a stern looking architectural ensemble around the restored and rebuilt Mausoleum of Augustus in the 1930s. Many buildings around the Mausoleum were demolished for this project and replaced with monumental buildings on four sides with solemn façades. Mussolini was fascinated with the historical legacy of the Roman Empire and particularly Augustus, and associated his own imperialist vision with this legacy. His ideologically well-calculated vision found its utopic design in Rome’s public spaces. This kind of intervention into urban space promotes and boldly recreates select episodes from the complex and layered history of the place, while it silences or erases other unwanted layers of urban heritage embedded in that same place.  

Erdoğan’s plans for Taksim Square seem to resonate well with this example, if we replace the Roman imperial legacy with the Ottoman one. The AKP government’s interest in reviving the Ottoman military barracks in Taksim can be seen in the light of their neo-Ottoman ideologies on the one hand, and their vested interest in developing this square into a commercial rather than a public space on the other hand. This Neo-Ottoman military architectural framework, coupled with its capitalist content, summarizes perfectly Erdoğan’s late vision of Turkey’s development. Demolishing Gezi Park and rebuilding it as a shopping mall in the form of military barracks will not only deprive Istanbul of one of its rare green spaces in the midst of a densely urban zone, but it will also erase the memories and layered remains of a history to which the people of Istanbul are firmly attached.

How the Urban Utopias Fell Apart

Erdoğan’s historicist-neoliberal utopia fell apart on 28 May, when contractors started bulldozing Gezi Park and uprooting its trees and this illegal demolition met with its first resistance from the people of Istanbul. The local government’s frantic attempts to make this demolition a quickly done deal is now a well-known strategy seen all too frequently in Turkish cities in the last few years. Places of symbolic significance and public memory, such as Emek Movie Theater in Istanbul or Ankara’s Havagazı Fabrikası (Gasworks Factory) are hurriedly bulldozed to end the debates and opposing voices. But in this case, the small-scale resistance to the bulldozing of Gezi Park led to a massive youth movement that successfully deconstructed Erdoğan’s urban utopia.  

The Gezi Park movement rises on the shoulders of many ecologically conscious, human rights focused, grassroots movements around the world, such as the Bolivian water wars of 1999-2000. The movement is contributing to the history of such movements by creating critical platforms for reclaiming public space for the public, and away from the hands of political actors and their ambitious projects. The Gezi Park movement redefined the ontological status of this public space by engaging deeply with social media networks—Facebook and Twitter in particular—making them part of this public space and combining the virtual, discursive, and architectural environments as one. Social media networks became strategic tools for activating space and mobilizing people. The so-called pots and pans protest that covered massive areas in the cities created soundscapes of resistance across neighborhoods without necessarily filling the streets, which were under the control of the police.

Among the recently developed strategies of resistance are the “standing man” silent gatherings that spontaneously form in public squares, often facing in a symbolically charged direction. Commemorative gatherings and spontaneous monuments formed at sites where protestors have been shot and killed, and the vocal, free speech debate platforms (“neighborhood forums”) that are currently taking place in hundreds of park gatherings form the variety of creative, performative, and spontaneous ways of claiming urban space as a space of freedom against the attempts of the state to control these urban landscapes, either by tear gas or through shopping mall projects.

Public space in this context is not an empty city square one passes by on the way to work or where one goes for a stroll in the late afternoon. It is the space of democracy and free speech, where one can literally breathe that freedom. During the demonstrations in Taksim and elsewhere in Turkey in the last several weeks, those who wanted to get hold of public space had to gasp for that very breath, occupied as it was by the bitter, burning taste of the pepper gas generously provided by the police.

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