Political engagement in contemporary democracies can easily be reduced to private individuals voting separately in anonymity. Yet, politics is a state of constant negotiation, preferably where individuals are in each other’s presence to articulate their public concerns. Perhaps, as a physical space, the meydan comes closest in this day and age to what Hannah Arendt calls “space of appearance” in the polis, where being in public is synonymous with politics. Istanbul’s Taksim Meydanı is such a space, a product of the clash between citizens and authorities that have attempted to remake the meydan to reflect their political agendas since the founding of the Turkish Republic.
As a response to Taksim Pedestrianization Project’s attempt to entirely remake the heart of Istanbul without public consultations, the Gezi protest of summer 2013 drew hundreds of thousands to Taksim and Gezi Park. The planned appropriation of one of the city’s last standing public green areas as a retail space produced an unprecedented challenge to Taksim’s transformation in accordance with the incumbent government’s wishes alone. The 7 June 2015 elections in Turkey, which saw the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) lose parliamentary majority, arguably occurred in a political environment shaped by the Gezi resistance.
Coverage of the protests had portrayed the confrontations as “so much more than a park.” While the protests were symptomatic of political frustration beyond the spatial, it would be misleading to overlook the spatial politics that sparked the uprising. The Taksim Pedestrianization Project was a last straw in a series of planning interventions across Istanbul, marked by the accelerating pace of urban transformation through the overhaul of planning regulations in the last decade. Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners notes that they have had to file about 276 lawsuits in the last two years alone due to violations of planning regulations. The General Directorate of Cultural and Natural Heritage had already ruled against the Taksim Pedestrianization Project in early June 2013, when protestors had just begun occupying Gezi Park. Two years after the protests, the Plan is still contested in court, leaving Taksim in a state of flux—half pedestrianized, half underground, half controlled, half abandoned.
Meydan is defined in Turkish as “an open field,” “a place for recreation, contests and meetings.” In the eighteenth century, Taksim was a vast clearing, home to an intricate water distribution system, equestrian circus companies and traveling salesmen. Though a far sight from today’s concrete plateau surrounded by office buildings, hotels, a defunct opera house, döner shops, and a forlorn park, Taksim still retains a dynamism that is unique to meydans.
[Taksim, seen from Gezi Park on a Friday afternoon, accommodates the influx of millions on a daily basis (photo by Sera Tolgay)]
Lebanese writer Fadi Tofeili associates a meydan with flowing liquid and movement across the earth’s surface, which “resembles how masses of people once roved the earth and its topography.” Meydans primarily facilitate this flow of people and spaces. Istanbul’s Taksim, as a public transport hub fed by six busy streets, accommodates the influx of millions on a daily basis.
A meydan, however, is an unremarkable place—it is essentially a node, a junction of axes. According to architectural critic Doğan Kuban, there was no intentional planning of meydans in Ottoman cities, with the exception of eighteenth century public neighborhood fountains as sites of water distribution that came close to creating squares in their surroundings. A “square,” in contrast, is “an open, typically four-sided, area surrounded by buildings.” Architect and urban designer Rob Krier describes squares as spaces that are defined in reference to the structures around it, which is an arrangement that has historically allowed a high degree of control of the inner space. By evading this intentionality of a square, the meydan represents dynamism and a sense of collective will, as in the case of Istanbul’s Taksim Meydanı, and likewise in Cairo’s Mīdān al Taḥrīr and Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Meydan is also used figuratively to mean “an opportunity, a possibility” in Turkish. Indeed, the fluidity of meydans allows for their use as sites of transit, congregation, and at times, as opportunities for political expression.
Different governments have attempted to control and remake Taksim to reflect their political agendas since the founding of the Turkish Republic. French planner Henri Prost and Istanbul mayor Lütfi Kırdar’s collaboration in the 1940s represented the modern ideals of the new secular republic in public space. This resulted in the construction of Haussmanian boulevards created at the expense of civilian architecture. “The beautification” of Istanbul, in the words of Kırdar, included the demolition of Topçu Kışlası, an artillery barracks dating back to 1806, to make room for Gezi Park. Kırdar initially named the park “İnönü Gezisi” (İnönü Esplanade), in honor of the second Turkish president İsmet İnönü. In the new Republican era, the demolition of the barracks was a clear separation between the cultural and political ideologies of the Ottoman Empire and the ideals of the newly founded Republic—civic rights, Westernization, secularism.
Aron Angel, who oversaw the first master development plan for Istanbul with Prost, had dedicated himself to the Park No.2 Project, an extended green area overlooking the Bosphorus, stretching from Gezi Park to the hillsides of Dolmabahçe. The construction of Hilton Hotel at the edge of Gezi Park in 1952, marking the beginnings of the post-WWII era under the influence of the Marshall Plan, disrupted the continuity of the expansive public realm that Angel had envisioned. When it was announced that Hilton Hotel would be built within Park No.2, Angel resigned. “I am ashamed,” he stated in his resignation letter, “to work for an organization where personal interests seem to be the order of the day.”
Decades after Angel’s resignation, politicization of planning is still very acute in Taksim and its surroundings. Atatürk Culture Center (AKM), the iconic opera building originally conceived by Mayor Kırdar, has been abandoned since 2008, awaiting restoration. There have been speculations that the opera building will be demolished to make room for a mosque. The plans to build a mosque in Taksim, however, is by no means novel—the Taksim Mosque proposal of the 1990s was tabled with the 1997 military memorandum that saw the end of Necmettin Erbakan’s government. Architect Mücella Yapıcı, from the Turkish Union of Chambers of Engineers and Architects, points out that all governments have sought to remake Taksim in their own image. “This recurrent ideological imposition,” according to Yapıcı “shows that the incumbents always want to leave their signs in symbolic spaces like Taksim.”
[The demolished wall of Gezi Park with the now-defunct Atatürk Culture Centerin the background (photo by Sera Tolgay)]
While Taksim has been subjected to the reigning political agendas, it has also been the focal stage for demonstrations. The unstable political context of the 1970s saw a bloody clash between the right-wing central government and left-leaning municipal powers. The May 1977 demonstration in Taksim—drawing thousands from unions, teachers’ associations, doctors, youth groups from across the country—permanently changed Taksim, its memories evoked by old timers who took to the same location for the Gezi protests. In a city of meydans, Taksim is certainly the meydan that still accommodates resistance to top-down control.
As with previous governments, AKP had its own vision for what beautification meant for Taksim. Taksim Pedestrianization Project’s attempt to reclaim Topçu Kışlası as a historic monument and its planned use as a retail center to be constructed in Gezi Park was a symbolic gesture—a case of neo-Ottoman image making and a comeback against the Republican leadership of the 1940s that saw the building’s destruction. The battle over the park’s fate became a reference point throughout the Gezi protests, which grew out of a small sit-in staged by environmentalists, planners and architects of the Taksim Solidarity Group.
In addition to the transformation of Gezi Park, the Plan also intended to make Taksim “pedestrian-friendly” by constructing underpasses to replace Tarlabaşı, Cumhuriyet, and Inönü boulevards and direct traffic underground. Cumhuriyet Boulevard has already gone through this transformation: hundreds of sycamore trees were uprooted, starting in October 2012, for the construction of the Harbiye-Tarlabaşı underpass through Taksim. “Pedestrian-friendly” in this case is a misnomer; critics see the “sea of concrete” that now covers Taksim as an example of roadside urbanism. If the plans were fully realized without a sizable backlash like the Gezi resistance, Taksim would effectively become the “rooftop of a giant car park,” in the words of Yapıcı.
“Trees everywhere, and rising from among them noble examples of architecture. Everywhere the houses are surrounded by trees; a charming partnership between man and nature,” wrote Le Corbusier of Istanbul in 1929, in his “The City of To-morrow.” Far from Le Corbusier’s impressions of the city, with only six square meters of green open space per city dweller —below the minimum standard set by World Health Organization—Istanbul ranks very low among other cities today in providing its residents with public green spaces. Taksim Pedestrianization Project, to the extent that it has been carried out, has not helped these statistics.
Faced with the deployment of top-down plans of “beautification,” which represents one particular view wielded through power, Istanbul lacks participation and preservation. This is especially accurate in the district of Beyoğlu, an urban protected area that houses hundreds of national heritage and civilian architecture monuments around Taksim. “While the attempt of reclaiming the barracks as a lost monument was absurd, the Republican administration’s decision to demolish the barracks in the 1940s was equally misdirected,” Yapıcı adds.
The idea of heritage protection as a human right only emerged in the 1970s, and preservation as common practice in planning in Turkey dates back to the Old Monuments Law of 1973—relatively recent compared to the construction of the stone reservoir at the heart of Taksim in 1732. Taksim, in fact, means “allocation” or “distribution,” named after the reservoir where water collected from the north was diverted by dams and aqueducts to other parts of the city. Covering the whole of Taksim with concrete as a way of sterilizing the meydan would only serve to tear up the city’s urban identity, which has undergone a constant evolution that dates back to the construction of the city’s first waterworks by Mahmut I.
The Council of State, the highest court in Turkey, annulled the Taksim Pedestrianization Project in May 2014. Echoing the previous decision of the Cultural and Natural Heritage Directorate, the court found that “the plan is not compatible with planning principles concerning the environment, cultural and natural heritage, cultural and economic structure, technical infrastructure, social composition, street layout, transit use, circulation systems, urban planning and preservation” of the meydan. Glossing over the court’s findings, AKP leaders initially proposed to hold a plebiscite to decide the fate of Taksim.
Planners have voiced strong concerns about this attempt to further polarize Turkish society. In the sort of democratic city-state that Arendt conceives in The Human Condition, “the reality of the public realm relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives and aspects in which the common world presents itself.” She argues that our capacity to wrestle with ideas and engage in active praxis makes us uniquely human, and obliges us to engage in everyday political action to exercise our freedom. Holding a plebiscite, in that case, is a mere cop-out, simplifying the discussion to a “Yes” or “No” vote. It is yet another attempt to divide into camps without a genuine, and perhaps messy, deliberation on the essential functions of a public space.
A revised plan that attempts to complete the pedestrianization of Taksim has been leaked in national media. Mayor Kadir Topbaş recently assured the public that the new approach would be planting more trees and repaving the meydan to make it more walkable. Although this response seems to cater to the demands of the Gezi protestors, distrust about intentions ensues. “The new plan tries to apply makeup to Taksim, with a few trees and small fountains here and there. They are intent on carrying out the pedestrianization to cleanse Taksim because the unpredictable nature of this space is a nuisance for them,” remarks Yapıcı. Taksim’s pedestrianization is not an isolated attempt at renewal. Beyoğlu as a whole, as the epicenter of commerce and tourism, is already undergoing redevelopment, from the forced evictions of Beyoğlu’s Tarlabaşı residents to the ambitious Galataport Project that has given developers the right to operate the port for thirty years.
[With a sign saying “We are building seating areas for you,” Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality has begun repaving the area above the new Harbiye-Tarlabaşı underpass that replaced Cumhuriyet Boulevard (photo by Sera Tolgay).]
“The new plans leave out what will happen to Gezi, since that caused all the uproar,” according to Akif Burak Atlar from the Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners. “Yet the issue here is that there has been a complete dismantling of planning science, and this has been to the disadvantage of the public and in favor of private interests.”
In response to the increasing centralization of planning, there is a demand for the involvement of local governments in placemaking by public interest groups like İstanbul Hepimizin Initiative and the Taksim Solidarity Platform. Formed in response to the momentum created by Gezi, these civil initiatives are bottom-up responses to the increasing centralization of the planning process. They advocate for local governance and participatory planning. “The reclamation of public space for the purpose of public use symbolizes a more democratic society, this is why there is so much at stake if this plan for Taksim is carried out,” argues architect Korhan Gümüš, a leading member of both groups.
Even President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who characterizes the Gezi incidents as “an attempt to sabotage the Great Turkey,” seems to have recognized the importance of local representation. In late January, he convened several hundred muhtars—independent local governors who were the first elected officials of the Ottoman Empire in the 1830s—from throughout Turkey to discuss their role in governance.
Although local governments still have limited influence in placemaking, the Gezi resistance has been an unprecedented challenge to the transformation of public spaces conceived by a top-down agenda alone. A variety of organizations experimenting with self-governance have sprung up since Gezi, from the attempts of environmentalist groups such as Yedikule Bostanı Girişimi to revive old bostans—abandoned Ottoman-era urban gardens—to the very recent proliferation of neighborhood assemblies throughout the country. More fundamentally, the 7 June 2015 elections brought a more diverse parliament, reflecting peoples’ demand for more participatory politics. As post-election euphoria wears off, however, Turkey will have to contend with this new diversity of voices, and public spaces will continue to be a laboratory for more pluralistic governance.
In the polis, to be free meant “neither to rule nor to be ruled,” writes Arendt. Freedom exists, then, only when one is able to leave the “private” realm of the household and enter the “public” realm of the political sphere, where all are equals. While Taksim remains in a state of flux, its future unknown, the meydan’s unruly nature has initiated a discussion that is prompting many with their micro causes to think about what the “public” realm means in Turkey and to possibly create their own spaces of autonomy.
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 198-199.
 Atlar, Akif Burak, Interview with author. Istanbul, November, 2014.
 Haldun Hürel, Istanbul’un Ansiklopedik Öyküsü (Istanbul: Kapı Yayınları, 2008), 754.
 Sinan Povlan and Neslihan Aydin Yönet, “Story of Taksim Square’s Transformation: “From Death’s stillness to life’s Hubbub” (paper presented at 14th International Planning History Society Conference “Urban Transformation: Controversies, Contrasts and Challenges,” Istanbul, July 12-15, 2010).
 Yapıcı, Mücella. Interview with author. Istanbul, January, 2015.
 Arendt, The Human Condition, 57.
 Gümüš, Korhan. Interview with author. Istanbul, October 2014.
 Arendt, The Human Condition, 32.