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Plateau of Ambitions

Taksim Square in Istanbul neither has the shape of square nor it really reflects the classic urban squares defined by the western urbanism terminologies. However, we like to call this node of roads as a ‘square’ maybe because of our longing for a designed real public space. The most ‘public’ moments of this space maybe experienced during the protest gatherings. Actually this irregularly shaped junction has always been a space of conflicts; cars, pedestrians, minority communities, shop owners, tourists, police, municipalities or the central government has been performing on this stage for years. The geographic advantages of this hilltop turned Taksim into a ‘showcase of power’ for the administration bodies. Looking from this perspective we may even argue that the urban design intentions on Taksim depends on the archaic roots of domination: the one conquering the hill will be the ruling power. Thus Taksim is not a simple square or junction; it is a plateau of ambitions.

AKP’s ambitions on Taksim have always been discussed since their first years. First the long discussed ‘big Taksim mosque’ project occupied the discussions and attracted severe reactions. Even though no body has seen the project of such a project this intention has always been translated as the AKP’s real Islamists aspirations. When these arguments faded away, AKP started a new discussion on their second ruling period. The new intention was to demolish Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM) in order to build a larger and more ‘beautiful’ one. The reason was the high costs of maintenance of the older one but again severe reactions were targeted to AKP since this justification to tear down the only opera hall of the city didn’t convince artists and intellectuals. AKP stepped back and agreed to renovate the building by using the European Capital of Culture budget. However this time the syndicate of artist using the AKM halted the project by a court order. The building is now closed for nearly three years and it is not clear when it will be opened again.

Having realized that a new cultural center cannot be erected, prime minister announced two new projects on Taksim on their third ruling period: the rebuilding of the demolished Topcu Barracks on Taksim Gezi Park and burying the roads underground. The desire to get rid of the cars and roads in Taksim has always been a leitmotif of the administrative bodies. However, it is also interesting to see the contradictory enthusiasms of AKP who fosters to produce a really “Turkish automobile” and boasts with the length of highways while trying to make the vehicles disappear in Taksim. A rehearsal of such a project may be examined now in Caglayan, where the pedestrians stroll aimlessly on a blank plane.

On the other hand, rebuilding the Topcu Barracks over Taksim Park is a totally new intention. This park, designed as part of the larger urban planning scheme of Henri Prost, is actually has design faults, which prevents the public to inhabit it really. However, the plan of rebuilding such a large structure in Taksim has been one of the ‘craziest’ projects of AKP since there is no rationally valid explanation to build such a big building in Taksim. The function of this “new” old barrack is ambiguous even though everyone agrees that it would be a cheesy mixture of shopping malls, cinemas and exhibition halls.

For nearly ten years, despite their high ambitions, AKP’s profile on urbanism and architecture projects’ characters swings between the mediocre or kitsch ends, leaving them to boast only with the quantities rather then the quality of the built projects. Prime minister may also be aware of these criticisms rising from the academic circles. However, his personal choice resembles the choices of Prince Charles. Both have special interest on the built environment, architectural and urban projects. However as Prince Charles, Erdogan has been in favor of neo-traditional architecture which had been flourished more in his ruling period. Today almost all government or municipal projects have the neo-Ottoman or neo-Seljuk spiced appearances. Thus, the demolished Topcu barracks is a very suitable project to rebuild since this time the preservation board will not have any excuse to reject it.

Erdogan has not hid his special love for Istanbul. It is apparent that he has good intentions to create spectacular projects for the city. However good intentions often pave the way to hell. Topcu Barracks is the third attempt of Erdogan to build such an edifice in Taksim. For many years we’ve seen that every ruling power has deep intentions to leave their marks on the physical environment by erecting edifices. All the disputed projects of AKP are the results of this edifice syndrome and Taksim is the pinnacle of these intentions. However, as Deyan Sudjic brightly exemplified in his book “The Edifice Complex”, for many political leaders grand urban designs or spectacular architectural projects had often been the signs of the approaching end.

Published in Turkish Review Magazine, Nov. 2011