Taksim Square as ‘means to tame’

Zeynep Miraç

Rumor has it, an Italian architect once said: “The Turks conquered Istanbul in 1453 but they’re yet to settle.” It’s true: this city is a 567-year-old construction site. The statement that “geography is destiny” has been on everyone’s lips lately, but is this only about people? Destiny can sometimes latch onto spaces, too. There’s no end to Taksim Square’s ordeal. It’s been changing for years; every newcomer undertook some sort of “arrangement” to change it, there’s no end to it.

Even if there eventually comes a day where we settle into Istanbul, Taksim will be the last to find its feet!

Taksim takes its name after the maksem, a water reservoir Sultan Mahmud I had built. The maksem used to “taksim” (which means to divide and distribute) the Belgrad Forest’s water to the Beyoğlu district. Even though the maksem is no longer used to distribute water, the square named after it is endlessly “taksim-med” — parceled. Whoever feels like they haven’t gotten their share takes out their anger on this square.

The last move came from the Istanbul Regional Board of Conservation of Cultural Heritage — No2. The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality had launched the “Istanbul Regains its Squares” project and built an exhibition platform on the square, called the Taksim Convergence Stop”.

Passers-by were catching their breath, some played music, others chatted. However, a week later, the Conservation Board objected: you set it up with no permission, we will file a criminal complaint if you do not remove it.”
In addition, the Board requested the removal of the Presidential Communications Presidency’s Digital Screening Center tent, which had remained right at the center of the square for months. Minister of Culture and Tourism, Mehmet Ersoy called Fatih Altaylı from the Habertürk TV channel, to announce that the Ministry’s project on Taksim Square was canceled following the decision of the board.

Both the tent and the platform were swiftly removed. Taksim’s fate reverted back to an uncertain concrete desert.

Actually, the history of Taksim square doesn’t go as far back as the maksem itself. But in 1928, with the erection of the Republic Monument, it started to be known as a square. The monument built by Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica has two facades: one represents the young Republic, while the other represents the War of Independence. When Lütfi Kırdar demolishes the Artillery Barracks using Henri Prost’s development plans and turns it into the Gezi Park, the square earned its status as a public space. (Those who are curious about the history of Taksim Square can take a look at Turan Akıncı’s wonderful website ; unfortunately, it’s in Turkish only).

The story of the square goes hand in hand with the country’s story. The changes in Istanbul’s population following the 1930s and 40s, which went by in a mixture of reality and illusion, are reflected in this square. In a series of articles he wrote for the online news platform Gazete Duvar, architect Hakkı Yırtıcı states that, around that time, “the square served as both the face of modern Turkey that faces the West as well as a tool to spread nationalism and citizenship values for a newly-forming nation.”
After the 1950s and 60s went by with a wind of urban change, the 70s rushed in with political turmoil. Taksim Square is also where 34 people tragically died during the May 1 rally in 1977.

Bedrettin Dalan, who became Mayor of Istanbul in 1987, changed the shape and soul of the district once again by destroying Tarlabaşı and turning it into a boulevard. The 2000s, once more, saw demolitions and reconstruction. And last but not least, the past decade has moved at a dizzying pace.

In the first days of 2011, Istanbul Metropolitan Mayor Kadir Topbaş came with the “good news”: We will take the traffic underground and bring Taksim Square to pedestrians.

Before the elections on June 12, 211, President Tayyip Erdoğan, who was then Prime Minister, announced the Taksim Project, making headlines: “A crazy project, now in Taksim.”

The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality get some private firms to work on The Taksim Square and Whereabouts Landscaping Project, consisting of “green islands” of trees, ornamental fountains and seating groups. Unions, chambers, political parties, environmental organizations, and associations object. Chambers of Architects and City Planners appeal and sue the project.
In addition to the 2011 project, a new development plan is prepared. It’s got it all: a mosque to Taksim Square, a parking lot to Galatasaray… Whatever it is you’re looking for.

Despite various objections and lawsuits, the Tarlabaşı-Harbiye tunnel construction begins in 2012. Taksim turns into a massive construction site.
2012 goes by with discussions around the re-construction of Artillery Barracks where Gezi Park is; in the last month of the year, the Conservation Board declared that it will not allow this as it “goes against the public interest.”

The 70-year-old pedestrian bridge connecting Gezi Park to the main street gets demolished in February 2013. Tension rises.

Then as construction scoops enter the park, the biggest resistance in the history of the Republic begins. After all those days that pushed the country into polarization that’s difficult to repair, it turns out that the Istanbul 1st Administrative Court had already canceled the Taksim Square Pedestrianization Project on June 6, 2013 — this case included the construction of the Barracks!

If one foot of the never-ending conquest of Istanbul is the Barracks, the other is the Taksim Mosque. In the last days of 2013, the Istanbul 10th Administrative Court announces that it had canceled the construction plan which included the Taksim Mosque.

In May 2015, Kadir Topbaş comes up with yet another “gospel”: “We started the ground arrangement works in Taksim Square. With its ground designed as a green space, Taksim will finally look suitable to Beyoglu. Some talk the talk, we walk the walk.”

As Istanbul residents anticipate a greener Taksim, the 6th Department of the Council of State goes ahead and dissolves the cancellation decision for the construction of the Taksim Mosque, the Artillery Barracks and a multi-story car park in Galatasaray.

During all these years, the Istanbul Municipality continues its project to pedestrianize Taksim Square. It becomes concrete on all four sides while some wretched trees are scattered around the create the “green spaces.”

The Square gets flooded, tunnels turn into lakes, yet the project continues…
In June 2016, “we shall be brave”, says Erdoğan, “ we will build that historic artifact on Taksim Square. We’ll walk the walk, and quickly.”

A month later, following the coup attempt on July 15, he claims that the Artillery Barracks will be built “whether they like it or not.

By the end of 2016, the Municipality website declares the physical completion rate of the Taksim Square Arrangement as 99.72 percent. (Today, at the ibbqr.ibb.gov.tr address, this rate still appears as 99.72 percent — the remaining 0.28 percent probably reflects the inexhaustible patience of Istanbul residents.

As 2017 passes with debates of “oh yes I will, oh no you won’t”, while 2018 marks both the demolition of the Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) and the start of the construction of the Taksim Mosque.

The wheel of fortune turns around in 2019 and the Republican People’s Party candidate wins the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. One of the fire statements of Ekrem Imamoğlu as the new mayor is that Taksim Square will be re-arranged and that the works will be launched in Summer 2020.
The rest is the Taksim Convergeance Stop’s non-convergence issue, and we’re back to square one…

This was tiring and tedious to write, and it has been worse to live through. Everybody knows that these incidents that I’ve listed above are not architectural disputes.

It’s certainly not a dispute about “how to design a square.”

This is the story of an area that used to divide water, which is now being used to divide a country. And it’s unclear when it’ll end…

However, the cost is heavy… Expenses are unending. In 2012, I had interviewed Uğur Tanyeli, professor of architectural history, for the Milliyet daily. He had said: “In Turkey, urban spaces are used as a means to tame”; “the mass to be disciplined is never the same, at any point in history. (…) If you object to something to be done in a public space, the ruling government will never take it as an objection related to that space. It considers it a direct attack on itself and creates the reactions accordingly.”

Once again, Taksim is being used as a tool to tame and discipline. Helpless, it’s waiting for fate to take its course.


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