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The Istanbul riots are fundamentally about a city struggling to catch its breath, says Rory Olcayto

Rory Olcayto looks at why the proposed redevelopment of Gezi Park in Istanbul has provoked such strong reactions

In 1991, I spent three happy months in Istanbul, two of them working in the office of Hüseyin Başçetinçelik, an accomplished architect known for his design of Istanbul University Library, a fantastic Modernist scheme few outside Turkey will be familiar with. (This is a great shame. It now faces demolition and will be replaced next year by a vapid slab of pseudomodernism).

Hüseyin’s contemporary was Biltin Toker, the radical architecture student of whom Martin Pawley wrote fondly in these pages some years ago. They studied together at the Oxford School of Architecture and, as Pawley suggested, ‘readers might be interested in comparing Toker’s 1960 design for a youth hostel on Skye with Hadid’s 1982 Hong Kong Peak competition-winning scheme’. Toker went on to become the mayor of Istanbul’s chief urban design adviser, but lost his job when Tayyip Erdoğan, now prime minister, won the mayoralty in 1994. Hüseyin trained under Sedad Eldem, another great architect, relatively unknown here, but whose Social Security offices in Istanbul picked up the Aga Khan Award in 1986. Eldem pioneered a distinct contemporary regional architecture that blended Modernism with traditional Ottoman forms. He also designed the Istanbul Hilton, with SOM, the International Style hotel made famous by Bond movie From Russia With Love.

Despite Hüseyin’s Modernist credentials, the projects I worked on were restorations of wooden houses from the late Ottoman era, but, given the terrible state of conservation design in the city then, and which still prevails today, in retrospect his dedication to renewing old buildings was progressive.

Hüseyin’s office was on a street just off Taksim Square, home to Hayati Tabanlioğlu’s Ataturk Cultural Centre and its stunning modish interiors – the work of another unfairly neglected architect – but more famous as a meeting spot for young lovers embarking on evening strolls down Independence Avenue, and its throng of bars, restaurants and clubs, bookstores, music shops and consultates (The British one is by Charles Barry).

Taksim is fairly new for ancient Istanbul

Taksim is fairly new for ancient Istanbul. In the 16th century golden age – the age of Sinan – Taksim was open countryside, well outside the city walls, and a handy spot for highfalutin’ Ottoman grandees to practice archery. By the 1700s it had been remodelled by civil engineers as a water distribution centre (Taksim is an Arabic loan word meaning distribution) and another 100 years later it became the site of military barracks. These were razed in 1940 to make way for Gezi Park.

I got to know Taksim’s Gezi Park during the summer of ’91. I had lunch there every day. This past week the world has got to know a little of Gezi Park. It has become the centre of anti-government protests, which have seen violent clashes erupt between riot police and Istanbullus who had gathered to peacefully protest its redevelopment. (Ironically, the plan is to rebuild the barracks). It has been said the protests are no longer about the park, that they are more a reaction to Erdoğan’s politics. Yet Istanbul is a city like no other in Europe: in 100 years it has grown 14-fold. Until the 1950s it was famous for its open green spaces, its forests and its curious mix of low-rise, hilly streets and picturesque cemetery glades. The city’s collective memory is one of fresh air. Now, with a population of 14 million, double that of when I worked for Hüseyin just two decades ago, Istanbul is struggling to catch its breath. Fundamentally, the riots really are about saving Gezi Park. Without it Istanbul is in danger of choking itself to death. 

A statement on Gezi Park and Taksim Square by the Turkish Architects Association:

‘In which civilized country can green belt areas in the heart of a city be destroyed without any consultation with the people?

The most important requirement of modern and sustainable urban management is the participation of citizens in the decision-making process through the layer of the Non-Governmental Organizations.

Only in this way, the administrators can apply the principle of participation, as well as have the chance of making the right decisions. By keeping citizens out of the decision-making mechanism it may lead to shaping the city in an unhealthy way as well as violating the social rights of citizens. It is anti-democratic.It produces cities without any ownership.A city is not a place where there are groups of people and buildings. Cities are places where people live. In which civilized country can green belt areas, in the heart of a city, be destroyed or transformed without any consultation with the people who live there? In which civilized country, would green areas be used as a means to revive the economy? We, as the present citizens, do not wish to leave our cities which we inherited from the previous generations, only as a pile of building stacks. We should like to leave them as living healthy, sustainable cities with undamaged urban memory.

In this context, we would like to declare that we see the decisions taken and the works undertaken with regard to the Taksim Square and Gazi Park by the authorities as an insistence to disregard the public opinion totally, and we invite them to listen to the people, to see the reaction of the citizens and to reject the already taken decisions and to see common sense. 

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