The Failure of a Project: Gezi Park and More

by Vasif Kortun

What may lie at the root of the recalcitrance of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (JDP) is that they tried and failed to materialise a significant visual and architectural expression of their own during their uncontested rule, from Erdoğan’s election in 2002 until the present. Erdoğan has utilised all the potent tools of the state to socially engineer a worthy, “authentic” and self-acclaimed conservative cultural milieu. During his tenure, the government has reshuffled the universities (positioning sympathisers of the JDP as rectors), the education system, and the theatres; introduced partial-policy institutions like the Yunus Emre Institute with its very dubious mission of supporting “Turkish culture, art, language, and history abroad”; rerouted public money in the interests of its constituencies at state and city levels; launched ideas such as “conservative art and culture” through close cultural representatives; and announced an arts council directly connected to the prime minister’s office. None of the JDP’s efforts have yielded any results other than gaudy marble palaces, such as the dreadful conversion of the Sütlüce slaughterhouse into the Halic Congress Center; the Miniatürk architectural theme park, a large collection of scaled miniature models of notable Turkish architecture; and the Panorama 1453 Historical Museum, a painting about the conquest of Constantinople. Pressure to make a historical mark has been building on Erdoğan because he will have to step down next year, at the end of his current term.

The JDP’s hardheaded construction frenzy is paired with insolent profit maximisation and nepotistic real-estate interests. While this coupling has generally worked in a remarkably harmonious way for the execution of major construction projects, it totally imploded in Taksim on May 28. The all-too-obvious bot- tled-up conflict between the modernist impulse to historicise powerand neoliberal contemporaneity broke wide open; the JDP’s frantic attempt to make a mark on the square with its symbolic archi- tecture of power was met with epic resistance in the case of Gezi Park. A modest evening hangout of 1,500 on May 28 swelled to hundreds of thousands by the afternoon of May 31. All around the country, people from all walks of life joined in pitching bot- tles at the security forces. The next day, police withdrew from Taksim. Turkey had never seen anything like this before: die- hard political enemies and soccer fans, first-time protestors, environmentalists, mothers and daughters all took the park back.

Gezi Park may mean different things to different people but it also means the same thing to everyone: a nice patch of orphan green overlooking the square. Taksim Square is abutted by early modern town planning solutions and one landmark work of architecture: the Atatürk Cultural Center, a multiuse venue and opera house built in the 1960s. The square is a 20th-century project, and hence a project of the different phases of the republic. One could even say that it was a platform for the new citizen public that replaced the 19th-century cosmopolitan subject of the trade city that had vanished. All the photographs of Taksim Square from the late 1930s onward bear witness to the development of a new subject that had no visual form before then; in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, the square became a representation of a represented society. The square is the terminus for the mid to late-19th-century city of Grande Rue de Péra (the region to the southeast of the square, now called İstiklâl Caddesi). The JDP’s absence is not unambiguous, and, in fact, is historically frowned

upon by hard-line republican secularists, who enforced the city centre as a privileged spaced for so-called citizens, along with all forms of undesired difference.

The park and the centre were both historical public projects manifesting the ideologies of the modernism of their respective times. However, the JDP’s “Artillery Barracks” proposal is a more complicated story. The primary mission of this new Taksim plan is to destroy the vestiges of a particular time (the 1940s park) and replace it with a reconstruction of an artillery building that used to be there 80 years ago. The building was built in the late-18th century and played a role in the Young Turk Revolution of 1909. Demilitarised later, it came to be used for public and private functions, but was razed in the late 1930s. The building was a manifestation of the modernising Ottoman rule, a phantasmagoric representation of the late empire desperately seeking a representation for itself. It looked at itself through the fractured bricolage of a fantasy of how a European traveller might anticipate the empire’s perfect representation. This is where it becomes interesting. Erdoğan seems stuck between 16th-century Ottoman classicism that can be neither replicated nor revisited, and late-18th-century self-orientalising Ottoman architecture. In other words, the prime minister has placed all his bets on an architecture that falls between two architectures: a stately one that was never meant to be a spectacle, and a later one that displays the clumsy integration of the capital city into a world it could not avoid. It could be said that this oscillation reflects the JDP’s early and late power—somewhere between its humble and communitarian origins and its spectacular opulence at present. If the mosque the JDP has proposed for Çamlica Hill is a commissioned forgery of the Ottoman architect Sinan, the artillery barracks is a forgery of another imperial Ottoman architect, Krikor Balyan. As pitiful as it may be, this distrust in new architecture is also a critical point here.

It is not a hidden fact that the prime minister has an inimitable disdain for cultural production that he has come to believe is elitist, exclusionist, and/or Western. Erdoğan approaches it with the idiolect and fury of a young disadvantaged male from the suburbs. He is angry at the cultural base of the secularist early Republic, he is angry at the left-leaning 1960s and 1970s generations, and he is angry at the impartial cultural practitioners of the post-dictatorship years. Erdoğan is distraught because he has not been able to invent a cultural offering. The question is: Does the JDP understand that culture is not an efficient and quantifiable form of production—that it is not like making bread? Rather, it just happens, as it has been happening every single day in Gezi Park over the last three weeks. It is authentic and unannounced. It produces a surplus from a gap—one that wasn’t known to exist before.

It is not a conundrum. Ten years and almost no interesting architecture, visual art, and/or other forms of culture instituted by the state. Ten years spent plagiarising the past, but not producing an archive of the present.

© Murat Germen & Gezi Park resistance members, 2013

The text is republished from the blog Official Opinion [Resmi Görüş]: park-and.html


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