Selçuk Avcı for Architectural Review on Istanbul, urban planning and protests
Where do we go from here?
17 June 2013
Being in the heart of the Gezi Park and Taksim Protests, our office had no choice but to be involved in the mayhem that ensued during the first Friday of the events. Many office members had already been “tree-sitting”, keeping an eye on the contractors during that week. It became clear that it would be very difficult to focus on work while such important events unfolded at our doorstep. No one however expected the extreme violence with which the events would turn on Friday the 31st. Some one had clearly given the order to pull out all stops on the demonstrators and the whole square was in an instant covered in tear gas. The area quickly turned in to an urban war-zone, as the world watched in horror and disbelief over the weekend. After an initial burst of activity during the first Saturday and Sunday, the police surprisingly withdrew, and conceded the Taksim area to the protestors. Suddenly there were no police, no gas, no water cannon and the protestors organised themselves swiftly as all streets coming in to Taksim were blocked with pavement stones, police’s own abandoned vehicles and busses and what ever else they could get their hands on. There was a sense that the first battle had been won. An eerie silence and a somewhat odd sense of elation settled over the square.
As we walked in to Taksim on Monday evening, what confronted us was an overwhelming crowd, banners, posters, street vendors selling gas masks, and of course plenty of donated food, blankets, tents. The effort had truly come out. It seemed all of Istanbul was suddenly out here in solidarity, not just watching, but coming in for support. The shell of the previously gutted (for renovation) out Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM) occupied and covered from head to toe with flags and banners, dominated the square, its roof precariously filled to the brim with cheering protestors. During the peak of Sunday night’s events, the roof began to shake, but a possible disaster was averted as a Tweet went out warning every one to get out immediately. The park was already occupied with encampments of well-organised areas of tents, and shelters. Even a Gezi Library, and Museum of the Resistance had been set up. Our sense of wonder and elation was however short lived, as we moved towards AKM, I found my eyes burning, and the skin on my face began to itch. There was an initial panic, and the crowd began to move away from the AKM. No one could tell where the gas was coming from. We speculated that the police had pumped gas in to the metro ventilation shafts, which exit on to the square, but this seemed too far-fetched. Nevertheless having witnessed the level of ruthless pumping out of gas, no one would have been surprised. We even began to suspect that the helicopters hovering overhead were spraying the whole city. With disbelief, anger, amazement, in some way wonderment at the ostentatiousness of such an idea all mixed together, we helplessly moved away and found ourselves having to jump over the barricades to get out of Taksim. Clearly although the police had withdrawn, they were making sure that we knew they were not far away.
Although the events officially started on 28th of May this year when the municipality started to remove 6 trees for the road widening in front of Divan Hotel, this story really began over a century ago. The municipality of that time decided the already damaged military barracks should be removed and replaced with a park. Now the opposite was happening: the government was executing its long ago announced plans to reinstate the military barracks in the heart of Gezi Park without a clear core function attributed. The plan by the authorities seems to be to build it first and then to see what it may be used for. As a result, the people of Istanbul were not happy.
Taksim always had an important role in the life of Istanbul, one of the greatest cities in the world, be it as a public square, a place for political demonstrations or as a key transport hub. Gezi Park, Taksim Square, and Istiklal Street are the equivalent of London’s Hyde Park Corner, Trafalgar Square, Kings Cross and Oxford Street all in one. Istiklal at its peak carries up to 1.5 – 2 million people from Taksim Square to Tünel Square. Taksim, which takes its name from the ancient water cisterns, located at the top of Istiklal, in fact means to “share” out the water that is collected at this high point in the city.
Quite appropriately “sharing” is the central issue surrounding the events of the last 3 weeks. Turkey is a democracy where in the last elections over 50% are known to have voted for the party in power, the AKP (the Justice and Development Party). The AKP, however, considered until recently that its overwhelming majority in both the central government and at the local level alone justifies its actions. Across the whole country a construction boom, watched by many European cities with great envy, has been boosted by the ability of the government to take unilateral actions on urban policy and to clear the way for mega scale developments with little or no public debate.
In the case of Gezi Park, the local government has in fact carried out a consultation within the existing formal legal boundaries, but allegedly stretching the rules along the way to achieve a cross party consensus. It therefore “justifiably” considers that the decision to rebuild the barracks was passed through the local political system with the support of the opposition parties. The evidence as well as the silence of the opposition over the matter suggests that this is the case. However, it is clear that deserving urban design experts, academics and many people in Istanbul and elsewhere, who have been protesting over the action of the government, feel otherwise. Indeed, ever since the plans to “pedestrianize” the square and rebuild the barracks, NGOs such as the Taksim Platform and Taksim Solidarity Group have been actively pursuing a legal procedure and a participatory dialogue in questioning the decision for over two years with little success.
A true engagement of the public requires a complex and well-conceived action plan that brings together as many issues as possible in a transparent and visible way. I have experienced a similar process in London’s Mile End Park project where the municipality fronted a fully public consultative process by first of all selecting competent, investigative and creative consultants (urban planners, landscape architects, architects, engineers, and sociologists) and then utilizing their abilities to come up with an inclusive process that has forever influenced my thinking on these matters.
I think that the Istanbul municipality, whose authority appears to have been surpassed by the government itself in this matter, should proceed in a similar way: after defining what it sees as the issues, it should select consultants in a publically accountable manner and engage them in creating a consultative process of investigation and discovery, into which the public is invited and involved visibly. Open community workshops should be organized to propose solutions to what the people see as problems and issues. These added to the mix then form the final brief for an international competition. Drawing on the knowledge and power of a selected jury, involving not only architects but also community leaders and ordinary people, the municipality should select a project of a brilliance that matches the importance of Taksim Square, Gezi Park and Istiklal Street.
This process should then become the model for the continuing evolution of a rapidly developing power in one of the most critical regions of the world. Istanbul can find its true position as an international city, a city that satisfies the needs of both local and foreign visitors who are powerfully attracted to this place.
Instead, however, so far the local authority and central government chose to fall back on processes that bring in stealthy solutions, by default partisan in their approach and as such easily used as tools of protests that lead to greater issues of division and unrest, ending up by far surpassing the original reason for protests. The Gezi protests have since evolved in to an all-encompassing outcry for anti-libertarian politics of the government.
Many people visited Gezi Park and Taksim Square during this week of relative silence and peaceful sit ins from the moment the police pulled out. Families poured in from all around Istanbul with children and the older generations, simply to observe this incredible energy built up in a very short space of time. At the forefront of the organization were architects, urban planners, lawyers, doctors, academics, students, housewives, and office workers, in other words ordinary people. The atmosphere often reminiscent of a music festival crossed with a local town community event, as people of all walks of life crossed paths peacefully and enjoyed a moment together of satisfied elation at the sense of common purpose. Of course the sense that this may not last for very long always remained palpable and present.
Living now mostly in Istanbul, after having spent the majority of my adult life, (35 years) in the UK, I find myself also at conflict with the approach of the government. It was an act of faith and an appreciation of the successes of the current government that brought me here. However, many like me feel the same and question the motives of a government that gets involved in processes at city level that should really be dealt with by local municipalities (interestingly enough the mayor of Istanbul has been very quiet about these events, even though he is clearly a protagonist in the process.).
The government’s previous successes that have brought Turkey to a position in the world which it could only dream of ten years ago when it came into power, are unquestionable, and I have frequently affirmed this. Under its stewardship, hitherto without blemish of any major scale, it has succeeded in making Turkey a hub in the region and a respected player in the world arena. Added to these successes of financial mastery at a time when Europe remains in crisis, are visible deeds that the population appreciates and which enable it to be the only party of choice, particularly at a time when other political parties pale in significance. But it needs to add to its bag of successes this one last detail of ruling with an egalitarian approach that also succeeds in feeling the pulse of all of its population rather than just the 50% that has voted for it. This indeed would be a great achievement.
What this simply means is the creation of a fail-proof participatory process at local levels of decision-making and then withdrawal into the background to allow it to happen in beautiful harmony. My personal hope and wish is that with the energy released from these protests Turkey continues to grow and evolve towards a society which is both open and inclusive and becomes a model for countries in the near east and remains the guiding light it has so successfully been till now.
However all this appears to be wishful thinking for now. The protestors were told on the weekend of the 8th of June that the police would not enter the Square until the following Monday. Tensions rose again, as barricades were strengthened and more gas masks, blankets, food, and tents were brought in in preparation for a longer sit in. As events unfolded over the following week, and CNN broadcast live the night of the re-take of Taksim on Tuesday, a sense of immense hopelessness and disbelief settled in over the country. The escalating political rhetoric and increasingly confident actions of the police brought the protests to a high level of tension. Many protestors and police were hurt, some killed, much of the gas released consumed by innocent bystanders, water cannons seemingly infused with some form of chemical, which burned skins, as we watched in desperation. On Sunday the doors to my apartment building on Istiklal were set behind the police barricades and no one could enter. Fortunately my wife and I had decided to stay away for the weekend but decided to tell staff not to come to the office on Monday either, and stayed away until Tuesday morning to let the dust settle.
On Monday’s Turkish English Language paper Daily News Verda Özer wrote:
“The Gezi (Park) protests revealed that the citizens want a new contract to be drafted between the state and themselves. They want to shift from a state-centric state to a human-centric one. ……The AKP government has to realize the fact that the citizens want to become active participants in the decisions making-processes. It has to develop a healthy dialogue and a cooperative relationship with the citizens that reminds us of the concept of “negotiated revolution” coined by George Lawson. Lawson describes this type of revolution as a dynamic process that seeks to build a new order without resorting to violence and coercive control.
“Negotiated Revolution” kind of has a good ring to it. Again a sense of hope and optimism.
Today, Gezi Park has been “sanitized” of all the protestors, tents placed in bins, the library dismantled, and all signs of the occupation erased. All that remains as a reminder of the park sit in are the saplings planted by the Gezi activists, which mercifully the city has decided to keep as a memory of the event.