The ferocity and longevity of the recent protests in Istanbul may have come as a surprise to both the Turkish government and outside observers, but that these events centered around the city's Taksim Square should not be surprising. The fact of the matter is that the square has been a contested space for decades, the site of frequent violent protests and the place various groups and governments have tried to put their stamp on Turkish society and identity.
Taksim, most famously, is where unknown gunmen opened fire in 1977 on labor activists celebrating the May 1 holiday, leading to widespread panic and the death of dozens. Since then, Turkish officials have kept the square mostly off limits to May 1 events, resulting in annual protests and violent clashes between police and demonstrators trying to make their way to the square to commemorate the 1977 event.
In a fascinating interview the other day with Hurriyet Daily News, Korhan Gumus, one of Turkey's leading architects and urban planners, provides some of the background on Taksim's political and cultural significance:
What’s the significance of Taksim for Istanbul?
Taksim is a public square that came into being later, during the republican era. Istanbul was forgotten for 13 years, until 1936. Then the republic started to see Taksim as a space to mark its [existence]. It constructed a recreation and cultural space. The method at that time was to bring over a foreign expert. The Frenchman Henry Proust was called for a long-term program. The Republic viewed Taksim Square as a prestige project. The square was expanded, and for this, the Topçu Artillery Barracks, which had not been used since World War I, were demolished. The city acquired a green space and the city’s most important public cultural establishments were constructed. These establishments were administered by civil servants, but by the 1950s, a problem of governance started to surface. There was a management vacuum. Privatizations started; hotels were constructed. In the world, there are different management models to maintain public spaces. Unfortunately; the model that was endorsed from the beginning that is not participatory has continued throughout the years.
So there is a need to redesign Taksim Square?
Of course there is a crisis there; a vacuum. But there is the problem of sacred baggage that covers that vacuum. This is a stage for [social] design; there is a struggle for predominance.
The square gained a political identity then?
With the intervention of the Republic, it gained a political identity and became sort of a fighting ground for the nation-state. Successive governments became uneasy by the fact that it has been used for May Day demonstrations.
Can you elaborate what you mean with sacred baggage?
The square became a space of tension about who is going to dominate the public space. This situation peaked, for instance, during the Feb. 28 process when there was tremendous controversy over claims that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who used to be the mayor of Istanbul at that time, was planning to construct a mosque there. Each government has tried to leave its mark to the square.
So it never became a matter of urban planning, but rather an ideological symbol.
Each government thought they knew better what is good for the people. Each party that came to power said: I am elected and since the people support me; I can do whatever I want.
In that sense, what set off the protests in the first place -- the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government plans to replace the small Gezi Park within Taksim and replace it with a replica of an Ottoman-era military barracks that were demolished in the early days of the secular Republic and that the Prime Minister promised would be used as a shopping center -- was just part of a long-running cultural and political battle over the fate of the square. Despite the recent protests and the successful effort to halt the construction work in Taksim, it's a battle that is likely to continue in one form or another for years to come.
Meanwhile, for your viewing pleasure, two contrasting videos that give a good sense of the competing visions at play in Taksim Square. The first is a promotional video created by the AKP about its plans for Taksim:
The second is a must-see seven minute video created by Occupy Gezi activists that gives a wonderful picture of how the protests unfolded: