The Fight for the Soul of Istanbul

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Now Syria's neighbor just to the north, Turkey, has been gripped with riots and protests for a week and a half now. The protests began over what, at first glance, looks like a routine city planning issue: a proposal to bulldoze a park and build a mall. But it's blown up into a confrontation with the conservative government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. So we've been trying to dig into the routes of the issue. Sibel Bozdogan is in Isanbul. She's a Turkish-American architectural historian who teaches at Harvard and Bilgi University in Istanbul. So Taksim Square is the heart of this protest movement, Sibel. What's happening there today?

Sibel Bozdogan: Well today it is like a carnival atmosphere. The protesters are, you know, they are singing, all sorts of groups are there, it is really diverse and I'm really proud of these young people.

Werman: Why are you proud of them?

Bozdogan: Well, because they have managed to act on what many of us were concerned about regarding the urban issues, specifically about the park. But I think the protests are actually larger than just the park. I think it is a protest in general about the larger neo-liberal urban agenda of this government. I mean we have been observing how Istanbul is filled now with residential towers and malls and erosion of public space in particular and there has been a lot of displacements, evictions, gentrification of historic neighborhoods, et cetera. So all of these accumulated and exploded.

Werman: As you say, I mean this controversy started through this attempt to demolish an old park and monument in Taksim Square—Gezi Park. So if they're the tip of the ice burg, what do they symbolize?

Bozdogan: Of course Taksim Square is the symbol of the republican agenda of creating a modern, European-style public square. I mean the park was, you probably by now all know, that it was built in the late 1930s early 1940s by the French urban planner Henri Prost, isââ?¬ ¦has become part of the collective memory of republican modernization.

Werman: It's pretty fascinating. I mean, there's got to be in these architectural and urban planning issues some metaphor for the social splits and political splits in Turkish society today.

Bozdogan: Absolutely. I mean this is yet another instance of how politically charged our profession is, architecture and urban planning, and in fact this will probably be talked about in our classes because nowadays there is all this movement about citizens' right to a city, which is again very relevant here. Because what these young people are protesting in a park are not being able to be heard by this government. It is as simple as that.

Werman: It almost sounds like Erdogan wants to historically revise that republican era via architecture.

Bozdogan: Yes it is a very overt agenda of returning the city, if you like, to its Ottoman identity, which of course is problematic because it denies the incredible complexity—the incredible cultural complexity and layers of the city. Yes, of course, this has been the Ottoman capital but it has been also a very cosmopolitan city. So again the young people in the park are quite admirable in their, sort of, desire to maintain that kind of cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Werman: Architecture and politics a buzz in Istanbul.

Bozdogan: Absolutely, Yes.

Werman: Sibel Bozdogan, Turkish-American architectural historian speaking with us from Istanbul. Thank you very much.

Bozdogan: Thank you, Marco.