When one exits Taksim Metro station they are typically lost, not knowing left nor right. A series of tunnels and escalators meander until finally leading up to a set of stairs to an open space that is Taksim Square. The Square is characterized by a large Turkish flag, a dilapidated modernist building, a single towering hotel, a small memorial sculpture, and a park hiding behind a set of stairs. But in the larger context, you are stranded on a giant traffic island. You are surrounded by hundreds of cars, buses, and a tram, without an obvious crosswalk nor passage for the million commuters. This leaves every visitor helplessly disoriented and puzzled wondering if in fact Taksim Square is a square? A park? A monument? a hub? a culture center? a historical artifact? or simply a large roundabout?
In order to decipher this absurd entrance and center to the city we zoom into 1 : 5,000 scale. At 1 : 5,000, Taksim Square and Gezi Park become visible on the map and can be understood in the context of its neighborhood. It is at this scale that the transformation of the city can be witnessed through the changes that have taken place historically. By looking at the significant developments that took place in this area through various periods one can interpret the forces that have shaped the Square in its current form and function. It is only through this means that we can begin to comprehend the spatial, architectural, political, mess that it is in now. And, whether Erdogan’s claim to restore the Ottoman Barracks is indeed a necessary act to preserve “history.” In the following, we will take a look at the five distinct periods by which Taksim Square and its surrounding area was sculpted by.
The history of Taksim square reaches back to the 17th century, when it was known as the Grand Champs des Morts (The Great Cemetery), since it contained Armenian, Christian, as well as Muslim cemeteries. It was a popular promenade and picnic area. Maksem, the water reservoir built in the 18th century, was located at the edge of what was the limits to the city eventually gave Taksim its current name for the area.
In the 19th century cemeteries were removed to make place for military buildings, including the Topcu Kislasi(Artillery Barracks), Taskisla (Stone Barracks), and the Gumussuyu military hospital, . The area in front of Topcu barracks was used as Talimhane(drill grounds,) and the Taksim Gardens were created at the north side of the Topcu Barracks, the first example of its kind in Istanbul, and a popular recreational area for the Pera population.
By the time the new Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, the Topcu Barracks had lost its military function and remained unoccupied until the public reclaimed it as a sports arena for football matches, horse races, wrestling tournaments, and other public entertainment. The Republic Monument had been erected in 1928 depicting Ataturk and his comrades dressed in modern, western-European clothing, symbolizing the contemporary outlook of a new Turkey. Taksim was built to provide its citizens a space to showcase what the newly founded Turkish Republic was made of, and also as an inauguration to the larger urban regeneration plan to be created by Henri Prost.
Due to the shifting of state funds to create a new capital in Ankara, restoring the Barracks was never carried out. More importantly, Ataturk wanted Istanbul to reflect the modernized, western influenced ideals of the new secular republic. To achieve the new outlook for the future for a new Republic, Henri Prost was appointed to devise Istanbul’s redevelopment plan between 1936 and 1951. As part of this plan, the Topcu Barracks were demolished in order to create Gezi Park as a green public space. Talimhane, Mete avenue, and Gumussuyu area next to it were developed into residential areas. And finally the Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM) was planned as a cultural center, an opera house, and most significantly as the contemporary monument to Taksim Square and a modernist icon for Istanbul.
By the time the Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM) was built in the 70’s, Henri Prost’s original urban plan to create a central axis in an otherwise spineless Istanbul had been long abandoned. Prost’s master city plan provided for a much larger continuous green space, which he called Park No. 2, covering an area of 30ha between the neighborhoods of Taksim, Nisantasi and Macka extending to Bosphorus including the Dolmabahce Valley. The larger park which was intended to offer green space for recreation to Istanbul’s residents and tourists, was discarded in favor of selling the public land to private interests. Similar urban plans that had come into existence after the war were also altered to allocate larger swathes of the planned public park areas to private hotels such as the Hilton, the Marmara, Divan, Hyatt, Swissotel, and Ritz Carlton. Even Gezi Park, which was already built was subject to losing its outlying zone by the construction of the Ceylan Interncontinental Hotel.
The Taksim neighborhood is currently characterized by the many layers of development that has taken place in the past 200 years. Throughout time, the area has repeatedly redefined itself as master plans have been implemented and abandoned continuously. What was once the Grand Cemetery at the edge of the city has become the central transportation hub, square, and a cultural/symbolic destination for a “New Istanbul.” But it still remains also as a residential housing area, a hotel district, a commercial center, and a dilapidated park.
Currently, retail shops and office spaces have gentrified the area along the major streets, while residential areas have been pushed back behind the artery roads. Hotels are ubiquitous as the number of tourists increase every year, but the skyline has been untouched since the international hotels defied the zoning codes by buying their rights inside the planned public park #2. Cultural and Educational facilities are precariously scattered along the abandoned master plan. Finally what remains as the public park is disconnected, discarded, and are frequently occupied by stray dogs on any given day.
The context of Taksim square is amorphous. It’s identity, function, and use perpetually undefined. This is precisely the reason why it is so confusing stepping out of the metro station. But also a fact for PM Erdogan to implement a “Neo-Ottoman” development to manifest his new vision in the heart of Istanbul.