Imagining Taksim Square

Public spaces have been and continue to be central to the nationalist project that defines secular Turkey. Abundant images of Ataturk, the benevolent dictator who is revered as the father of modern Turkey, reinforce the triumph of the secular state over alternative ideologies (Islamist, Kurdish) and also tie local spaces into the larger space of the nation, creating a sense of national unity. While public space continues to represent the secular state, it has become a site of conflict over nationalist ideologies. The current government has co-opted public space to reproduce the image of Islamism, representing national identity as Islamic, Ottoman, and Eastern. Taksim Square in Istanbul is a prime example of contested space, both physical and cultural.

Left: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Middle: Republican Monument, Taksim Square. Right:
Taksim Square, located in the European part of Istanbul, is a major shopping district and leisure district. It is also in many ways the public face of modern Istanbul.

This public space, also known as Taksim Republic Square, was re-appropriated by the Kemalists as a new center for the city in the late 1920’s. Their choice was one of geographic and cultural distancing from Sultanahmet Square, which had been the heart of Istanbul under Ottoman rule. Home to Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), as well as Topkapi Palace, Sultanahmet Square was so saturated with symbols of Ottoman/Islamic power that it simply could not be re-imagined as a public face for the new nation. On the other hand, Taksim Square, in European Istanbul, was largely devoid of Ottoman/Islamic presence: it housed no mosques (and in fact was surrounded by the churches and synagogues of Istanbul’s non-Muslim communities)—and, important to the psychological distancing from Sultanahmet, the grand mosques of the old city were not even visible from this hilltop site. Thus, Taksim Square became the site in1928 for the construction of the Republic Monument, a prominent marker of secular Turkish identity and ideology.

Sultanahmet Square in winter. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, they converted the Byzantine Hagia Sophia into a mosque and built the larger Sultanahmet Mosque -the only mosque in the world with 6 minarets - across the square.

Taksim Square is a contested space. In the mid-1990’s Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist city administration came into power and controversially pushed for the construction of a mosque in the square. The need for a mosque had far more to do with the cultural landscape of Taksim and the marked, highly intentional absence of Islamic identity within that landscape than with the worship needs of local populations. Today, a strong marker of secularist identity in Taksim Square is under attack: the Ataturk Cultural Center. This cultural center and opera house is an institution of western enlightenment, and it is also by virtue of its namesake a symbol of secular nationalism. The current Islamist government has proposed the demolition of the Ataturk Cultural Center under the argument that it is both architecturally and programmatically outdated, but pro-secularist Turks are adamantly opposed to the prospect of its removal—primarily on ideological grounds. This battle is not merely a question of public space—it lies at the heart of Turkey’s identity as a nation and as a people. It is a site where cultural landscape and physical landscape are so densely layered as to be basically indistinguishable from one another.


Starting to Think About Cultural Landscapes

When we think of the physical landscape, it’s easy to conceive of it as the interplay of contrasting and complementary forms, textures, materials, and so on. It is also fairly straightforward to think of landscape as layered: we have been conditioned to think of the spatial layering of the landscape in terms of fore-, middle- and background; we are aware of the historical layering of landscape as it is uncovered through archeological investigation; and landscape is also, of course, the physical manifestation of geological layering.

Left: Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove), 1862; Right: Geological Map of Pennsylvania, 1960

Appending the term “landscape” to a description of culture implies that the cultural is not unitary, that culture never exists as a discrete, objectifiable, or constant expression but rather results from the layering and overlapping of different elements. Even a relatively specific cultural subset could not be equally and uniformly experienced by all those who construct it. Take, for example, Pennsylvania Dutch as a cultural mode identifiable by characteristic sartorial, culinary, ideological, linguistic, and practical markers. Like any cultural mode, it is the product of those who identify themselves according to its terms and who conversely establish the parameters by which it is defined as a cultural mode. But while there are many similarities amongst those who participate in the construction of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, not all participate in cultural production to the same degree, nor do they share constant, uniform attributes of and attitudes toward said culture. They could be described as polythetically overlapping—as occupying distinctive positions but with enough overlap to identify commonly as a group. Enlarging the frame of cultural reference from the specific to the broad brings us to the concept of American culture. If the fairly specific Pennsylvania Dutch cultural mode was itself marked by a layering and overlapping of distinct positions, then the broader mode of American culture must be necessarily more densely layered and divergently experienced.

Returning to the idea of physical landscape as layered assemblage, I would suggest that the way in which one perceives a landscape reflects more upon the position of the viewer than the inherent properties or composition of the landscape itself. Experienced from different perspectives, the landscape resolves into a multiplicity of distinct views. One achieves a varied experience of landscape primarily by moving through it—that is, by engaging it both spatially and temporally. It seems clear that the perception of a cultural landscape is also entirely dependent upon the position from which it is viewed, but while most individuals have the mobility to move through the physical landscape, our relationship to cultural landscapes is basically limited by our very subjectivity, by the degree to which we are embedded in our own constructed identities.

This raises several questions:

How does one become aware of the layering of the cultural landscape? Can one view a cultural landscape from any perspective other than that of individual, embedded subjectivity? And…what role can architecture play in revealing the multiple experiences of cultural landscape?


Workshop Exercise: Method

The element under consideration:

One chapter, Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy, from Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization

The means of analysis:

Reading the article with an interest in the construction of identity. Pulling out the key points of the article, summarizing Appadurai’s argument, and then filtering that argument through my specific interest in the constructedness of identity.

The evidence adduced:

Cultural material is fluid and as such, it flows across boundaries, including national boundaries. The elements comprising the flow of culture include flows of people, flows of technologies, and flows of finance, as well as flows of information and ideology. These latter two comprise (at least in part) the landscape of images, and as images, they contribute to the construction of imagined worlds—that is, of imagined or constructed identities. Although all of these flows are interwoven and overlap, they are also disjunctive. Appadurai describes these flows as being fundamental fractal, but equally importantly, they overlap polythetically. This polythetic understanding of culture is important: different modes of cultural production resemble each other and overlap while at the same time possessing unique combinations of defining characteristics. The total separation of cultural modes (or the definition of cultures primarily in opposition to each other) is thus artificial.

Appadurai writes of imagined communities, constructed ethnicities, and invented homelands, and he describes “the imagination as a social practice,” using language that emphasizes the active construction of culture and identity by both individuals and communities. The imagination is a site of cultural production; it is “a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility.” Because the imagination is situated and is specific to individuals, communities, and places, it is impossible that all fictional landscapes produced map directly onto realistic landscapes. Imagined landscapes must to some degree impact realistic landscapes, but there must also be disjunctures between the two. The idea of a realistic landscape is one that I have not fully explored and have not yet been able to define through Appadurai’s text.

LEFT: 8 March 2005 Istanbul, Turkey- International Women's Day

RIGHT: 11 Nov 2006 Istanbul, Turkey Women Protest the upcoming visit from the Pope

Appadurai suggests that the further the agent is from the world s/he imagines, the greater the likelihood that the imagined world will be “chimerical, aesthetic, even fantastic objects,” especially when judged in light of another imagined world—say, that of an adopted country. This is especially the case with deterritorialized populations who have to reproduce their identities in foreign contexts, without the reinforcement of their traditional cultural landscapes. Individuals and groups create their own (potentially conflicting) imagined worlds, and when these worlds do not correlate sufficiently, cultural conflict can arise (this point demands further study). Appadurai notes that women play an especially important role in the reproduction of culture and identity since they frequently are responsible for maintaining heritage through family. “In short,” he states, “deterritorialized communities and displaced populations, however much they may enjoy the fruits of new kinds of earning and new dispositions of capital and technology, have to play out the desires and fantasies of these new ethnoscapes, while striving to reproduce the family-as-microcosm of culture.”

The claim relevant to architecture, based on above evidence:

The cultural landscape as imagined landscape is reflected in the cultural landscape as built reality. The built environment carries strong markers of identity and can be used as a tool to reflect cultural identities—and potentially to influence the construction of cultural identity as well. Given the degree to which identity is constructed (rather than inherent), it follows that identity may be re-constructed over time, and that it is fluid, as are the processes that shape cultural interactions. It is possible, then, that architectural agents may be able to heighten disparities between various imagined cultural landscapes; to mediate those disparities and encourage more reciprocal relationships between identity constructs; or to make visible the very constructedness of those identities.



Excerpts from The Guardian, 10.11.2007

In Italy the mayors of Bologna and Genoa last month cancelled or delayed planning permission for mosques after a vociferous campaign by the far-right Northern League, one of whose leaders, Roberto Calderoli, threatened to stage a "day of pork" to offend Muslims and to take pigs to "defile" the site of the proposed mosque in Bologna.

This opposition is on a collision course with an Islam that is now the fastest-growing religion in Europe and which is clamouring for its places of worship to be given what it sees as a rightful and visible place in west European societies.

"The whole idea of having these huge mosques is about being part of Europe while having your religion," says Thijl Sunier, a Dutch anthropologist. "You have young Muslims showing their confidence, stating we are part of this society and we want our share. And you have growing anxiety among many native Europeans."

"We've got nothing against prayer rooms or mosques for the Muslims," he insists. "But a minaret is different. It's got nothing to do with religion. It's a symbol of political power."

Built form is a powerful representation of identity. In the Swiss village of Wangen, citizens are mobilizing against a Muslim meeting house that wants to erect a minaret. The meeting house (described as a nondescript house with a prayer room in the basement) is not a problem in and of itself. It’s (supposedly) fine with the mosque’s ethnically/historically Swiss neighbors for Muslims to meet and pray in their neighborhood. But they will not tolerate the 6-meter high minaret that has been approved…because it is un-Swiss. It’s a problem of representation. The majority of the village residents want their hometown to represent them and their identities which, having defined (or been defined by) the character of the village throughout living memory, they take to be quintessentially Swiss. They want no visible symbols of Islam in their hometown—or perhaps even their country—because Islam is not Swiss.

The article describes protestors’ (and legislators’) efforts to “keep [their] country culturally Christian.” Notable here is that keeping Switzerland Christian is not what matters so much as keeping it culturally Christian, which probably has less to do with religion than lifestyle. Again, it’s a problem of representation: people may believe whatever they wish to believe, but they need to blend into the perceived cultural landscape (which is in many ways a matter of visually blending in). Also of note is the implied claim to Switzerland as our country, not theirs. Muslims are the largest religious minority in Swizterland, but it is implied that they are still guests; they don’t belong there, and Switzerland is not (and never will be) their country.

Individual identity is closely linked to place. If a Swiss village no longer looks “Swiss” because its skyline is punctuated by a minaret, then the city’s historically Swiss residents may perceive the city as an inaccurate reflection of their personal identities, and when the city no longer reflects the individual, the individual looses some of his or her sense of place in the world. Thus, the built environment becomes a staging ground for deciding who belongs and who doesn’t.


Ideology, Cultural Politics, Intellectuals

"...analysis...must also recognize that knowledge and cultural values play a central part in maintaining and transforming social orders, and that defense of one or another value participates in this. As a result, culture and intellectual activity are inherently political (not underlain by politics, but interwoven with it), at two different levels: that of their encounter with alternative values within their own sphere, and that of their place in reproducing society."

"Political struggles are quintessentially about 'the very representation of the social world...[which] can be uttered and constructed in different ways' (Bourdieu 1985: 723,726)."

Katherine Verdery (1991) in Introduction to National Ideology Under Socialism: Identity and Cultural Politics in Ceausecu's Romania (19, 17).


can there be a productive ambivalence?

Bernard Khoury’s early work (1998-2002) feels antagonistic yet it is largely ambivalent. Khoury is obsessed with the willful amnesia of elite post-war Beirut, and his buildings are redolent with reminders of the conflicted past. But despite being hung up on the negation of social memory, he doesn’t really want to do anything other than remind people that memory is still present.

B018 Beirut, Lebanon

His formal language speaks sharply of violence and power in B018, a subterranean club on the site of the French quarantine (which could easily be mistaken for an underground bunker or missile silo) and decay in Centrale, a chichi restaurant near the demarcation line between east and west Beirut (the crumbling historical fa├žade of which he encases in steel mesh), and yet he does not admonish the socialites who frequent these places for having forgotten their city’s recent troubled past. His buildings don’t have a didactic imperative, they simply state what he sees as blunt realities: this is a site of former violence, this is the product of decay, and you are seeking pleasure in this place.

What, then, do these projects actually produce? Given their popularity as absurdly decadent social venues for the well-heeled of Beirut, it would seem that these buildings do not make their inhabitants uncomfortable. Do they even cause people to pause and reflect? And are they any more or less successful if they do? Khoury’s projects are mirrors on the current social climate in Beirut—they reflect an unapologetic culture of consumption while referencing the political and social backdrop against which pleasure now occurs. As Khoury notes, his projects “are not moralistic projects; they are not about what is good or what is bad. They are about the harshness and sometimes the beauty of those realities.” Khoury’s architecture, as I have already stated, feels very antagonistic to me (this is why I like it). And yet it does not antagonize. Is that good or bad? I’m leaning toward the latter.

In a recent interview in Metropolis (Jul/Aug 07), Khoury says of his work:
"My projects are not manifestos. They take a very specific situation and try to dig into that situation, push and reinterpret it, and flip around these realities in the most pertinent way. But I am not being cynical here, because I think each of these projects has a dose of pleasure in them and that pleasure is extremely important to me."

10/5: After talking with T. Hyde this morning, I think my earlier statement requires an acknowledgment that ambivalence is, at the very least, an active stance in Khoury's case. I took Khoury's lack of commentary as, perhaps, a lack of theorization. One of the few questions he explicitly asks regarding/through his architecture is 'what does it mean to rebuild?.' It may be that in the face of on-going strife in Beirut, this question can't be answered. Khoury's ambivalent response is an active deferral that maintains the possibility of change. TH pointed out that the program--the bar--is the very image of deferral, of biding one's time, glass of champagne in hand...

draft statement

Religious Space and Social Identity

I find myself fascinated with extremes of religion and the galvanic power of such extremity to drive politics and mass movements in multiple forms. I’m not interested in religious space as worship space—the architecture of the church or mosque. I’m interested in [religious] space as a medium of social coherence. This space is not necessarily local in nature; it may not be a place in the physical, concrete sense.

While group identity transcends local space—groups can coalesce across great distances via mass media; they can be fluctuating and mobile—place (and space) remains (or may remain) highly important to the construction and maintenance of identity. But what role does space actually play? How does space heighten/moderate/inform social identity? My primary interest is in collective identity, and while religious identity does not have to be a part of a collective social identity, it very often is.

Religious Terrorism as social expression

Consider identity politics mobilized at a global scale but with local impact: terrorism is a manifestation of identity that plays out in real space and registers itself against the built environment. Terrorism is a means of social expression that makes something visible—that (arguably) creates agency through a public, violent act. I seek to relocate agency through architecture, to make visible that which otherwise lacks voice. I believe that architecture can be transformative. I also acknowledge that architecture occurs through concrete spatial relationships. I want to develop a discursive architecture that addresses the spatial dimension of identity construction through the production of specific conditions.

Istanbul and its identity crisis

I am planning to draw on Istanbul as a site for my thesis investigation. The underlying theme of my interest is social identity, so often characterized by difference. Group identity remains a persistent question for Istanbul and its residents, and often seems to present itself in dual terms: past and present, east and west, religious and secular, rural and cosmopolitan, conservative and liberal. The impulse to define identity based on otherness is inherently problematic for a city that is, literally, both European and Asian.

The idea of common identity, of Turkishness, has been present in Turkey since its forming and was a necessary construction allowing it to emerge as a modern nation state. Today the constructed identity of the Turk is increasingly challenged. It is my goal to mobilize architecture in the construction and acocmodation of multiple identities.


Culture Wars readings

"As David Edwards has pointed out, establishing the other as fanatical denies him or her moral status, since he or she exists beyond the realm of rationality, and gives those whose moral superiority is thus affirmed a free hand in defending their interests."

from Khalid, Adeeb. (1998) Chapter 2: "The making of a colonial society" in The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia , p.52. Berkeley: University of California Press.

"...borderlands are not just arenas of civilizational struggles, of semiotic inequality, that produce and reflect relations of power where the colonizer seeks to define and program the borderland as 'other' and 'same' and, as Ashis Nandy argues, its inhabitants as an 'intimate enemy,' but are sites subject to peculiar social contradictions and interactions. THese spawn, by a kind of local magic, the possibility of a new community and a subtle, not always conscious, but genuine resistance to colonial situations."

from Lazzerini, Edward J. (1997) "Local accommodation and resistance to colonialism in nineteenth-century Crimea," in D.R. Brower and E.J. Lazzerini, eds: Russia's Orient: Imperial Borderlands and Peoples, 1700-1917 , p. 172. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.


"Where there is consumption, there is pleasure, and where there is pleasure, there is agency."
Appadurai MaL-7

Shopping, terrorism, architecture. Take your pick.

"...global processes involving mobile texts and migrant audiences create implosive events that fold global pressures into small, already politicized arenas, producing locality in new, globalized ways."

Appadurai MaL-9

"...concerned not with forms/objects, but with shaping the conditions under which forms or objects emerge..."
M. Speaks,
Any 24:44-47