more useful things from last weekend

While in New Haven, I ran into R. Mehta who's in the Rex studio (the program: an opera in Istanbul) and he pointed out that the Istanbul Biennial, which ends this weekend, has an exhibit "Burn it or not?" in the Ataturk Cultural Center (in Turkish, Atatürk Kültür Merkezi, hence AKM). And yes, the title of the exhibit does indeed refer to the AKM...burn it or not? Keep it or destroy it? Some excerpts:

Turkey, as one of the first non-western modern republics and a key player in the modernization of the developing world has proved to be one of the most radical, spectacular and influential cases in this direction. But, a fundamentally crucial problem is that the modernization model promoted by the Kemalist project was still a top-down imposition with some unsolvable contradictions and dilemmas inherent within the system: the quasi-military imposition of reforms, while necessary as a revolutionary tool, betrayed the principle of democracy; the nationalist ideology ran counter to its embracement of the universality of humanism, and the elite-led economic development generated social division. Populist political and religious forces have managed to recuperate and manipulate the claims from the “bottom” of the society and have used them to their own advantage.


To critically reexamine “the promise of modernity”, we have chosen some of the most significant modern edifices and venues including the AKM, İMÇ, Antrepo, santralistanbul and KAHEM. They symbolically and physically mirror the various facets and models of urban modernization in the city. In these sites, the utopian project of the republican revolution and modernization meets with the lively, ever-changing and “chaotic” reality, at once harmonious and conflicting. They are sites where the top-down vision of the modern city clashes with the bottom-up imaginations and actions promoting difference and hybridity.


Architecture has always been closely related to political projects. Public institutions are the most visible images of this relationship. This has not changed in the Modernist age, despite it being a more democratic period of history; instead, it has been enforced. But modernism is, in fact, idealist and utopian, and based on economic, political, socio-cultural and technological progress, solidarity, social justice and democracy. It envisions perfectly the ideal of a modern political utopia. Monumentality and the spectacular become the characteristic language to express such an utopian vision. Situated in Taksim Square, designed by Hayati Tabanlıoğlu and reconstructed in the early 1970s, AKM is İstanbul’s major public site of cultural and political ceremonial events and performances by the “high arts”. Its archetypal socio-modernist style makes it a perfect symbol of the utopian vision of the Turkish Republic: that of a secular, progressive and modern nation-state guided by Atatürk’s farsightedness and political power.

However, this highly interesting edifice is now facing a fatal crisis; it is now under the threat of being gentrified by the force of the neo-liberal economic power, hand in hand with the populist political power. A fancier, “post-modern”, probably corporate-like complex is being planned to replace it. Its demise and gentrification are now intensely debated. Its origin is full of irony. Newly constructed, the building was burnt down in 1970 during a performance. A few years later, after huge efforts in reconstruction and conservation, like a phoenix, the building rose from its ashes. AKM is now facing a second round of fire -this time, by the forces of globalization, a neo-liberal economy and political cynicism.

AKM, burn it or not? This is the question.

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