June 10, 2013
GEZI PARK PROTESTS: We need to discuss architecture more than ever.
Protests in Turkey are a civil rights struggle: They are more than simply for the fate of Gezi Park in Istanbul. Most know this by now.
Political analysts have thus far interpreted timing as key to understanding the public response to what seemed like a small cause—to protect a “small” urban park. Restrictions on freedom of press, arrests of numerous journalists, intellectuals, students and academics, the introduction of laws and practices that seek to control public demeanor, reproductive health and privacy, and the systematic desecularization of school curricula have marked the last years of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tenure as Prime Minister leading his Justice and Development Party (AKP). These actions each sent the same message over and over: Erdogan has grown increasingly intolerant of difference.
The protests were triggered by the violent crackdown of the peaceful demonstrators who sought to protect the park from demolition, and the government’s architectural proposal, which would be implemented, allegedly by a company owned by Erdogan’s son-in-law, became the symbol of an authoritarian and corrupt government. The controversial project aims to privatize the public park to reconstruct in its place a mall in the appearance of an Ottoman barrack that preceded the park. The proposal itself became the locus of a lively debate that brought architecture to public focus more than any before (The debates around the project have been documented on a timeline by the local collective Herkesicinmimarlik (Architectureforeveryone).
Gezi is but one of many architectural projects Erdogan has taken on. Just before the June 2011 elections, he proposed a new channel to the west of the Bosporus that connects Black and Marmara seas. The redesign of Gezi was among such “crazy” projects of economic rent generation, as Erdogan himself referred to them. To cite but a few, prior controversial architectural projects he spearheaded include the privatization of the Tophane port area and the iconic Haydarpasa Train Station and port next to it. In fact these projects of privatization are part of a broader panoply of “urban transformation projects,” as AKP has dubbed them, and which include the displacement of poor people from inner-city areas for state-led gentrification, destruction of green spaces as well as historic sites. Most of these met with due local resistance, but remained isolated and never coalesced into a big movement.
One of the questions that have confounded analysts in recent days is why a prime minister is obsessed by building a mall (even mocked by Stephen Colbert in his The Colbert Report). Such projects have helped to present him as a leader-in-action; benefited private interests with intricate connections to his immediate family and party; and fueled economic growth. Furthermore, controversial projects have helped AKP steer public debate from dicey social and economic issues. It is important to remember that the highlight of Erdogan’s former career was to be a mayor of Istanbul in the mid 1990s. In a way, he has never let it go.
Erdogan’s one-man mayor politics as prime minister is reminiscent of former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’ focus on “Istanbul’s rebuilding” in the second half of the 1950s when his liberal economic model started failing. One of the key differences is that Erdogan has seemingly endless credit funds at his disposal to finance his projects. Since the 1980s, Istanbul has been serviced by a two-tier municipal system and the governorship. The metropolitan municipality (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, IMM) concerns itself with citywide services and district municipalities serve populations within their boundaries. Nonetheless, both, in particular their elected mayors, have vast powers of decision-making that came with changes in the governance of municipalities, decreasing the role of centrally appointed governors’ offices and increasing the sources of income for municipal governments. Driven by new powers vested in them, municipalities have been able to privatize the public land and companies that they owned, found semi-public companies and obtain loans and credits on their own, resulting in massive infrastructural investments such as metro-bus lines, subway lines, roads and bridges.
The legal framework, which is at work, does not facilitate participatory processes in city governance. Working with municipal councils with relatively weak powers, mayors more or less act as CEOs. Citizens learn about decisions through newspaper accounts, mostly after the fact when contracts are assigned and deeds are done. There are citizens’ councils (kent konseyi) in each municipality, but they operate more like showcases for the mayors than forums for citizens. Although NGOs, citizens’ groups and, most effectively, professional organizations of architects and urban planners do raise their voices through the media and courts, there is a lack of accountability to the citizens.
The protest for Gezi lead to unprecedented unification not only in response to police brutality but also because the “real estate” in question was a public park that could be physically occupied (when all other channels of communication failed), and secondly, there was a “tangible” architectural proposal, which is clearly opportunistic and ideologically driven rather than aiming for the public good. For the protests to evolve into a productive path, rather than being hijacked or sabotaged by political party level organizations, we need counter proposals as symbolic of how a truly democratic process can work. This calls for a redefinition of architecture as moving object (process) rather than a fixed one (end product).
Formal public spaces and architectural proposals are the crucial links conventionally ignored by analysts, who tend to focus on human actors and capital. Architectural proposals in particular become ways of rendering possibilities, having conversations and communicating objectives among actors be it individuals, self-identified groups, formal associations or institutions. Actors can have very different understandings and intentions, and yet they can associate with each other and work out collective practice through them.
As we criticize the lack of a participatory process, we must also evaluate what tools and methods are available to us today. Participatory design has been used in the field of architecture since the 1960s with the goal of including the end users in the decision making process. It has proved over time to be manipulatable, and turned at times into a legitimization process, leading Jurgen Habermas to call it “reverence for the banal.” The key idea to be derived from Habermas’ “communicative action” is that what constitutes public interest should be defined through the design process, not a priori of it. Counter proposals can emerge from the expertise of design professionals but also be driven and shaped by the general public through open debate. The first design task would necessarily be that of a new model, or new models, of participation.
Is there an actually existing need or demand for a re-design? Neither Gezi Park nor the next door Taksim Square were pleasant public spaces that allowed for unstructured activity, partly due to management but partly due to design. Gezi Park is blocked from the surrounding busy streets and Taksim Square by level changes and buildings. Taksim, despite being the city’s protest square par excellence, is not a square but a large swath of ill-defined open paved space that is more a traffic island like Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The demonstrators have traditionally gathered to one side of the square by the monument to continue sometimes with a march on the pedestrianized Istiklal Avenue. Once a formal public space is appropriated for manifest protest, it is typical of governments to redesign that space to prevent such events from happening again. Subdividing, fencing off and closing a public space indeterminately for infrastructural or beautification “projects” emerge as some of the common spatial strategies. The fates of Taksim Square and Gezi Park have been marked by such official spatial strategies to undermine their potentials, especially since the famous 1977 Labor Day demonstrations, which ended in violence (dubbed later as Taksim Square massacre).
An online petition for a better proposal for the area launched on November 2, 2012 received more than 50,000 signatures. However, there is no group, association, or agency in Turkey that feels confident to lead the redesign of such a controversial space. The tacit assumption is that any design attempt would end up being profit driven, inevitably get rid of the trees and the park, which the demonstrators have managed to protect despite police brutality. In the recent past, the government and its web of private interests have used architectural competitions for public urban spaces to generate publicity and consent for redevelopment (Haydarpasa-Kadikoy Urban Design Competition of 2001 being a prime example).
The reaction to Erdogan’s scheme thus far has been mainly preservation-ist: preserve the trees, preserve the park as it was, according to the 1940s design of the French architect-planner Henri Prost. This manner of resistance is akin to those in post-war US in response to urban renewal. Comparisons have already been made between Gezi Park and Washington Park, which was saved in the 1950s by locals, lead by Jane Jacobs, from being erased for Robert Moses’ highway project. The preservation of Gezi as a park, together with the trees in it, does not preclude the possibility of a better design.
Another response has been that of small interventions. Just like Tahrir Square’s or Zukotti Park’s encampments which provided their occupiers with facilities to aid the daily workings of their temporal community, Gezi has generated its own utopian organization complete with a collective library, kitchens, children’s play area, and free clinics.
Gezi Park and the nearby Taksim Square need new design proposals now more than ever to keep questioning who has a “right to the city.” First articulated by French sociologist Henri Lefebvre in the late 1960s, the idea of the right to the city underwent a popular revival in the 2000s, due to urban social movements and struggles over shaping features of daily life – cited among important new formations in the United States is the National Right to the City Alliance. Both David Harvey and Edward Soja dream of different oppositional movements coming together, in Harvey’s words, “coalescing around the slogan of the right to the city” to demand “greater democratic control over the production and use of the surplus” and ‘democratic control over the deployment of the surpluses through urbanization.” According to Harvey, “[t]o claim the right to the city […] is to claim some kind of shaping power over the process of urbanization […]” (Rebel Cities, Verso, 2012). Harvey explains in great detail how capital urbanizes, and suggests understanding the urbanization of capital as the first step for any meaningful action for social change: “To understand how we can share that shaping power, we need to understand how cities are made and remade.” There are two recurrent themes in his writing: capitalism is producing surplus products that urbanization requires; and, capitalism needs urbanization to absorb the surplus products it perpetually produces. Thus, he regards the built environment as the key to the workings of capital in his discussion of the political process and citizenship rights. The developments in Turkey have become a textbook example for neo-Marxist urban geographers’ theorizations of the relationship between capital, urbanization, and social movements.
The lesson from Gezi is that in order to share power over who shapes our cities and our everyday lives, we need to discuss architecture more than ever.