Topgu Ktglast: artillery barracks as shopping mall
Erdogan’s long-term dream has been to claim and appropriate Taksim Square and its Gezi Parki, a historically charged, symbolically powerful social space in the heart of Istanbul. His stubborn stance was an essentially postmodern architectural idea: to rebuild Topgu Kiglasi, the Ottoman military barracks (aka Halil Pa§a Artillery Barracks) which stood in Taksim from 1806 to its final demolition in 1940s and to rebuild it as a shopping mall and hotel complex. What does this gesture exactly signify in relation to the colorful urban history of Taksim? Topgu Kiglasi was a building complex allocated for the artillery corps, and its construction was completed between 1803 and 1806 by architects Ibrahim Kamil Aga and/or Krikor Balyan as part of the military reform program of Selim III.14 Taksim, which literally means “allocation”, has long been the central place from where water has been distributed to the different neighborhoods of the city since the 18th century,15 and carried, therefore, both an ontological and a symbolic significance as the urban core of Istanbul. The artillery barracks took over a massive space in Taksim with its expansive courtyard and rectilinear structures, and was located adjacent to a major Armenian cemetery in its vicinity - the Surp Hagop Pangalti Cemetery. This large cemetery was associated with the Surp Agop Armenian Hospital that was established in 1837 in Elmadag neighborhood. The grounds of the cemetery remain partially buried under the current Taksim Gezi Park where some of the tombstones have been reused as spolia (pavement blocks) and the remaining parts had been destroyed from the 1930s onward by the construction of several hotels around the square. The Armenian heritage of Taksim Square has recently been discussed following the eruption of Gezi demonstrations.16 Topgu Kiglasi and Taksim Square, therefore, have a deeply politicized history as an urban locale and always remained at the center of a vivid and increasingly contested public space in Istanbul’s urban landscape.
By the second half of the 19 th century, the barracks had already lost its significance in its original function and had become the site of various public spectacles and entertainment events such as circuses and horse races. It was also a site heavily impacted by the 31 March Incident in 1909, the conservative religious uprising against the restoration of the constitution by the Young Turk revolution. The damaged barracks were used as a stadium and for various functions in partial ruins until it was demolished in the 1940s, giving way to a landscape design by Henri
Prost, a well-known French city planner who at the time had proposed a new urban plan for Istanbul. Prost’s plan involved the demolition of what remained of the artillery barracks and led to the creation of the urban park known today as the Gezi Park.
Throughout the 20th century, Taksim Square, Gezi Park and their immediate environs continued to be a symbolic battleground between state gestures of architectural control and discipline, official ceremonies of state spectacle, creeping urban commercialization especially with hotel constructions, and memorable demonstrations, acts of resistance, and state (military/police) violence in 1960s and 1970s (Baykan and Hatuka 2010). The memories of the demonstrations leading up to the 1 May 1977 event known as “Taksim Square Massacre” where government forces randomly opened fire at demonstrators, resulting in 34 deaths (or 42 according to other accounts) and several more being injured, remain deeply embedded in Taksim’s embattled grounds.
Since the 1970s, the conservative Islamicist political fronts in Turkey desired for the construction of a mosque in Taksim Square, precisely for this reason: to appropriate a symbolically powerful and historically contested urban space and transform as well as control the structure of diverse everyday practices on the square. Erdogan came up with a brilliant solution for Taksim Square and Gezi Park: to revoke the late Ottoman history of monumental state presence on the square by building a replica of the early 19 th century design of the military barracks. To kill two birds with one stone, the barracks would also be turned into a shopping mall and hotel, a money-making urban development project, which would align well with Erdogan’s broader program of capital investment across the Anatolian countryside and its urban landscapes. I argue therefore that the symbolism of this takeover also seems to be related to the long-term Islamist desire to crown Taksim Square with a massive mosque and abolish its secular history. Therefore the conflict over Taksim Square is a long-term and thorny one, not simply a matter of keeping its gorgeous, hundred-year-old sycamore trees alive.