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The Mixed-Up Files of Taksim Square Architecture

The long, strange history of the building that sparked the Istanbul protests

Protests against the demolitions of historical buildings are common. Protests against the architectural reconstruction of historical buildings are rare. Yet coverage of Turkey's recent protests against the proposed rebuilding of an Ottoman-era military barracks at Gezi Park has mostly overlooked this attribute of the rebellion—and the history of the proposed building itself. The planned project, approved by the local municipality in 2011, would deploy a replica of the barracks to house a mixed-use real estate development that was to have consisted primarily of a shopping mall, but now may also include some kind of museum. In a statement reported by Turkey's Anadolu news agency, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan said that despite those protests and a pending court injunction, the barracks' reconstruction would continue as a matter of, "respect for history."

Of course, there are many ways to respect history. One interpretation is that the barracks' reconstruction favors tenuously applicable historical preservation statutes over local ordinances ensuring the protection of parks and greenspace—a type of maneuver not uncommon in a country whose economic success has inspired prodigious, and ingenious, real estate development and associated infrastrucural projects, including a planned third Bosporus bridge and Black Sea canal. Another interpretation is more portentous: that the rebuilding of a monumental military structure, decommissioned in 1920 and demolished in 1940, constitutes an architectural expression of a return to a pre-modern Ottoman past—with its despotisms, admixtures of religious and political and military authorities, and other Byzantine connotations.

The reconstruction of the Taksim barracks wouldn’t be the first architectural replication with plausible political motives. In 2000, Vladimir Putin oversaw the inauguration on its original site of the reconstructed Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, which had been demolished by Stalin in 1931, and the canonization ceremony, held therein, of Tsar Nicholas Romanov. In 1974, the German Democratic Republic built a Palace of the Republic, a reviled yet surprisingly groovy multi-use government and entertainment center, on the site of the demolished Neoclassical Stadtschloss, the former home of the Hohenzollern kings of Prussia. After German reunification—and the removal of 700 tons of asbestos—that bronze-and-glass-walled behemoth became a hipster-friendly venue for art installations and performances. The Palace of the Republic was demolished, in turn, in 2007, to enable the ongoing construction of a replica of the original Stadtschloss—an erasure of an erasure. Protests of that demolition, which many Germans saw a willful elision of a usefully difficult legacy, anticipated Istanbul's in their conflation of political activism and architectural criticism.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Taksim Barracks in 1909

So, from Moscow to Berlin to Istanbul, it is possible to perceive a contemporary reactionary architecture, in which zombie buildings are resurrected in the service of new masters. But a closer look at the architectural design and history of the Taksim Barracks, at the influences on the original building—and therefore on its possible reanimation—reveals a more complex picture than mere historicism or nationalism provides.

The original building was commissioned in 1806 by Sultan Selim III, who came of age during a reformist moment in the Ottomans' long history, following a series of military and diplomatic setbacks. Selim was a Westernizing reformer, a keen observer of the French Revolution, and an admirer of Napoleon; the troops to be housed in his barracks were not traditional Ottoman Janissaries (who eventually overthrew Selim in favor of a more pliant cousin), but a new parallel army organized along contemporary European models. The architect of the building was an Armenian, Krikor Balian, a descendant of carpenters and founder of a local dynasty of architects, who produced many institutional buildings, in many styles, for Selim and his successors.

Although a predictable architectural critique of the planned barracks-replica mall is that it would be an inauthentic pastiche, the original building was itself something of a mash-up. There was nothing monomaniacally essential or singularly vernacular in Balian's original design. The original building was a nimble synthesis of styles and motifs from across the Ottomans' sprawling sphere of influence. It consisted of long dormitory wings in pale stone and brick and tile, surrounding a vast central parade ground, with stout towers at the corners and a commanding entrance gate pavilion along one side. The wings were spartan and largely undecorated; they and the interior facades looking out over the central courtyard were rendered in an austere neoclassical style—the default institutional mode across Europe and the Americas at that time. Balian's treatment of the towers and gates was, by contrast, intricate, playful, and a little weird. And certainly cosmopolitan: There's something a little Moorish in the arched windows, a little Assyrian in the irregularly crenellated cornice and supporting pilasters, and even a little Russian in the swoopy onion domes that top the flanking octagonal towers.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Sultan Selim III, commissioner of the original Taksim Barracks.

But mapping political influence onto architecture is never straightforward. The Francophile neoclassical architecture that Balian deployed for the backstage parts of the Taksim Barracks (and more generally to his subsequent design for the monumental Selimiye Barracks across the Bosporus) had by midcentury moved to center stage, even as the Ottoman Empire reasserted its distinctions and prerogatives: By the 1850s, the reigning sultan had moved out of the four-centuries old Topkapi Palace into an ornate neoclassical pile that, but for a few vernacular filigrees, would not have been out of place along the Thames or Seine.

After its military decommissioning following World War I, the Taksim Barracks were repurposed as an 8000-seat makeshift soccer stadium before being demolished in 1940 to make way for Gezi Park and a purpose-built stadium nearby. Photos from the soccer era show the interior courtyard plastered with cinema-like marquees and signs, full of life and gentle mayhem—a gratifyingly lively convergence of messy human occupation and architectural grandeur. This prior incarnation suggests that the actual impact on urban life of the newly planned barracks-mall—if that broad and park-like interior field remains genuinely public space—could be less disruptive than feared.

But architectural effects are hard to predict. Until they disappear (and sometimes reappear), buildings are the stable environments for our unstable lives, even as their perceived meanings and effects are malleable and fleeting. And their physical materials, if not the particular arrangements of those materials, lastingly endure. In 2008, at a time of high steel prices and sustainability-friendly public relations, the steel structure of the demolished East German Palace of the Republic was recovered and recycled, some of it sent to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to become part of the Burj Khalifa, now the tallest skyscraper in the world—and some of it sent to Turkey, where it was used in the manufacturing of parts for trucks and buses. It's easy to imagine one of those buses pulling up to Taksim Square this week, that old steel somewhere in the heart of its new engine, idling in the space where once a soldier dreamed or drilled: a haunting of one ghost by another.