When the Demirören İstiklal shopping centre opened March 17, 2011 – just in time for the Istanbul Shopping Festival – it was in fact still under construction: light bulbs had been hastily screwed in, and visitors had to step over bags of plaster. Neither the elevators nor the toilets were finished, and the upper two storeys lay empty and closed to the public.
“Life has come to İstiklal”, the company website shouts about the new addition to one of Istanbul’s main shopping arteries – and indeed, Demirören İstiklal has managed to stir things up from the start. After a construction period of more than five years, during most of which the building-to-be was completely concealed behind high wooden panels, the long-awaited centre got a rather frosty reception. Architecture critic Ömer Kapınak wrote: “[The building is] yet another example of risible design in Istanbul. To be honest, at a time in which anything that is dipped in historical sauce holds an appeal, this building can be seen as a monument to this societal change taking over architecture.”
It is unclear whose signature the building actually bears. The company website credits Turkish architect Han Tümertekin, who also designed the SALT Art Gallery, with the design of Demirören İstiklal, as well as Hadi Teherani and award-winning architecture office Autoban. However, in an interview with YAPI Magazine, Tümertekin explained that he withdrew from the project in 2009, after deciding that his views differed too much from those of the construction company on the design of the centre. Neither of the other architects has made public statements about the criticism of the building. “Very ordinary” was the judgement handed down by Cengiz Semercioğlu in Hürriyet, while Mehveş Evin protested in Milliyet: “The Demirören shopping centre is nothing but a hormone-filled pumpkin. Don’t do your shopping there!”
However, while the appearance of the building’s façade has provoked much criticism and mockery, the real scandal around it is more serious: According to several reports, the Demirören Group – publicly known through Yildirim Demirören, the son of CEO Erdoğan Demirören and president of the Beşiktaş Football Club – has illegally doubled the surface of the construction area, added several storeys both above and below the ground and caused the demolition of two grade-1-listed, historic buildings and serious harm to several others. All in the very centre of the city on İstiklal Caddesi, a street that almost 3 million people walk along every day. While saying he was “not happy” about the appearance of the building and “uneasy” about the allegedly illegal proceedings, the Beyoğlu mayor, AKP politician Ahmet Misbah Demircan, complained: “This building was dirty and rundown for years. Were those who now protest happy with that state?” Both Demircan and his colleagues from the municipality, along with other officials responsible for having licensed the construction, are now under state investigation.
The building that had to make way for the new shopping centre was the Sin-Em Han, which was turned in 1890 into the Deveaux Apartmanları (named after the director of the Ottoman Bank, Émile Deveaux) and housed both the Lüks Cinema and the Saray Cinema in the 1930s. After a fire consumed a large part of the Sin-Em Han in the 1950s, the building was turned into a passage and office complex that housed, amongst others, the traditional Saray Pudding Shop (Saray Muhallebici), owned by Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş. The whole building was bought in 1980 from the Umum Insurance Directorate by the Demirören Group, which closed down most of the shops, offices and the Saray Cinema in 1996 and left the Sin-Em Han vacant.
The project to develop the building complex into a shopping centre – the first on İstiklal Caddesi, a grade-1-listed historic preservation zone – was approved by the Council for Preservation of Sites of Historical Interest in 2004, on the condition, in accordance with Preservation Law No. 2863, that the height of the new structure not exceed that of the neighbouring three-storey grade-1-listed Serkledoryan (Cercle d’Orient) building.
In 2006, the Saray Muhallebici moved into a newly constructed five-storey building across the street, and for the next five years, the construction area vanished behind high wooden panels plastered with advertisements for Milangaz, a gas company that belongs to Demirören Holding. The first to realize that the construction was apparently not proceeding as planned were the residents, owners and caretakers of surrounding buildings, who had begun to notice deepening fissures in their walls. Concerned, they reported their sightings in July 2006 to the Preservation Council, which asked both the construction company and the municipality to take precautions. Neither ever did.
On Feb. 20, 2007, the Council of Ministers decided to turn the plot belonging to the future shopping centre into an Urban Renewal Zone (Yenileme Alanı) and, in accordance with the newly passed Law No. 5366, handed the oversight of the construction project from the Preservation Council to the Renewal Council, which has the authority to overrule the former – something that can lead to contradictory policies, as has happened in the nearby Tarlabaşı neighbourhood. In the opinion of several experts, this administrative patchwork is part of the reason why the developer was able to get away with illegal construction.
“Just think about it – while İstiklal Caddesi is under the responsibility of the Preservation Council, large chunks of the area are under the auspices of the Renewal Council. This leads to confusing decisions”, said Prof. Mete Tapan, the head of the 2. Council for Preservation of Sites of Historical Interest which is in charge of the Beyoğlu area.
The decisions of the Renewal Council in charge of monitoring the Demirören İstiklal project are indeed confusing: While the council in 2008 condemned the increase of the construction area from the initially approved 19,000 m2 to almost 50,000 m2 and called for the demolition of one third of the building both in height and depth, it legalised these substantial – and officially unplanned – changes in 2010, condoning the demolition of two grade-1-listed buildings and the potential endangerment of several more, including a 16th-century mosque. Only one storey was razed by the time the shopping centre opened in 2011, and the structure is still twice the height of the Cercle d’Orient to its left.
Mücella Yapıcı of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects is not as reluctant as Professor Tapan in her criticism of the Renewal Council: “The first significant example of the problem was Tarlabaşı: While one council rules to renovate the area, the other annuls this decision and chooses to demolish it. This simply means that the definition of a SIT Alanı – a Protected Historic Area – does not bear any meaning anymore.” She calls the Demirören shopping centre a “5366 murder,” referring to the law of the same name, and asserts that the lack of transparency makes matters worse. “All urban renewal projects are being held under close wraps by the council”, she said. “In fact, the Renewal Council commits a crime in doing so. Normally they have to present at least all projects that have been approved by the council to the Chamber of Architects, but they didn’t even do that.”
Mehmet Ulaş works in the İnci Patisserie, said to be the birthplace of the profiterole and one of the last shops in the Cercle d’Orient building to have resisted eviction. The three-storey complex, designed by French-Levantine architect Alexandre Vallaury and built in 1884, is slated for renewal. While both the Beyoğlu mayor and Minister for Culture and Tourism Ertuğrul Günay officially claimed the Cercle d’Orient would be renovated, not demolished, the construction company refuses to share its plans with the public, as does the Renewal Board responsible for approving these plans. However, drafts that leaked on the Internet in 2010 clearly foreshow an eight-storey shopping centre being erected behind the original walls. According to these plans, the currently closed Emek Cinema, opened in 1924 and one of the oldest in Turkey, will be turned into a multiplex theatre and moved to the uppermost floor.
The comment by Beyoğlu mayor Demircan that it would hardly matter if the Emek Cinema moved up a few floors or stayed where it was caused outrage amongst the public. City planner Korhan Gümüş commented, rather dryly: “If this is the authorities’ understanding of protecting cultural heritage [...] we should not bother to try and restore old empty buildings, but instead demolish them all and re-erect them in a sort of Miniatürk museum.” The Istanbul Chamber of Architects (TMMOB) succeeded in halting the Cercle d’Orient construction project in 2010 – for now, with new hearings pending. The historical building might still go the way of its former next-door neighbour, the Sin-Em Han.
Ulaş of İnci Patisserie explains that the owners of the sweets shop, the family of Lukas Zigoridis, who founded İnci in 1944, are unwilling to give in to the pressure from the developers and have taken the matter to court. While he scoops portions of profiteroles onto small plates and hands them to a constant stream of customers, Ulaş says: “The construction of that shopping centre caused a lot of damage, of course! That they illegally added a few floors both below and above ground is just one aspect of it.” He is angry that the construction company got away with it. “Have you seen what happened to the mosque? It looks as if it could come down at any moment! I go there to pray as well, where are the worshippers supposed to go?”
The mosque in question is the Hüseyin Ağa Mosque, built in 1597, on the other side of the shopping centre. It has been extensively damaged due to the seismic shocks caused by the construction of Demirören İstiklal: Fissures run along the outer walls of the historical building, and many of the stone slabs covering the floor of the outer courtyard have cracked. On the inside of the mosque, the gaps are so wide that the wall has been fenced off by scaffolding.
An employee of the Beyoğlu Müftülüğü (Office for Religious Affairs) who wished to remain anonymous said the General Directorate of Religious Foundations, which is in charge of the mosque building, had decided to close parts of the Hüseyin Ağa Mosque for Friday prayers, due to the danger posed by its damaged walls and roof. The Beyoğlu Municipality has erected a tent in the courtyard of the mosque to cater to worshippers, but because of the lack of space, Friday mosque-goers often spill out into the streets. “All of these cracks stem from the construction of the neighbouring Demirören shopping centre”, the employee explained. “The developer will pay for the repair work of the damage he has caused, but at the moment, we are still waiting for the Monument Board to approve the reconstruction plans.”
The owners of the buildings lining the narrow street just behind the mosque have had similar troubles with their towering new neighbour. Hassan Bakir, who opened the Rize Hotel in 1978 and has run it ever since, wonders how the development company was able to overstep regulations so brazenly. Gesturing towards the end of his street, he says: “They drove iron bars horizontally through the ground to reinforce the foundations of the shopping centre. The vibrations have done great harm to all the surrounding buildings.” He, too, goes to the Hüseyin Ağa Mosque to pray, just like the employees of the neighbouring kebab restaurant. “We are afraid that the whole roof will come crashing down one day while we pray”, a young man laughs while slicing bread.
“Six or seven months ago, the municipality decided to tear all the buildings on our street down because they don’t deem them to be safe anymore”, says Hassan Bakir. Asked what he will do without a hotel to run, he replies: “They promised to build me another hotel right here! And Demirören will pay 50% of the construction costs.” Bakir frowns. “If he doesn’t, I will go to court.”
Osman Eğilmez, the owner of the Ağa Lokantası, which was founded by his grandfather Hakkı Eğilmez in 1920 and was located on Sakızağaç Caddesi until recently, recounts how the developer literally forced him to vacate the traditional premises of his restaurant: “They had wanted to buy the building for a while, even before they started construction works. We refused. In the end, they simply started digging underneath our restaurant from several sides, so we had to sell it to them for fear the whole building would collapse.” Deep cracks in the walls of his former neighbour, the renowned Hacı Abdullah Restaurant, bear witness to the shifts in the foundation caused by the irregular construction work. “Our building and the ones next to it were all historically protected buildings that were illegal to demolish, but that is exactly what Demirören did.” Does he think about opening another restaurant in Beyoğlu? “Yes, certainly, but rents have increased so much that it is hard to find a suitable place.”
A series of articles in October 2010 by Radikal journalist Erkan Aktuğ stirred up enough outrage for the authorities to look into the matter once again. Culture Minister Günay, outraged by the allegations that an illegal structure had been erected in the heart of Istanbul, ordered an inspection council to draw up a report on Demirören İstiklal. The findings, published in March 2011, confirmed the former report by the Renewal Council: One-third of the shopping centre had been illegally added on squatted land and had thus to be demolished. Moreover, the unauthorised deepening 30 metres underground had caused great damage to surrounding grade-1-listed buildings. The ministry report also asked for the Demirören executives, the Beyoğlu Municipality and the members of both the Renewal and Preservation Councils, who had failed to prevent – or had even condoned – the construction, to be tried. The court case is currently ongoing.
It might now be the mayor of Greater Istanbul, Kadir Topbaş, who comes to the rescue of Demirören İstiklal: On March 30, 2011, two and a half months before the general elections in Turkey, he announced a “temporary residence license” for all illegally erected buildings in Istanbul, in order for their owners to be able to reinforce them against the danger of earthquakes. Sami Yilmaztürk of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects explains that such a law amounts to a de facto amnesty of unauthorised construction projects such as the Demirören shopping centre. “It is not a secret that 70% of 1,600,000 buildings in Istanbul have been illegally constructed”, he writes. “It is also curious that Kadir Topbaş has been the mayor for seven of the 12 years that have passed since Aug. 17, 1999, [the day of a devastating earthquake] and that he only now thinks about protecting the citizens against the risk of earthquakes, just months before the elections.”
He continues: “And since the vast majority of the owners of illegal housing have a very low income, they lack the financial means to reinforce their buildings anyway.” Yilmaztürk argues that those who will truly profit from this law are big development companies that have been building illegal skyscrapers, shopping centres and luxury housing all over the city – companies just like the Demirören Group.
Hüseyin, who works as a security officer at Demirören İstiklal and surveys the ongoing construction work outside, is not happy with the protests against the shopping centre. “You know how many people earn their living in this building?” He points to the stream of construction workers carrying bags of concrete. “What would they all do if they ruled to demolish the shopping centre? Can you tell me that?” He does not see what all the fuss is all about: “It’ll take only a year or two for the shopping centre to be as black as the [Cercle d’Orient] building next to it.” He shrugs. “In 50 years, this will also be a historical building; nobody will even notice the difference.”