Despite ongoing court cases– some hearings having been postponed to May 2012 – and a couple of residents are still holding out, demolitions in Tarlabaşı have started. Among the buildings being taken down manually, storey by storey, with sledgehammers, are several historical bowfront houses on Ficici Abdi Sokak.
Most of the buildings inside the project area are now empty, and for several weeks, people both locally and from elsewhere have been taking out windows and doors, exposing the buildings to rain, frost and snowfall. Pipes, cables, and iron bars have been ripped out as well, often destabilising the entire building structure even further. Residents who still live, work, or even only pass through the project area, have repeatedly expressed their anger and concern about this, debating how this fits in with the municipality’s promise to “protect” and “preserve” Tarlabaşı. Tamer Bekar, who has lived in Tarlabaşı for 70 years and shares his small house with a friend, says that they have prevented looters from taking out windows and doors from their former neighbours’ house. “Now poor people take from poor people, thanks to the municipality.” He shakes his head. “Why have they evicted everyone with such haste if they now plan to let all these houses stand empty and rot?” his roommate exclaims.
Another life-long Tarlabaşı resident who wished to remain anonymous told us that it depressed him to leave the house and see his neighbourhood like this: “They have destroyed the whole area. Should they not take care of these buildings, now, that they are the new owners?” In Çukur Sokak, a bowfront collapsed after the supporting iron bars had been removed, luckily nobody was hurt.
The official project website claims that “the current decayed building stock will be renewed”, and that the municipality aims at “preserving the historical urban fabric on one hand”, while “bringing houses up to contemporary needs and modern standards”. Neither the developing company nor the Beyoglu mayor were available for interviews.
GAP Inşaat now employs private security guards that patrol the area irregularly, but they do not seem to be charged with preventing further looting, or the dumping of trash inside empty houses. Regular police patrols seem not to be responsible either, despite several residents having applied to the municipality to protect their neighbourhood and, in several cases, their property: Cinzia Fiore and her husband Kemal Akgün have bought their house in Tavla Sokak six years ago, and are amongst the very few remaining who have not come to an agreement with the municipality. “We just won the court case”, Cinzia Fiore explains. “The house is legally ours, but we cannot use it, because the municipality has allowed the whole neighbourhood to be destroyed.” Lighting in the streets has been cut, and many of the people still living in the area say that criminality has dramatically increased. “They have stolen several paintings that have a sentimental value for me, they have broken windows and even taken planks of woods from the parquet.”
Beyoglu mayor Ahmet Misbah Demircan has repeatedly vowed to turn Tarlabaşı Boulevard into the Champs Elysées of Istanbul – And while one wonders if the irony of aspiring to turn the now gutted Boulevard for which over 360 historically listed – and mostly Greek – buildings had to be razed, into a street named after the mythological Elysian Fields escapes him, it certainly raises the question what exactly is to be “renovated” and whose history to be “preserved”?
Why are “modern standards” and “preservation” presented as opposites and how can “demolition” equal “renovation”?
Prof Dr Uğur Tanyeli, professor for the history of architecture at the Artuklu University in Mardin, traces the seemingly inconsolable tension between “the historical” and “the modern” in Turkey back to the Tanzimat Period – the period of Ottoman reform between 1839 and 1876 that was marked by modernisation efforts and an increased adoption of Western standards: “This is not something that has come up today, with this government. This ideological conditioning emerged during the modernisation process in Turkey, hand in hand with Westernisation. Modernisation meant to forcibly cut all ties with the past – all modernisation programmes and ideologies dictated that we could not live any longer they way we used to, the way we acted, that we could not live in the same kind of houses, wear the same kind of clothes. People were told that these things were the root to all problems.” He pauses. “Now this makes anything old problematic – but later on, in a different phase of modernisation – people started to see value in the historical and wanted to preserve it. So on the one hand; they despise everything historical, because they want to rid themselves of everything representing a traditional past, and on the other hand, the same historical objects are suddenly valued. So what is worthless along one definition is suddenly valuable along the parameters of architectural history.”
For Uğur Tanyeli, this most extreme form of the contradiction between tradition and modernity is unique to Turkey: “They want the historical, but they do not want anything old.” He laughs. “That’s an interesting dilemma. In Turkey, the historical has to be brand-new and squeaky clean. So what is actually wanted is the illusion of history – It has to be historical, but it is not allowed to carry any baggage of the past, or any of history’s patina, there can’t be anything about it that creates unease.”
Citing the example of the Demiören shopping centre, he continues: “In that spot, there never was a building like that.” The posters that have recently been hung there seem to suggest that the disputed shopping centre is a renovated building, but only from afar: “When people speak of ‘preservation’ in Turkey, this is what they actually have in mind: something that creates the illusion of the historical. The fewer traces of the past [an object] carries, the more successful they believe a preservation to be – and there is not only the Demiören shopping centre, but there are hundreds of buildings along the Bosporus like that. There are ‘renovated’ buildings dating back to the 13th century that look like they have been built yesterday and where not a single screw is historically justified.”
What about Tarlabaşı? Is it possible to renovate and preserve 19th-century architecture and add “modern standard” underground car parks to each house at the same time? Tanyeli thinks not: “What is done under the definition of ‘preservation’ in Tarlabaşı has nothing to do with actual preservation. They plan to reproduce the morphology of the old buildings, that’s all. It would be ridiculous to call this ‘preservation’” And: “The only thing they are ‘preserving’ is the current width of the streets. All that will come out of this is a historicist neighbourhood.”
He argues that this is exactly what is expected: “So in order to rid a historical building of the traces of the past, the Demiören method is the only solution – you just get rid of what was there before. And so they get rid of Tarlabaşı, they get rid of Sulukule, and call this ‘preservation’, rebuilding something that only looks like the old thing. This is a result of the modernisation ideology in Turkey.”
In his eyes, this most extreme form of contradicting parameters also leads to a very clumsy, but also very brutal understanding of modernisation and development that shatters social relations and suppresses any possibility of discussion or challenge, and this is reflected in the execution of urban renewal projects as well: “To me it is clear that the actual aim of [the Tarlabaşı ] project is urban transformation – and just as in other urban transformation projects we have seen – they aim at the change of the social fabric, completely ignoring the people that live in the area now. And what is worse is that all of this is done with the broad consent and the support of a large part of the population.”
Uğur Tanyeli does not think that the demolition of the houses in Tarlabaşı will be the most important loss: “As a historian I am most dismayed by the fact that they cut out pieces of the city as if with a knife, with no regard for the history or the social fabric in these neighbourhoods. What they really mean to say is: ‘There is no longer any space for lower income groups in the city centre.”