What makes a city attractive, different or magical? Everyone knows the Colosseum in Rome, the Red Square in Moscow, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and other such places constitute the primary route of travelers almost all over the world. However, these iconic structures only become a part of the memory for those who visit these cities. These cities have their own unique timbre, their own unique charm. Cities are shaped, grown, disintegrated and enchanted by the hands of people touching them. Cities breathe with people, they become home to communities and inheritance from ancestors. And cities become masses that are longed for and dreamed of, being more than the sum of the nature, people and buildings they contain.
Among the cities worldwide adored by people, Istanbul, the dream city of seven hills, always takes first place. Istanbul's geography, divided by waters, its natural landscape decorated with Judas trees, its historical architectural texture, buildings, places of worship and bridges are all components of its ageless charm. When Istanbul is mentioned, what Turkish painter and poet Bedri Rahmi Eyüpoğlu calls a “Gülcemal” (a face that looks like a rose) comes to mind, one that reaches from a thousand-year past to the present. With this aspect in mind, Istanbul is an indispensable stop, like a train that travels in time by transferring the traces of civilizations to each other with its own texture. We can gaze at the Byzantine, Rome and Ottoman Empires and the republic, our childhood, youth, time and future from its window.
Istanbul boasts hundreds of symbolic buildings and squares thanks to this historical journey. Among them, Taksim Square is a contemporary space that we will leave to the future in terms of the symbolism of our recent history and the present. The square was arranged in Istanbul in the 1930s as one of the symbols of the young republic. The Republic Monument, which commemorates Turkey’s War of Independence and the formation of the Turkish republic in 1923, is located at the heart of the square. The square is the meeting point of the surrounding Istiklal, Cumhuriyet and Halaskargazi avenues, which will always remain the most important streets of Istanbul. It is the heart of the city. Taksim and its surroundings were designed by the French city planner Henri Prost as a part of the city development plan made in the 1930s. Prost came to Istanbul at the invitation of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to plan the city.
In fact, the issue of the reconstruction of Istanbul was a subject that had been on the agenda since the late Ottoman period. Turkish architectural historian, theorist and academic Zeynep Çelik talks about the projects of European city planners in the 19th century to adapt the narrow streets of Istanbul to the grid system, to organize the city in order to protect it from fires and to construct the square system that is common in Europe in her book, "The Remaking of Istanbul.” These projects were mostly for the old quarters of the city, such as Beyazıt Square and the area surrounding Galata Bridge. Prost's arrangement of Taksim Square was the face of the republic that showed itself in Istanbul and would be revealed with various symbols.
The young republic, while trying to distinguish itself from the previous administration, wanted to stamp its own worldview on the city. It was in this atmosphere that the intellectual foundations of an opera house at the heart of the city in Taksim were laid. Although the intellectual foundations were laid in the 1930s, the project could only be completed at the end of the 1960s.
According to Prost's plan, the Taksim area would be arranged and an opera house would be placed in the most dominant position of the square. The situation of the Paris and Berlin opera houses in the 1930s, the rise of contemporary art and the priorities of the republic at that time reinforced the necessity of a new modern symbol to be added to the existing symbols of Istanbul. However, long war years intervened and the enormous resources needed for the construction of this symbol could not be spared under the conditions of that period.
Even though the land was allocated and the foundation laid in 1946, the beginning of the construction was fairly delayed. The first project was prepared by the architects Feridun Kip and Rükneddin Güney and then the master architect-engineer, associate professor Hayati Tabanlıoğlu, was in charge of the second stage in 1956. Tabanlıoğlu is actually the architect who built the former Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM), which we remember today. The rotating stairs on the right at the entrance from the door, the lamps in the foyer area, the large hall with its double-winged door just opposite are the most prominent features that those who visited the AKM before it was demolished will remember. The new project of the AKM, which has been rebuilt in preparation for today, was drawn by Murat Tabanlıoğlu, the son of the first architect Hayati Tabanlıoğlu. Murat Tabanlıoğlu prepared a project that remained faithful to his father's project with the large hall that greets us, the rotating stairs and many other elements – but it also features some additions.
The construction of the AKM's first building actually faced a chain of misfortunes. After the intention to build such an opera house was outlined, World War II broke out. The construction phase was later interrupted by the 1960 coup. It took 23 years to build the landmark in such conditions. The building started its journey as an opera house and continued as a cultural center. However, it entered into service under the name of Istanbul Culture Palace on April 12, 1969. A few operas were performed at this venue but, a year later, most of the building burned down. Moreover, this fire started while a play was being staged. Fortunately, there was no loss of life. The building was evacuated, but there were very sad photos in the newspapers the next day. The building had almost become a carcass, all the seats and decorations were burnt. Moreover, the sultan's caftan and a valuable Quran, which was brought from Topkapı Palace for the “Murad IV” play, were among the objects lost to the fire. Then-Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel, who inspected the wreck site, promised to build a new one as soon as possible.
The reopening of the building was only possible eight years later. Architect Hayati Tabanlıoğlu once again rolled up his sleeves and drew up a renovation project. When the project was completed, the building was not reopened as the Istanbul Culture Palace but as Atatürk Cultural Center, its current name. The building, which was reopened in 1978, is the AKM that we remember today.
In the first flush of my youth, this building was our meeting point in Taksim. The shuttles departing in front of the AKM, the taxi waiting in front of the AKM, the friends and lovers who see you off in front of the AKM were a part of our lives.
The first play I saw at the AKM was the opera "Carmen," which was on tour at the beginning of the 2000s. The AKM was not just an important part of Taksim but also the city. In 1999, the AKM was listed as a first-degree registered cultural property and a part of the city’s protected area. Unfortunately, this important recognition bestowed on this cultural structure would appear in later years as an obstacle used to prevent the restoration and renovation of the building.
As buildings constructed thousands of years ago continue standing, we, modern human beings, construct buildings with “economic life.” Experts in the early 2000s presented reports to the Culture Ministry that the AKM had completed its economic life. The issue of the building’s renovation or reconstruction came to the forefront. In the same period, in 2008, it became apparent that Istanbul was chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2010 and a two-year renovation process for the city had begun. The Culture Ministry signed a protocol for the renovation of the AKM, one of the city’s most important symbols. This renovation project was again awarded to the Tabanlıoğlu architecture office. It was planned that an important part of the budget slated to the European Capital of Culture would be used for the AKM. The architecture office prepared the rehabilitation project, and the renovation was launched.
However, the renovation was halted over a court decision based on the lawsuit filed by the Labor Union of Culture, Arts and Tourism Employees. The trade union had seven points of objection to the project. As a result of the meetings with the union, the cultural agency agreed to revise the seven points that were subject to objection. Two of the demands concerned a restaurant and souvenir shop planned within the AKM. The agency accepted revisions for these two features, which are found in almost all cultural buildings in the world (even in places of worship and museums). Meeting after meeting was held with the union, but a common ground could not be found and a compromise could not be achieved, while the court-halted renovation stood as it is. Moreover, as Istanbul – with the city’s cultural scene reinvigorated by European Union funds – entered the culture year without the AKM, some circles cheered the victory, saying, “We have not let the AK Party (Justice and Development Party) build the AKM.”
The building was left unfinished, and two years meant for that purpose were wasted. During the Gezi Park protests that broke out a couple of years later, the AKM again came to the forefront. Numerous news and articles centered on the view that the conservative government would demolish the city’s only opera building to construct a shopping mall instead were penned by members of the art circle.
The AKM and its surroundings were re-projected by Tabanlıoğlu Architecture in 2017 with the initiative of the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry of Culture incorporated the land around the AKM into the ministry without realizing the project. The new AKM, together with its surroundings, was designed as a cultural valley up to the Atatürk Library. The foundation of the new AKM was laid by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2019.
As the construction continued, news spread that the name “Atatürk” would be removed from the name of the new building this time. Although this rumor was not based on any official statement and the name of the project had been already announced, these rumors and tweets from important names in art circles about this so-called name change circulated, only to end when the inscription of "ATATÜRK CULTURAL CENTER" placed on the front of the building when it was finished in 2021.
The AKM was opened on Oct. 29, 2021, by Erdoğan as a giant art complex including an opera hall with a capacity of 2040, a theater with a capacity of 805, a gallery, a multi-purpose hall, a children's art center, a music platform and a music recording studio, an art specialization library, a mini-movie theater and a design shop. Inside this huge complex, there is also a culture street stretching from AKM to the Atatürk Library.
With the opening, a new opera was staged at the request of Erdoğan on Oct. 29-30. Conductor Gürer Aykal directed the orchestra of the two-act opera "Sinan," composed by Hasan Uçarsu and written by Bertan Rona with a libretto based on the script by Halit Refiğ. The opera received a thumbs up from art enthusiasts. The opera is planned to be staged again in two months.
The AKM will continue to be one of the symbols of the city that appeals to art lovers of all ages with its opera, theater hall, music house, library and cultural significance. Those who go to Istanbul and those who still meet for their appointments in front of the AKM should definitely take a look inside.