ISTANBUL: On Taksim Square, the buzzing focal point of Istanbul, a giant disused building looms over visitors, its glass windows broken, a few tattered ad banners flapping disconsolately in the breeze. This is the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM). It was opened in 1969 to realize the dream of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk for the country to be a world-class center for the arts, including Western genres such as classical music, opera and ballet.
The glass-fronted AKM has endured a checkered, even cursed history. It had to be rebuilt following a fire in 1970 and only reopened in 1978. It then served as the hub of Istanbul’s cultural life for three decades before being shuttered in 2008 for restoration.
No restoration ever took place, however, and the building has since stood unloved and decaying through the tumult of Taksim’s 2013 mass protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then premier, and the failed July 15, 2016, coup against his regime. Its brooding shell has become a symbol of the troubles dogging the arts in Turkey at a time of declining funding, claims of censorship under Erdogan and the terror attacks of 2016, keeping some foreign artists away.
After years of debate on the future of the building, Erdogan this month offered a radical and clinical solution – rip the entire edifice down and build a world-class opera house in its place.
His proposal has aroused excitement in some quarters but hostility from others – particularly those who see the modernist building as a worthy example of secular Turkish modern architecture.
“The AKM project in Istanbul is over,” Erdogan said. “We will knock it down and Istanbul will gain a beautiful new edifice.”
Erdogan’s government has been criticized on occasion for showing a lack of interest in the arts beyond Turkey’s internationally successful television dramas.
“All we want is for Istanbul,” Erdogan said, “to have the culture and arts center that it deserves.”
The absence of the AKM left a gaping hole in Istanbul cultural life, with the opera and ballet companies largely performing at the Sureyya Operasi on the Asian side of the city, an architecturally significant 1920s building but too small for grand shows.
“We have been waiting for a proper concert hall and the news coming from President Erdogan made us more than happy,” said Yesim Gurer Oymak, director of the annual Istanbul Music Festival, organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV). “This means that there will be more and more international orchestras and big productions coming to Istanbul and the companies from Turkey can present more elevated productions.
“The closure of AKM means an opera company, a ballet, a state orchestra without a home,” she added. “In order to develop, they need to have a base and a home.”
Gurer Oymak recalled how the AKM had been a popular Istanbul meeting place and put on ambitious productions, including as part of the Istanbul Music Festival, that now are no longer possible.
Should a new opera house be built, Istanbul would be following other cities in the region, notably Dubai and Muscat, which have built new auditoriums that have been massively popular with locals and visitors.
A brutalist edifice representative of the modernist-infused 1960s, the AKM is regarded with scorn by some, who see it as an unwanted symbol of the “old Turkey” before Erdogan’s AK Party came to power in 2002.
The pro-state Daily Sabah newspaper described the AKM as a “grim reminder” of the 1960s as well as an “eyesore and dull architectural work.”
For others, the building is a proud symbol of the modern republic set up by Ataturk – himself an opera buff – and must be restored rather than demolished.
Sami Yilmazturk, chair of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, said the plan to demolish the AKM was “part of a project to say ‘stop’ to modernization and destroy the republic.” “The [republic] project put a dream, a utopia, an objective before Turkey,” he said. “The plan to demolish AKM is an attempt to reverse that goal.”
He claimed that edifices linked with Ataturk were being knocked down under the current government, which insists it does its utmost to preserve Ataturk’s legacy. “It’s an area where people meet,” Yilmazturk added, “with art and culture.”
Under the shadow of the building’s shell, locals were divided over its fate.
“This building represents Taksim. They are ruining the silhouette of Taksim Square,” said Hacer, a middle-aged woman, who declined to give her full name. “I don’t believe better things will be done. We’ve seen what’s been done so far.”
“It’s an ugly building,” said a man identifying himself only as Mustafa. “I don’t know what they will do with it but at least they could do something nice.”
Gurer Oymak said one solution could be to preserve just the facade of the building while creating other parts from scratch.
“The AKM left a very important trace in the identity of this city,” he said. “I would like to see the facade preserved as it’s in our memory.”