Taksim Square & Gezi Park Protests: Designing a Common Present, Future, and Past

Eray Çaylı, University College London

– June 13, 2013 –  The Taksim Square and Gezi Park protests function as a laboratory in which the protesters have designed a common present, future, and past, as alternatives to those imposed on them.

It all began on May 27th, just before midnight. A group of friends saw a bulldozer drive into Gezi Park, one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul. They stepped in front of the vehicle to halt what seemed to be the imminent demolition of the park, and called on others to join. The next day, the park was home to the tents of some 100 anti-demolition protesters. They read books, played instruments and, most important of all, human-shielded the park whenever the demolition team attempted to intervene. At the dawn of the 30th, the police cracked down on the tent-settlement. Uniforms tear-gassed the protesters out of the park, while undercover officers destroyed and burnt the protesters’ tents, instruments and books—something of a Kristallnacht within this ‘urbicide’.

What I refer to as urbicide is a series of urban projects driven by the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, some of which are dubbed “crazy projects” by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. I call these projects urbicide because of the social and ecological damages they cause, such as land speculation, expulsion of the lower-middle classes from the urban center, and the zoning of green areas for development. Among the projects is a third bridge over the Bosphorus, a canal bisecting Istanbul in the north-south axis near its western border, and the redevelopment of Taksim Square. The Taksim project includes the square’s pedestrianization and the on-site reconstruction of a former military barracks atop the nearby Gezi Park. Regarding the purpose the future barracks may serve, rumors range from a shopping mall to a city museum and culture center. It is this reconstruction project that requires the destruction of the park, which the protesters gathered to prevent.

The day the protesters were kicked out of the park, Prime Minister Erdoğan reiterated that he and his cabinet would continue to execute the military barracks project. For a week after that day, the disproportionate force applied by law enforcement on protesters increased in degree and scale. But let alone bringing the protests to an end, police brutality only drew more people into the fold of the protesters, thus turning the protests into a country-wide movement. As the number of protesters grew, so did the diversity in their sociocultural backgrounds, worldviews and reasons for protest. Inevitably, like any social movement characterized by such diversity, protests in Turkey have therefore also had to confront the question of whether or not the protesters can manage to find a common ground, other than opposing Prime Minister Erdoğan and his condescending attitude in politics.

During this process in which the whole world set their eyes on Istanbul, the police were left obliged to withdraw from Gezi Park and Taksim Square. Following its ‘liberation’ on June 1st, the area quickly became a micro-community representing the countrywide movement, on both a symbolic and a practical level. For, most analyses of the Turkey protests as well as the government’s efforts to contain them have focused on developments and organizations concerning Gezi Park, and the ‘occupation’ of the park has been adopted as something of a practical model by fellow protesters in other cities such as those in Ankara (Kuğulu Park) and Eskişehir (University Avenue). Consequently, the park began to function also as something of a laboratory in which to study the problems posed and solutions inspired by the diversity in protester profiles. Naturally for a movement originating in protest against urbicide, design and architecture are foremost among the tools with which protesters work through their problems. Their responses have so far resulted in a group of objects and interventions that point to a mix of informal urbanism, DIY culture, and guerilla memorialization and/or monumentalization.

The types of design responses and architectural interventions developed in and around Taksim Square and Gezi Park are threefold.  Some tackle practical problems demanding immediate response. Others appear to implement experimental ideas which hold potential to be relevant for the longer-term. The third type help protesters forge a collective identity by means of foregrounding their shared memory. Therefore, in responding to problems, the Taksim and Gezi protesters have not only designed objects and interventions. They have also designed a common present, future, and past, which they have proposed as alternatives to those imposed on them.

Designing a Present

From the outset, protesters have responded through design to the most urgent problems they faced.  Against the police’s ample use of teargas, they designed DIY gasmasks, using swimming goggles, medical masks and plastic bottles. Others designed and circulated ‘how-to’ leaflets so that fellow protesters could also make their own DIY masks at home. Another burning problem concerned the defence of territory. Seeing how easy it can be for the police to expel them from the park made the protesters aware of the importance of standing their ground. As they pushed the police out of Taksim Square, they built barricades using pavement bricks, and sheets of metal and iron rods from construction sites. Once they marked their territory and settled into Gezi Park, this time they faced the problem of habitation. To this they responded with readymade designs such as hammocks made of garbage bags. Finally, the media blackout during the first days of the protest meant that social media was the only source of information about developments across the country. While most protesters used their smart phones and laptops to access the internet, they also built a physical counterpart to social media where news and announcements could be shared with those who lack online access.

Designing a Future

The morning after the police’s withdrawal from Taksim Square, the state of emergency once again gave way to a peaceful sit-in at Gezi Park. Protesters soon came out of their astonishment and started turning the park into a micro-community. The first step was to establish daily cleaning and house-keeping routines. Then followed a number of design interventions which hint at a longer-term claim to the park. A shoulder-level structure of a length of fifteen meters was laid of brick and designated as ‘wall of supplies’ where both food and medicine are collected for those in need. A library was built out of bricks, tiles and slabs of stone. Then came an example of landscape design, as volunteers designated a part of the park as vegetable garden and started planting seeds. Cultural representation and recreation have also been taken care of. Gözde Sarlak has built for Gezi Park a ping-pong table out of modular police barricade elements. The Taksim area’s late-modernist buildings such as the AKM (Atatürk Culture Center) and Ceylan Intercontinental Hotel, the former of which is also subject to a demolition plan by the government, have been used as something of an ‘urban canvas’ by the protesters. The iconically austere façade of the AKM has been covered in various posters and banners reflecting the diversity in the political views among protesters, and the hotel’s façade used as a screen on which to project during collective movie-watching sessions at the park. Finally, protesters started to repair damaged bus stops which have been among the cases held against them by pro-government actors, so as to label the protests ‘an act of vandalism’.

Designing a Past

The most complicated facet of the protesters’ problem of constructing a common ground has had to do with the past. The history of Late Ottoman and Republican Turkey has seen numerous atrocities, which created social fissures along religious, ethnic, and ideological axes. Stemming from this history is the not-so-inaccurate assumption that different ideological, ethnic, and belief groups feel irresolvable hostility toward each other. The Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests have to a great extent appeared to be the anti-thesis of this assumption. But as pleasant as the multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-ideological make-up of the protesters may sound, the issue has remained that the same historical figure can be a hero to one group and a villain to another. To this problem, the protesters have responded by choosing to foreground their shared past, regardless of how short and recent this past may be.

Although the history of the protests amounts to only about two weeks, it has created its own heroes and heroines. One of those is Abdullah Cömert, a 22-year old man who received a blow to the head on June 3rd, in the southern city of Antakya, from what is believed to be a gas canister, and lost his life. In memoriam, the Taksim protesters first gave his name to one of the barricades which they set up against the police just outside the Gümüşsuyu end of Taksim Square. Then, the fallen protester’s family shipped to Istanbul several saplings and a memorial plaque, which the protesters planted in Gezi Park. Another mortality of the recent days, the police commissioner Mustafa Sarı who accidentally fell off a five-meter high bridge while coordinating a counter-protest operation in the southern city of Adana and died, has been remembered in one of the park’s main axes which the protesters named after him. In addition to these commemorative interventions into the area’s toponymy, a design project is in the making for a monument to celebrate the protests. Designed by New York based Turkish architect Selim Vural, the monument builds on the already-popular image of the woman who defied a pressurized water cannon that targeted her in the face. The project thus immortalizes one of the most striking cases of peaceful resistance against police violence during the protests. Another monument intervention includes the protesters’ appropriation of the renowned Taksim Square monument which depicts the founder of the republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Protesters have planted half-lemons and surgical masks onto the human figures, and through these tools of ‘resistance’ against teargas, repurposed the monument along their own agenda. Finally, near the Taksim Square end of Gezi Park, a small service building has been designated as a museum by protesters, which also has a virtual counterpart on the web, where people share stories of solidarity and resistance.

Instead of a Conclusion: Without the Future, There is No Past

When Prime Minister Erdoğan reiterated on June 30th his determination to carry out the military barracks project, he criticized the protesters. Speaking of them, he said, “If you have respect for history, first look into the history of that place called Gezi Park. We will revive history there.” Upon Erdoğan’s call, researchers got to work only to soon find out that a significant part of Gezi Park had in fact been built over a confiscated Armenian Cemetery named Surp Hagop. Some of the plundered gravestones are believed to have been incorporated into the park’s paving. Today, the Gezi Park protesters include Nor Zartonk, a group consisting of the Armenians of Turkey. Next to their tent in the park, Nor Zartonk commemorate the confiscated cemetery with a slab of stone. Yet a bigger slab and a banner the group have set up at the spot read, “You took away our cemetery; you will not be able to take our park.” As the slogan demonstrates, Gezi Park protesters have so far sought to sustain their spatial present by lending their pasts to the shared hope of a better future.

Eray Çaylı, PhD Candidate in Architectural History and Theory, Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London

Please cite this publication as follows: Çaylı, Eray (June, 2013), “Taksim Square and Gezi Park Protests: Designing a Common Present, Future, and Past”, Vol. II, Issue 4, pp.36-44, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=3477)