SAH Blog

  • Learning from Taksim Square: Architecture, State Power, and Public Space in Istanbul

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    Jun 11, 2013


    By HEGHNAR WATENPAUGH (UC Davis)

    In a matter of days, “Taksim Square” has become a household name akin to Tahrir Square, shorthand for a youthful protest movement against the brutality of state power in the Middle East. What began last week as a peaceful sit-in to protest the uprooting of trees from Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s last open green spaces near Taksim Square, has morphed into a broader Occupy movement against the Turkish government, with massive demonstrations in many Turkish cities, as well as solidarity demonstrations throughout the world. The movement shows the deep discontent within a large cross section of Turkish society against the increasingly authoritarian government, and especially its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the ruling Islamist AKP party. People have reacted with shock at the Turkish police’s disproportionate, brutal repression of the protests, as well as Erdogan’s and other government officials’ apparent contempt for and vilification of the protestors, and their seeming indifference to their concerns. As the protest movement continues to unfold, there has been much analysis about the significance of the protests, the way they reflect class and identity divisions within Turkey and their possible repercussions, such as here, here and here.

    The protests in Istanbul began with public dissatisfaction with urban planning: they reacted against the city’s ambitious ongoing plans to remake the square and its surroundings, that proceeded last week with the attempted uprooting of trees in Gezi Park, one of the last remaining open spaces in bustling, sprawling Istanbul. These grand plans have unfolded with little consultation with the public or those who live and work in that area. Daniel Jost aptly and succinctly describes these plans as “awful,” while Gokhan Karakus likens them to "a neo-Ottoman Las Vegas in [a] 6,000-year-old city." 

    The area of Taksim Square and Gezi Park have always been politically charged for the residents of Istanbul, who are now re-asserting their right to their city. Orhan Pamuk reminisces about the significance of Taksim square, tied to many social movements and demonstrations of the past (see here). In its present form, designed in the 40’s by the French urban planner Henri Prost, the Taksim area is a vibrant section of the city and a symbol of modern Istanbul. When I lived nearby as a Ph.D. student, Taksim and its surroundings were endlessly fascinating and unexpected, where you encountered the wealthiest and poorest of the city, old cosmopolitan Istanbulites as well as immigrants from the Black Sea region, anarchist students and Islamist conservatives.

    For an architectural historian, it is no accident that both the great plans to remake Taksim, as well as the way protestors’ speeches and actions often invoke history and architectural memory to buttress their arguments in the present. Indeed, an interest in architectural history and the historical resonance of place is at the heart of the ambitious urban renewal plans as well  the protests. The centerpiece of the municipality’s ambitious new plans is a rather garish re-creation of the early 19th c Ottoman imperial military barracks (Topçu Kislasi) demolished in 1940 to make way for Prost’s modern vision. The recreated barracks were to house commercial ventures. The interest in reviving Ottoman architecture fits with the sensibilities of what some call the neo-Ottoman Muslim elite, even if it is completely updated to suit contemporary needs of global capitalism and consumerism. A similar vision of history also informs the naming of the planned third bridge over the Bosphorus after Sultan Selim the Grim (r. 1512-1520). 

    In direct opposition, protestors are invoking counter-memories and counter-histories. Protestors object to the glorification of a sultan whom they remember for his persecution and massacres of the Alevis, a non-Sunni Muslim group. Back On Taksim square, protestors are invoking the Armenian cemetery expropriated to make way for that area’s development in the early decades of the Turkish republic. Their slogan is: “you took our cemetery, you won’t be able to take our park.”


    Once at the edge of Istanbul’s urban conglomeration, the area was home to the Saint James Armenian cemetery, established in the 16th century, (in Turkish:  Surp Agop Ermeni Mezarligi), and the 19th century church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. By the early 20th century, the area was becoming one of the most valuable sections of real estate in the city. As detailed here and here through a series of highly contested lawsuits, the municipality managed to appropriate the cemetery from the Armenian community. This process illustrates the relentless power of the state to dispossess a minority community that had survived the Genocide of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915-1922, and unfolds like a series of acts of cruelty and humiliation. As this map shows, the cemetery once stood in the area occupied today by sections of Gezi Park, and surrounding properties, including the TRT Istanbul Radio building and major hotels like the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed Istanbul Hilton (built in 1954). Marble headstones from the cemetery were used to build Gezi Park’s fountains and stairs. As Kerem Öktem clarifies (see here), further appropriations of property in this urban area, principally from non-Muslim (Armenian, Greek and Jewish) citizens continued to unfold over the 50s and 60s, producing the urban ensemble that stands today. (for more historical background on the area’s urbanism, see here)

    Some protestors are memorializing this history of erasure, state power, and the growth of big business by renaming a street in the park after Hrant Dink, the iconic Turkish-Armenian journalist and human rights activist whose 2007 assassination so shook Turkish society (see here).

    These are some of the many stories that are unfolding in Taksim, as the overwhelmingly youthful protestors seem to represent many different  political viewspoints, from right-wing supporters of Kemalism to leftists, “Muslim ant-capitalists,” LGBT groups, even soccer fans. Gezi Park has now become a spontaneous community,  a“festive village” in  Michael Kimmelman’s words, that includes a kitchen, clinic, and even a museum of the protest movement.

    Beyond a commentary against neoliberal urbanism, however, the protests have another crucial dimension: that of concern for environmental degradation and unsustainable urban policies, perhaps especially apparent in the debates surrounding the adverse impact of the planned bridge and canal on the ecosystem of the Marmara sea.

    Where the protest movement in Turkey will go, and what it will or will not achieve remains to be seen. So far, we have been reminded once again, of the resonance of urban history, and the powerful role that public spaces and spatial memories can play in political mobilization.

    Images:
    Lady in a red dress. Protestor Ceyda Sungur was pepper sprayed at the start of the protests (Osman Orsal/Reuters); Protest Sign at Gezi Park (Nor Zartonk Istanbul)

     

    HEGHNAR WATENPAUGH is a historian of art and architecture of the Middle East at the University of California Davis. She is interested in cultural heritage, gender, and space. 

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  • Links of the Week

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     |
    May 28, 2013


    • Slave cabin (above) finds a home as centerpiece of Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. 
    • MoMA feels the public outrage and reconsiders the demolition of the American Folk Museum
    • Constructivist icon, the Melnikov House under threat
    • Charles Correa, India's greatest architect, retrospective at RIBA London.
    • Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897-1907, at Neue Gallerie in New York
    • The architecture of gay desire at Fire Island Pines
    • Preserving colonialism, George Orwell house in Myanmar

    Go comment!
  • John Jager: Unknown Prairie Architect in Minnesota. Part 1

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    May 15, 2013
    By RICHARD ROTHAUS



    John Jager (1884-1947) was an artist, intellectual and Prairie School architect whose work has gone almost completely unrecognized, due in part to a career split between Europe and the United States, and in part to his own insistence on anonymity.  Jager was described by William Gray Purcell, his lifelong friend, as the “silent partner” in the firm of Purcell and Elmslie.  Purcell and Elmslie rivaled Frank Lloyd Wright in the number of Prairie School commissions completed, but Jager fell into self-chosen obscurity following the dissolution of Purcell and Elmslie in 1921 and the crash of 1929.  I was fortunate to encounter the work of Jager while working on a National Register of Historic Places Nomination for Wolf Island, MN.  Jager never abandoned the ideals of progressive and organic architecture, and spent well over twenty years of his life crafting Wolf Island into his vision of a perfect organic union of cabin and island, which will be the subject of part 2 of this essay.

    Jager was a Slovenian born in Carniola, Austria in 1871.  He graduated from the Vienna Polytechnicum in 1899 (the height of the Vienna Secession), and immediately went to work on city plan for the earthquake-ravaged Ljubljana. Jager was interested in the idea of a Slovenian national style in architecture, and his work was heavily influenced by Slovenian folk art and architecture. In 1901 as a captain in the Imperial Royal Government Service of Austria, he led the rebuilding of the Austro-Hungarian Legation which had been destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion.  During his time in China, he developed a fascination with Asian culture, and he began his extensive collection of Japanese handicrafts, with a focus on metalwork, textiles, and wood-block printing (not unlike the similar passion of Frank Lloyd Wright).



    Jager immigrated to the United States in 1902, where he married Selma Erhovnic, a Slovenian artist he knew from Austria.   Soon after his arrival, Jager published a booklet on church architecture, hoping to gain clients.  Jager designed the Church of St. Bernard in St. Paul, and the Church of St. Stephen, in Brockway Township, Minnesota (both NRHP properties).  St. Bernard's was one of the first reinforced concrete buildings in Minnesota. The structure is a unique with its Art Nouveau detailing, and is frequently referenced as an icon in a working-class district.  The church at St. Stephen was designed for a Slovenian community from Carniola, and Jager devoted endless hours to managing every detail of the design and construction of the church and its interior.



    In 1904 Jager built his home at 6 Red Cedar Lane, Minneapolis.  Jager, with assistance from Purcell, designed Red Cedar Lane as a subtle but definitively landscaped street above Minnehaha Falls. He personally planned and maintained the eponymous red cedars, and he carefully chose a mix of conifers and deciduous trees that insured Red Cedar Lane was always green.  Jager founded the Hiawatha Heights Improvement Association and encouraged all architecture in the area to achieve a harmony between structure and nature. In his design Jager was insistent that the neighborhood would preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the area, even to the point of presreving the natural contours of the land.  Historian Larry Millett has said, "It would be hard to find a more beautiful street in the Twin Cities."



    Following World War I, Jager went to Yugoslavia as a representative of the American Red Cross agricultural commission from Minnesota.  The commission was headed by his brother, Major Frances Jager, who was a Catholic priest and a respected authority on bees.  John Jager later received the Yugoslav Crown First Class as an award from Yugoslavian government.  The Western Architect (of which Jager was an editorial assistant), described his intended work in words that so well capture the Prairie Architecture ideal we may suspect Jager himself wrote them (1918):

    "Mr. Jager. whose professional abilities are varied and of a high order, will engage in a work unique in architectural accomplishment.  Going from a country where the people as a rule think that any carpenter can "design" a cottage and therefore are satisfied with the "free plans" furnished by lumber dealers . . . he will demonstrate that a wide architectural knowledge fittingly applied can improve the livable qualities of even fifteen-dollar mudhuts."

    Upon his return, Jager enjoyed a period of relative prosperity working for the conservative architectural firm of Hewitt and Brown, who has recently completed the Minneapolis Institute of Art as a staid Classical Revival structure . While working at Hewitt and Brown, Jager also was assisting Purcell and Elmslie in their work, largely out of his love of the progressive architecture designed by the firm.  Jager refused, however, to take credit for the work he did at either.  During these years, Jager formed a close friendship with William Purcell, and their voluminous correspondence reveals a dedication to Prairie School architecture and progressive ideals that continued strong well into the 1950s.  

    While Jager’s friendship with Purcell would last, his architectural career faltered.  In 1928, however, Jager was laid off from Hewitt and Brown, and the crash of 1929 devastated his personal finances.  Jager, under great financial distress, was forced to sell much of his personal art collection to his old employer and fellow Asian-art enthusiast Edwin Hewitt.  The fate of his collection is an excellent example of how his own zeal for anonymity combined with misfortune led to his being forgotten.  Upon his death, Hewitt himself donated his collection to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, including Jager's unmatched collection of 1700 tsuba (sword guards).  Subsequently the Hewitt collection has been on display, and formed the basis of special exhibits.  Largely forgotten is that Jager personally was responsible for the quality and scope of much of the collection.

    From the 1930s onward, Jager was never fully employed or able to exercise his skills and knowledge in a professional capacity.  From 1933 to 1942 he served as the Superintendent of Public Works under the CWA and WPA programs.  How he supported himself on the small salary of that job and through the years of underemployment remains unclear, although he received frequent and ongoing financial support from  Purcell, whose family fortunes weathered the depression.

    Jager occupied his time by participation in the intellectual community of Minneapolis, intense studies of linguistics, and as an editorial associate of the Northwest Architect.  From the 1930s until his death at the age of 88 in 1959, Jager spent innumerable hours organizing the papers of Purcell and Elmslie.  His near-obsessive attention to detail, matched by Purcell's similar organization of his papers, resulted in the spectacular Purcell collections of the Northwest Architectural Archive at the University of Minnesota.  The bulk of Jager’s creative energies, however, went into the design of the cabin, trails and landscape of Wolf Island, where he spent each summer alone.

    The breadth and depth of this intensely private man’s activities will, however, never be fully known.  His eclectic library, as well as his own voluminous writings have largely disappeared (another factor in his relative anonymity).  His widow Selma Jager tried to do some sorting, but in the end, most of his papers were burned on Selma's instructions.  His remaining papers as well as a collection folk arts and crafts are curated at the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts. 

    Acknowledgment: Barbara Bezat (Northwest Architectural Archives), Richard Kronick and Mark Hammons provided much need assistance in navigating the voluminous William GrayPurcell papers as well as direction in understanding Jager and Purcell.  Dr. Maja Lozar Štamcar, Senior Curator at the National Museum of Slovenia, has shared information about Jager’s work in
    Ljubljana. 

    PHOTO CREDITS: 
    Fig. 1. John Jager (1918), William Gray Purcell Papers (N3), Correspondence - John Jager, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries
    Fig. 2. Church of St Stephen, St. Stephen, MN (ChipCity/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0)
    Fig. 3. Church of St Bernard, St. Paul, MN (McGiever/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0)
    Fig. 4. William Purcell (left) and John Jager (1928), William Gray Purcell Papers (N3), Correspondence - John Jager, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries

    BIBLIOGRAPHY

    Brooks, H. Allen. The Prairie School.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

    Gebhard, David, and Patricia Gebhard. Purcell & Elmslie: Prairie Progressive Architects. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2006.

    Hammons, Mark.  Guide to the William Gray Purcell Papers. St. Paul, MN: Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota, 1985.

    Hammons, Mark. Purcell and Elmslie, Architects. In Minnesota 1900: Art and Life on the Upper Mississippi, 1890-1915, ed. Michael Conforti. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1984.

    Millett, Larry.  AIA Guide to the Twin Cities: The Essential Source on the Architecture of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Minnesota Historical Society, 2007.



    After a successful academic career at St Cloud State University (Assistant Vice President for Research and Faculty Development, Professor of History and Archaeology), Richard M. Rothaus founded Trefoil Cultural and Environmental, a cultural resource management firm with vast experience in historic preservation and archaeology in Minnesota, South and North Dakota, as well as the Mediterranean (Corinthia, Greece; Cilicia Turkey; etc). His work with the preservation of historic landmarks has led Rothaus to the discovery of John Jager.


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