Today, in Istanbul, we are living at a turning point in Turkey’s history of democratization, and this moment is particularly important for members of the design community. The protests that began here last week grew out of a demonstration against the autocratic and blatantly commercial approach to architecture and public space taken by the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) government. The current AKP Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was once the Mayor of Istanbul, has decided that he is also the chief architect of the city, making decisions about what types of buildings are constructed (shopping centers and mosques are always top on the agenda) and in what style they should be designed—most often a superficial, neo-Ottoman kitsch.
Erdoğan’s decision to build a shopping mall on Taksim Square in the fashion of a 19th-century artillery barracks that once stood on the site became a tipping point last week. A peaceful demonstration against the construction of the project—which would transform an important space in the heart of the city with little public input—boiled over into a critique of top-down urban development and then a large-scale political protest.