Architecture and the Aestheticization of Politics

The Turkish plan to destroy the vital public space of Taksim Gezi Park by turning it into a shopping mall reflects a global democratic crisis.

Taksim Artillery Barracks
Postcard of the Taksim Artillery Barracks, ca. 1911. [via Ottoman History Podcast]

One of the most essential virtues we may assign to architecture is the ability to reveal the unconscious of power. What power refuses to say, or what power attempts to conceal in the inscrutable weaving of political language, is revealed in the works it builds. “Spatial images are the dreams of society,” wrote Siegfried Kracauer, in 1930. “Wherever the hieroglyphics of any spatial image are deciphered, there the basis of social reality presents itself.” 1

One such hieroglyphic is the plan for a shopping center at Taksim Gezi Park, Istanbul, forcefully advanced by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last year. Understanding the plan as a political image helps explain how a seemingly local disagreement — the proposed demolition of the park and its redevelopment as a shopping mall — escalated into a global event, in late May and early June 2013, when protestors occupied Taksim Square and were violently evicted by riot police. By mid-June, more than 3 million people across Turkey had joined solidarity rallies; thousands were injured, five dead.

What power refuses to say, or what power attempts to conceal in the inscrutable weaving of political language, is revealed in the works it builds.

But let’s start from the beginning. Taksim Gezi Park occupies a significant location in Istanbul, not only geographically but also culturally. One of the few open spaces in this densely inhabited city, situated between old and modern Istanbul, the park has long been a space of protest and demonstration. It occupies the former site of the Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks (Taksim Kışlası), built in 1806 during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Selim III. Designed by the Armenian architect Krikor Balian, the barracks were an impressive synthesis of late Ottoman architecture and Oriental style, with long dormitory wings enclosing a huge parade ground. The building was damaged in 1909, during an Islamic counter-coup against the new constitutional regime, and later converted into a stadium for the Turkish national football (soccer) team. In 1940, the stadium was demolished to create Gezi Park, following French architect Henri Prost’s master plan of Istanbul.

The park borders Taksim Square to the south, which is dominated by the Atatürk Cultural Center and the imposing Republic Monument. Together, the park and square constitute a referential space that evokes the founding of the Turkish Republic and the disputes embedded within the complex process of secularization. The name Taksim means division and distribution — this was formerly the spot where water lines converged before supplying the city center — and today it defines a space of conflict and coexistence, where Turkish democracy is contested.

Erdoğan’s plan seeks to tame this politically charged space by producing a bric-à-brac replica of the old Ottoman building filled with stores, restaurants, cinemas and bars. The former parade ground is envisioned as a flexible (but much diminished) open space — receptive to soccer games, outdoor concerts and other leisure activities, but not political demonstrations. Renderings show an entertainment/consumption complex conveniently dressed in a nationalist, conservative and pacifying rhetoric, mirroring Erdoğan’s politics of “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” 2 imperiously costumed in Ottoman traditions that dissimulate a neoliberal program. In short: a hieroglyphic. The splendid Ottoman façade sings the glory of Turkish values but hides the more effective and more insidious glory of global financial capital and real-estate speculation.

Gezi Park

Gezi Park

Gezi Park
Renderings of the proposed redevelopment of Gezi Park.

By now this is a familiar strategy in cities across Europe. In Berlin, for example, the higher symbols of Prussian glory have provided political cover for the systematic erasure of the recent past. Thus, the demolition of the Palace of the Republic and other communist buildings along the boulevard Unter den Linden is attended by ex novo construction of the old Berlin City Palace (built in the 15th century, damaged in 1945, demolished in 1950); like Gezi Park Mall, the new building will hide a modern interior behind a nostalgic replica of the baroque facades. But I am less interested in appraising and comparing the politics of memory than in understanding how these discourses arise as instruments of power.

Only by attending to what Walter Benjamin called the ‘aestheticization of politics’ can we fully grasp the current democratic crisis in Turkey and around the world.

For Walter Benjamin, fascism’s defining attribute wasn’t the totalitarian concentration of power so much as it was the implementation of a meticulous system of visibilities (a propaganda machine), whose “virtue” lie in giving visibility to the masses without answering proletarian demands for a fundamental shift in property relationships. This (non)politics transformed each political event, each rally — indeed, the Führer himself — into aesthetic performance and spectacle. As Benjamin put it: Fascism “sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses — but on no account granting them rights.” 3

Only by abandoning the traditional opposition of fascism and democracy and paying closer attention to what Benjamin called the aestheticization of politics can we fully grasp the current democratic crisis in Turkey and around the world. That crisis is revealed by the actions of purportedly democratic regimes that do nothing more than replicate imagistic devices, real and discursive (such as those beautiful Ottoman facades), which hide the true nature of political agendas. 4 Power is sustained by the illusion that it speaks for us, for our history and our future, for our democracy and its values. What we are beginning to see is the proliferation of democratic powers that grant us the possibility to express ourselves, but on no account to express our rights. The singular democratic right at stake is the right of politicization against aestheticization: the right to access the political realm from which we have been deprived, the polis, the only place where we may ensure our individual and collective freedom.

Protestors occupy Gezi Park, June 8, 2013
Protestors occupy Gezi Park to halt its demolition, June 8, 2013. [Ian Usher]

Taksim Square from above, June 6, 2013. [via Flickr/Commons]

Taksim Square is an essential space of division (conflict) and distribution (coexistence) that must not be annulled. For, as Jacques Rancière observes, democracy is not the smooth veil of consensus, but the act of provoking dissensus, the possibility of disrupting and modifying the dominant aesthetic (dis)positions of perception, thought and action, of tracing unclassified and unexpected lines “that crack open the unity of the given and the obviousness of the visible, in order to sketch a new topography of the possible.” Democracy is not a way of government or way of living but foremost an act of political subjectivation: to speak when one is not to speak, to appear when (and where) one is not to appear. 5

Taksim Square is a place outside conventional politics, not defined by the prescribed ways of meeting and encountering one another in the city.

If the space of capitalism is fundamentally “the inescapable sea of urbanization,” as Pier Vittorio Aureli argues — that is, the unbounded configuration of the territory, an abstract grid where everything is integrated and absorbed, generating a flat space where the contradictions and inequalities of capitalist production are overcome not by solving them but by hiding them 6 — then our task — and we should well speak as architects — must be making the invisible visible, 7 uncovering and retracing the concealed limits of the city. We must construct barriers and counter-spaces within and against the processes that tame and dissolve the crucial loci of democracy. 8 If the political is always the act of tracing a division, architecture is itself an exercise about limits: the partition and partaking of spaces, the gesture of separating what’s joined and joining what’s separated. We do not seek limits in order to segregate, but because each limes 9 is a threshold, a point of connection, of remaining, of coming and departing, a place where there is always a word and a world we can share.

Taksim Square is such a place, not only a threshold between the old and modern cities, but moreover a place outside conventional politics, not defined by the prescribed ways of meeting and encountering one another in the city, a space left to be appropriated: un-functional, un-economical, un-determined. What is at stake here, which the citizens of Istanbul were quick to recognize, is not just another shopping center, but the systematic dissolution and urbanization of the spaces-limes of political subjectivation — or, to use Hannah Arendt’s words, of those spaces of appearance that make possible a certain experience of equality, “where I appear to others as others appear to me,” 10 which are the locus of the political and without which democracy cannot exist.

  1. Siegfried Kracauer, “Employment Agencies: The construction of a space,” in Rethinking Architecture, Ed. Neil Leach (London: Routledge, 1997), 60.
  2. See Karl Marx, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, Trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1990), 163.
  3. “Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses while leaving intact the property relations which they strive to abolish. It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses — but on no account granting them rights. The masses have a right to changed property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression in keeping these relations unchanged.” Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, London, 2008), 41.
  4. “The powers that be need to repress us no less than to make us anxious,” said Deleuze, and need less to forbid us than to work with the dreams of our most secret cultural imaginary. (See Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, New York: Columbia University Press, 1987; 61.) They say that they build our heritage as a reflection of our dreams, but with that power they do nothing but camouflage the privatization of public spaces and of the State itself.
  5. Jacques Rancière, “The Misadventures of Critical Thought,” in The Emancipated Spectator (London: Verso, 2009) 49; and Rancière, Dissensus, On Politics and Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 32.
  6. Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 16, 226.
  7. Cf. Paul Klee, in his essay “Creative Credo” (1920): “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”
  8. See the discussion of Mario Tronti in Aureli, The Project of Autonomy: Politics and Architecture within and against Capitalism (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008).
  9. Limes is the Latin word for limit, but it had a broader meaning, designating the borders of the Roman Empire and as such the borders of the Roman civilized world. Naturally, this was an intense area of contact and exchange. The word limes connotes an awareness of limits, finitude and contiguity, but also of partaking. See Eugenio Trías, La Lógica del límite (Barcelona: Destino, 1991).
  10. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1958), 198-199.
Pedro Levi Bismarck, “Architecture and the Aestheticization of Politics,” Places Journal, February 2014. Accessed 01 Dec 2022.

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Past Discussions View
  • 02.13.2014 at 04:30

    Dear Pedro, thank you for the analysis of the situation of Gezi Park. As the creator of the research and exhibition project "Ghost Building's (a project that criticized the ongoing destructions of the architectural history of Istanbul) I would like to correct you, that the first two images that you have used as "proposed renderings" are actually 2 of the 6 utopian and distopian scenarios we had created for our exhibition way before the government had announced the project, and they have nothing do with the hideous project proposed by the government. Please correct this, we have nothing to do with the project and we are active participators of the protests from the very first day the president announced the project.

    Thank you. We have removed the two images you refer to and replaced them with the correct renderings. We apologize for the error. Readers can learn more about the 2010 exhibition Ghost Buildings here.

    — Eds.

  • 06.18.2014 at 18:34

    incorrect use of the word "nostalgia". Your essay would be better without it, and considerably more interesting and accurate.