- The Emergence of Modern Istanbul: Transformation and Modernisation of a City
Over the last two decades, in the process of becoming a global city, Istanbul has been drawing more international attention than ever. Murat Gül’s book is a timely contribution that traces the multiple layers of the city’s social history as well as the history of its urban planning. From the early 18th century to the end of the 1950s, several snapshots of Istanbul depicted in this book illustrate how the capital of the Ottoman Empire developed into a modern metropolis and how its urban form was transformed while the city served as a “theatrical stage” for social and political changes (p. 2). It is evident that even today’s Istanbul, named as the 2010 cultural capital of Europe, continues this function with its rich history, cultural pluralism, and diverse spatial qualities.
To provide a critical perspective on Istanbul’s urban history, Gül sets up two tasks for himself. First, he reevaluates the redevelopment program of 1956 directed by Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. Second, he demonstrates how the urban and architectural history of the city intertwine with social and political changes. Historically reconstructing the implementation of the 1956 program, Gül’s analytical framework targets both urban and architectural historians who, according to him, have undermined Istanbul’s redevelopment in the 1950s because of the general criticisms towards the politics of the governing Democrat Party among the Turkish intelligentsia. Hence, in The Emergence of Modern Istanbul, Gül’s main objective is to provide a revised understanding and interpretation of the redevelopment works led by Menderes himself.
Considering the scale of destruction of the existing, partly historic urban fabric that is replaced with wide boulevards and newly created public spaces in front of some monuments, this program is the largest and the most controversial undertaking among all the plans prepared for Istanbul.
The most original contribution of Gül’s book appears in his consideration of possible linkages among various plans that all used modern planning tools originated in Europe. Thus, the Hausmannian position of Menderes in widening streets and opening new squares was nothing new when considered in light of the first regulatory guidelines issued in 1839 for rebuilding Istanbul, the redevelopment scheme by André Auric in 1910, and the master plan by Henri Prost in 1939. Yet, the question remains whether an official plan existed during the implementations in the late 1950s or not. To answer this question and, at the same time, to clear Menderes of his image as “the bête noire politician” (p. 4), Gül reveals the documents of the Yassıada trials conducted in the aftermath of the military coup d’état in 1960. The chief prosecutor charged Menderes and some city officials for the misuse of public resources and “unlawful expropriation of private properties for the redevelopment of Istanbul without proper compensation and with forcibly signed releases from citizens” (p. 143). As Gül shows in his book, however, a number of technical committees made up of planners, architects and city bureaucrats started to revise the incomplete master plan by Prost, created partial plans for some districts in the city following the guidelines advised by foreign planners such as Hans Högg and Luigi Piccinatto.
Even though Gül’s focus is the history of urban planning in Istanbul, the book reads at many points more like the social history of late Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Social determinism that shapes the chronologically divided content of the book also governs the author’s approach in portraying urban planning as a strictly political tool rather than an emerging discipline and profession in Turkey. For example, the discussion of Menderes’ redevelopment program would gain more from examining the nature of real interactions and negotiations among planners, architects, and bureaucrats working for the Municipality of Istanbul and politicians such as...