ISTANBUL, Nov 7, (Agencies): Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday launched a controversial project to build a new opera house in Istanbul, lashing out at critics of the plan and saying the building would be a symbol for the city.
The 2,500-seat opera house, due to open in early 2019, will be built on the site of the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM) which has been unused for over a decade and whose impending demolition has worried some architects.
Erdogan said the cutting-edge building would give new life to Taksim Square in central Istanbul, which was the hub for mass protests against his rule in 2013 sparked by an urban development project in the nearby Gezi park.
Backers of the project want the opera house to be as much as symbol of Istanbul as the Bolshoi Theatre is in Moscow or the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
“God willing it will become an honour and symbol for Istanbul and our country,” Erdogan said at the launch.
The AKM, which for years has stood as an empty shell on Taksim Square, has had a troubled history.
It opened in 1969 but then closed almost immediately after a fire. It reopened in 1978, becoming the centre of Istanbul cultural life, but was then shuttered in 2008 for restoration that never took place.
Critics of the new project complain it will remove a symbol of the modern Turkish Republic founded after the break up of the Ottoman Empire by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, from whom the building takes its name.
But Erdogan said the resistance to the building’s renewal was “not because of sensitivity to culture but ideological obsessions.”
He added: “After protests, court cases and commotion, the path of science, intellect and rationality has prevailed.”
Taking a swipe at the Western-educated intelligentsia who criticised the project, he added: “I know that the new AKM will benefit the most those who have sabotaged it for years.”
He added Taksim — seen by many Istanbul residents as a chaotic mess best avoided — would be fully pedestrianised with vehicle traffic passing underground, bringing a “new richness to the square”.
What cultural programme will be put on at the new opera house remains unclear, but Erdogan lamented that Turkey had in the past made the mistake of imitating the West in culture.
“We failed to see this cultural imitation was a surrender to a world which considered us a rival and even as an enemy,” he said.
“We are rejecting any surrender. We are working to turn Turkey into an assertive state which has a say in every domain.”
There remains a lively cultural scene in Turkey, including Western opera, ballet and classical music, which is partly a legacy of Ataturk’s own love for the arts.
In a signal the government does not want to be seen trampling over the past, the architect of the new building, Murat Tabanlioglu, is the son of Hayati Tabanlioglu, the architect of the original AKM.
The glass-covered modernist facade of the new building is also similar to the old edifice.
Opera houses are usually the places where rich elites go, “but this should change. They should be places where everyone can go,” said Murat Tabanlioglu.
But Sami Yilmazturk, chairman of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, said the plan to demolish the AKM was “an attack against modern Turkey” because the building itself represents the values the Republic had been built upon.
“AKM is cultural heritage that needs to be protected,” he told AFP.
“Can you imagine expanding or renewing Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque? AKM is such a building,” Yilmazturk said, referring to the two most celebrated Byzantine and Ottoman monuments of Istanbul.
Yilmazturk described the the demolition of the AKM building as a “violation of justice” and a “constitutional crime”.
Erdogan did not make clear in his speech when the demolition of the old edifice and construction of the new building will begin.
Erdogan announced on Monday plans to demolish a culture centre in Istanbul named after the founder of modern secular Turkey, in a move critics see as another attempt by the Islamist-rooted ruling party to roll back secularism.
It marks Erdogan’s second attempt to tear down the Ataturk Culture Centre (AKM), named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, after a previous plan to develop the site near Taksim Square in 2013 erupted into mass protests against Turkey’s ruling AK Party.
The project envisages building an opera house, theatre hall, a conference centre and cinema on the site, near Gezi Park, the epicentre of the 2013 protests. Four years ago Erdogan had wanted to build a replica Ottoman baracks at the site.
“Today Turkey is starting something it should have done 10 years ago,” Erdogan said at a ceremony where he announced the project. He said the new building would be a “new and bigger” opera house, referring to it as “the New AKM Project”.
Erdogan, who served as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, has long argued for the need to replace the AKM, saying the building is not resistant to earthquakes. The AKM has been closed to the public for the past 10 years over disagreements regarding its renovation and infrastructure.
Opponents, however, see the planned demolition as further proof that Erdogan, a pious Muslim, and his AK Party want to reverse the secular order established by Ataturk in the 1920s and to reduce the use of the state founder’s name and image in public life.
Turkey’s chamber of architects said in a statement on Friday that demolishing the AKM was “a crime” and a violation of the constitution.
“The countless warnings and criminal complaints we have filed to public offices over the years have not been processed and the law has been disregarded, the AKM has been intentionally abandoned to demolition,” the chamber said.
“We are warning once again: For years, there have been willing crimes committed against history, culture, arts, society and the people in front of the eyes of the world,” it said, without elaborating.
The new project, whose cost has not been disclosed, will increase the capacity of the building from 1,300 people to 2,500 people, the presidency said in a statement.
Separately, Erdogan said the project would also pave the way to pedestrianising Taksim Square, one of the busiest hubs in Istanbul.