“The Performance of Modernity: Atatürk Kültür Merkezi 1946-1977”* is a selection of visual material from the exhibition of the same title that took place at SALT Galata in 2012-2013. The selection depicts the processes that the Opera House (later to be called Atatürk Kültür Merkezi / Atatürk Cultural Center) went through with the use of visual material from the archive of the current building’s architect Hayati Tabanlıoğlu and supportive texts. As a symbol of modernity in built form, the opera building was designed by several architects commissioned by various employers before Tabanlıoğlu was commissioned as the final architect in 1956; and the building survives to this day despite misfortunes including fire, technical infrastructure problems and economic handicaps.
As a significant representation of modernity, the processes that the building went through, together with the story of Taksim, one of the most critical spots in Istanbul, comprises an architectural, artistic and sociological narrative of history.
The master plan for Istanbul, prepared by French architect and urban planner Henri Prost in 1936-1937 came into force following its approval by Prime Minister İsmet İnönü. The plan involved the conversion of the Topçu Military Barracks and the cemetery adjacent to it into a park, and also the building of an opera house in Taksim Square. Henri Prost recommended French architect Auguste Perret to the Istanbul Municipality for the design of the two cultural buildings, the Istanbul Opera House and the Şişhane Comedy Theater, that would revitalize the area. Perret was invited to Istanbul and designed a project for the Istanbul Opera House. This project was not realized because of World War II.
Commissioned by the Istanbul Municipality, Rükneddin Güney and Feridun Kip designed a new project for the Istanbul Opera House. The plot of a mansion in Taksim Square that belonged to the Istanbul Power Authority was allocated to the project for the Istanbul Opera House. The founding ceremony took place with the attendance of Lütfi Kırdar, the mayor and governor of the time, on May 29, 1946. When it later became apparent that the means of the Municipality could not cater for the project, the Ministry of Finance took over the responsibility in 1953, and the construction of the building was transferred over to the Ministry of Public Works in 1956.
Upon the request of the Ministry of Public Works, Paul Bonatz examined the project of Rükneddin Güney - Feridun Kip and prepared several sketches, however, his project wasn’t developed any further. Güney and Kip revised their project circa 1956; the revised project had a relatively modern appearance.
The revised project of Güney-Kip, and a new project developed by Hayati Tabanlıoğlu who just started to work as an architect at the Ministry of Public Works were examined by Prof. Gerhard Graubner, a well-known expert on theater buildings. Graubner’s report was pointing out Tabanlıoğlu’s work as the appropriate project. The final process hebce began in 1956 when the Ministry of Public Works appointed Hayati Tabanlıoğlu, who had previously worked on various opera and theater projects, as the chief architect of the project. Initially panned solely as an opera house, the building was converted into a “Cultural Center” with the involvement of statics, infrastructure, stage technics and acoustic specialists. The building opened in 1969 as the Istanbul Cultural Palace.
The 27 May 1960 military coup d’etat brought the construction to a halt that lasted three years. Finally on 12 April 1969, the building, opened under the title Istanbul Cultural Palace. It was assigned to two separate institutions, the State Theater and Ballet and State Theatres. On the opening night, the “Çeşmebaşı” ballet by Ferit Tüzün and “Aida” by Verdi were performed.
On November 27, 1970, a fire broke out in the building during the performance of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”. The fire caused massive damage and the Istanbul Cultural Palace was no longer usable. There were no casualties, but a number of artefacts brought from the Topkapı Palace for the play Murat IV were destroyed. The source of the fire was never conclusively detected.
The building was designed for the second time by Hayati Tabanlıoğlu and changes to the interior and infrastructure were introduced using new technologies. The Cultural Palace was ready to operate in 1977, and it reopened under its new name, “Atatürk Cultural Center” on 6 October 1978.
In 2005, Atilla Koç, the Minister of Culture, proposed the demolition the building, claiming it had completed its useful economic life. However, following intense resistance from art and architectural platforms and civil initiatives, persistent demonstrations and media support, the Second Preservation Board of Istanbul registered the building as an A-Class cultural asset, thus preventing its demolition.
In November 2008, the Tabanlıoğlu Architects office was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to design the renovation project of the Atatürk Cultural Center. However, the renovation was stopped by court order following a lawsuit filed by the Union of Culture, Art and Tourism Workers. The building was demolished in March 2018 to be rebuilt. The opening of the new building was held on October 29, 2021.
Text: Aslı Can (2014)
*Curators: Pelin Derviş and Gökhan Karakuş