Erdogan’s Istanbul opera house plan sparks excitement, controversy

ISTANBUL: On the buzzing Taksim Square of Istanbul, the focal point of the modern city, a giant disused building looms over visitors, its glass windows broken and a few tattered advertising banners flapping disconsolately in the breeze.
This is the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM), opened in 1969 to realise the dream of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk for the country to be a world-class centre for the arts, including Western genres such as classical music, opera and ballet.
But the glass-fronted AKM has endured a chequered, even cursed history. It had to be rebuilt following a fire in 1970 and only reopened in 1978. It then served as the hub of Istanbul’s cultural life for three decades before being shuttered in 2008 for restoration.
But no restoration ever took place and the building has since stood unloved and decaying through the tumult of the 2013 mass protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then premier, on Taksim and the July 15, 2016 failed coup against his rule. Its brooding shell has become a symbol of the troubles dogging the arts in Turkey at a time of declining funding, claims of censorship under Erdogan and the terror attacks of 2016, keeping some foreign artists away.
After years of debate on the future of the building, Erdogan this month offered a radical and clinical solution — rip the entire edifice down and build a world-class opera house in its place. His proposal has aroused excitement in some quarters but hostility from others — particularly those who see the modernist building as a worthy example of secular Turkish modern architecture. “The AKM project in Istanbul is over, we will knock it down and Istanbul will gain a beautiful new edifice,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan’s government has been criticised on occasion for showing a lack of interest in the arts beyond Turkey’s internationally successful television dramas.
But the president said: “All we want is for Istanbul to have the culture and arts centre that it deserves.”
The absence of the AKM left a gaping hole in Istanbul cultural life, with the opera and ballet companies largely performing at the Sureyya Operasi on the Asian side of the city, an architecturally significant 1920s building but too small for grand shows.
“We have been waiting for a proper concert hall and the news coming from President Erdogan made us more than happy,” Yesim Gurer Oymak, Director of the annual Istanbul Music Festival, organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), said.
“This means that there will be more and more international orchestras and big productions coming to Istanbul and the companies from Turkey can present more elevated productions.
“The closure of AKM means an opera company, a ballet, a state orchestra without a home. In order to develop, they need to have a base and a home,” she added.
Gurer Oymak recalled how the AKM had been a popular Istanbul meeting place and put on ambitious productions, including as part of the Istanbul Music Festival, that now are no longer possible. — AFP