In a speech on Monday in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed the design plans for a new opera house to be built on Taksim Square at the current site of the Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM).
The project's backers say the building will become an icon of the city and its world-class culture, but detractors argue that its construction erases yet another important symbol of the modern Turkish Republic founded under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
In the announcement marking the launch of construction, Erdogan praised the project's potential to shape Istanbul and Turkey's image abroad. "God willing it will become an honor and symbol for Istanbul and our country," he said.
The opera house's construction will also see Taksim Square become fully pedestrian, with vehicle traffic passing underground, announced Erdogan. It will bring a "new richness to the square," he added.
The building's completion is set for early 2019, before the next general elections in Turkey take place in November 2019.
In addition to a 2,500-seat theater for opera, the new building will also include a cinema, a library, various concert halls, cafes and exhibition spaces.
Paying tribute to the past — or re-writing it?
The opera house's architectural plans revealed on Monday showed off a modern glass-and-concrete façade that echoed that of the AKM building set to be destroyed. The new complex, which will continue to bear Ataturk's name, is being designed by Murat Tabanlioglu, the son of architect Hayati Tabanlioglu who designed the original AKM building that opened in 1969.
Despite these tributary nods to the old AKM, which currently sits unused, and to the legacy of Ataturk as the Turkish Republic's founder, critics have decried the opera house's construction as another way in which Erdogan is trying to reshape the nation's past and remove a symbol of resistance to his controversial political reign.
Taksim Square and abutting Gezi Park were the central locations of the 2013 mass protests against then-Prime Minister Erdogan's plans to redevelop the area — which included the demolition of the AKM. Protesters took over the disused building, hanging banners over one side.
In his speech on Monday, Erdogan had strong words for critics of the planned project, arguing that they objected "not because of sensitivity to culture but ideological obsessions."
"The attitude that opposes the rebuilding of the AKM and the mentality that attempts to hinder Turkey's fight against terror organizations are one and the same," Erdogan added.
He also took aim at secular-leaning elites who have pushed back against Erdogan's attempts to re-develop the Taksim area and his alleged restriction of secular and spoken freedoms. "I know that the new AKM will benefit the most those who have sabotaged it for years," he said.
The AKM is considered an iconic example of Turkish architecture of the 1960s. It housed the state opera, ballet and theater. Shut down shortly after its opening due to fire, it once again opened its doors in 1978 and served as a hub for culture in the cosmopolitan city until 2008, when it ceased operations in order to be renovated. However, the architectural update never took place.
cmb/eg (AFP, dpa)