The Performance of Modernity: Atatürk Kültür Merkezi, 1946-1977

Located in Taksim, Istanbul, AKM (Ataturk Cultural Centre) or “the Opera” as the regulars called it, is a symbol that represents attempts of Modernization in Turkey, which, on the political and cultural sphere, equalled Westernization. Curated by Pelin Derviş and Gökhan Karakuş and realized by SALT, the exhibition The Performance of Modernity: Ataturk Cultural Center, 1946-1977, aims to historically contextualize political conditions, choices, and technological developments that defined AKM’s destiny in a period of time from the Ottoman period to our day with an emphasis on the selected period.

The exhibition displays rich archival material that ranges from architectural plans, photographs, state documents, and newspaper columns to sound recordings of the interviews with architects, designers, and artists who played prominent roles in the execution of this building. This allows the extraordinary effort, devotion, and labour demanded by the construction of the building, which took more than 20 years to be recognized. However, the exhibition does not fully contextualize the meaning of the building from a political and cultural perspective since it is not possible to trace—in the exhibition—Turkey’s crises of modernization, a history of ideological clashes centered on the issue of Westernization and how to combine Islamic and Western values. The current discussions on AKM, as part of a larger discourse on the politics of the public space, reveal the continuity of a binary opposition that attempts to modernization gave rise to: the secular and the religious.[1] While the secularists feel threatened, thinking “their” public space is invaded by the policies of the conservative government currently in power; the religious who felt excluded from the public space due to the exclusive policies of the former since the early years of the republic, wants to leave its own mark on it. A prominent, religious, public intellectual, Dücane Cündioğlu, even argues that AKM is a “secularist temple.”[2]  

Under these circumstances it is no wonder, the future of the building had been the center of a long battle between the conservative government that once declared its wish to demolish the building and several professional associations that want to preserve it.

From a different perspective, however, the distance that the exhibition keeps with the political (despite its aim) allows the visitor to concentrate on the material reality of the building; its aesthetic coherence, and the creativity witnessed in its design, the visitor is given the opportunity to appraise the building as an artwork and see it not as a symbol that represents any political ideology or group but as a part of Istanbul’s cultural heritage. The building is now under restoration with the support of the private sector.
—Elif Gül Tirben

The below article on the Performance of Modernity at SALT Galata (September 21, 2012-January 6, 2013) was published in ICE Magazine, Issue #9, 2012. The exhibition was on view in Ankara at the centre of the Association of Turkish Independent Architects (Türk Serbest Mimarlar Derneği Mimarlık Merkezi) (January 24–March 24, 2013) after its initial display at SALT Galata.
Modernin I?crası- AKM 20.09.2012 0003
The Performance of Modernity: ATATÜRK KÜLTÜR MERKEZİ, 1946-1977, SALT Galata, 2012.

SALT produces interdisciplinary discussion and articulation opportunities for artists, art professionals, and cultural producers, while hosting exhibitions and activities that refresh and perhaps reform our social memory of the material and visual culture production during the process of Turkey’s modernization. For the exhibition Performance of Modernity: Ataturk Kültür Merkezi, 1946-1977, architects, designers, and artists who played prominent roles in the execution of this building and their close friends have been interviewed, represented in the exhibition via sound recordings, which make the extraordinary effort, devotion, and labor demanded by the building, heard.

We thus find out through Üner Kırdar, son of Lütfi Kırdar, who was both the mayor and the governor of Istanbul, starting in 1938 for 11 years, talks of Atatürk Cultural Center as one of the three major projects that was meant to meet Istanbul’s cultural demands: Opera building (AKM), Summer Theater (Open Air Theater), and the conservatory building in Macka that was never realized. Atatürk Cultural Center is inside the municipality park, extending from Taksim to Maçka, and from Maçka to Dolmabahçe; its plan first approved by the erstwhile city committee, and later by the government. Yet, it was unlawfully nationalized and rendered dysfunctional by the subsequent governments: “Let us take Taksim Gezi—it became useless, they placed the marriage agency, hookah cafés and parking lots for the traffic police and they turned that beautiful park into a useless space. Taksim Tavern, which was at one point an important cultural center for the city, was demolished and a hotel was built instead. In the same way, Istanbul municipality tennis courts were demolished and a Hyatt Regency Hotel was built in its place. However, most importantly and the one act that is unforgivable, the space once open to the public, right in the middle of the park, was torn from the city and became the Hilton Hotel and the gardens of the Hilton.”[3]

Despite the economic depression caused by the Second World War, foundations of “City Opera House”, prepared by various architects, were laid in 1946. In 1956, Ministry of Public Works appointed Hayati Tabanlıoğlu for the final project. Having graduated from Istanbul Technical University, Faculty of Architecture in 1950, Hayati Tabanlıoğlu headed
 to Germany to pursue a doctorate. As a graduate student, he was employed in the research and construction stages of modernist
 German theaters and opera houses during the country’s reconstruction period, attaining a significant design perspective in that direction, and experience in the planning, and technical infrastructure of such buildings. Joining Tabanlıoğlu to hold major positions during the Opera House’s construction were architects Aydın Boysan, designer of the stage, Willi Ehle, lighting designer Johannes Dinnebier and ceramic artists Belma and Sadi Diren.

It is possible to listen to the story of the construction of the façade of
 the building in detail in interviews with Aydın Boysan, who oversaw 
the construction of the façade (back then, he was also working for Arçelik as a construction manager). Stage mechanics and artistic planning of the building were completed by German Willi Ehle. Aydın Boysan points out the importance and difficulty of stage building: “Stage engineering is incredibly interesting. One needs to know how stage should be for opera and theatre, then there are the movements of stage, mechanics, the curtains, the turn of the stage, its movement back and forth, up and down. It has to be the meeting of artistic needs with the mechanics.”[4]

AKM, Grand Hall, Reha Günay.
AKM, Grand Hall, Reha Günay, 1977.

For lighting design, Hayati Tabanlıoğlu commissioned Johannes Dinnebier after a tedious serious research process. Reflective glass chandeliers, ceiling lights, and sculptures spectacularly designed for AKM by Diennebier reflect a holistic approach Diennebier mastered in Germany.

Atatürk Cultural Center, Main Entrance Hall, Reha Günay.
AKM, Children’s Cinema, Reha Günay, 1977.

Creators of the tile panels inside the buildings are Sadi and Belma Diren, who reinterpret Anatolian motifs with their works. Sadi Diren describes the tiles they designed for AKM: “It is very interesting that those tiles are not all the same, there are ones that are angled and ones in varying sizes. There is a play of light upon those ceramics. You can see a depth when the light hits them or at different times. I did this […] to give them dimension. There are small tiles of five centimeters and when they are put together some face in and some face out. I did this to give them animation.”[5]

AKM, Ceramic Panel designed by Sadi Diren.

Construction of the building lasted until 1969. Ayla Tabanlıoğlu , Hayati Tabanlıoğlu’s wife, contends that there are economic and political reasons behind the prolonged construction time: “Sadly, the government could only earmark a small percentage of its budget for the project. This was one of the main reasons construction of the opera building took such a long time and believe it or not, from the time that Hayati started to work there at 1956 up until shortly before the fire took place, 10 ministers changed in this country.”[6]

One year after its inauguration, in 1970, the building burned down completely, during the play Cadı Kazanı. Reconstruction work, directed by Hayati Tabanlıoğlu lasted eight years. In 1999, The First Site Management Directorate for Cultural and Natural Sites ruled that AKM was a ‘cultural heritage that ought to be preserved’, yet between 2005-2007 Minister of Culture Atilla Koç, proposed the building’s demolition, on the grounds that its economic lifespan was over. Ayla Tabanlıoğlu describes her reaction to this: “There was a construction building at the AKM. I cannot remember exactly but there was a large body of permanent staff. Hayati always started work at 6:30. He would get there early, he would finish all of his responsibilities and then he would go over everything else. This was his work ethic. This location was important and Hayati was young then. This building would carry his name. He worked endlessly for years. Think about it, the fire was in 1970 and then he worked in the rebuilding until it opened at 1978. Can you imagine, he gave this twenty plus years? That is why it pained me when I heard that it would be demolished.”[7]

AKM on fire (November 27, 1970), Reha Günay.

While “a series of problems that revolve around the cultural mechanism in the country, related to the varying former roles of the building”[8] can be perceived, these questions remain vague throughout the exhibition experience. On the other hand, the distance that the exhibition keeps with the political allows the visitor to concentrate on the material reality of the building; its aesthetic coherence, and the creativity witnessed in its design, the visitor is given the opportunity to appraise the building as an artwork. Sketches, photographs, voice recordings, a video recording documenting sections of plays performed in AKM, remind us the building’s place in our collective and personal memory.

[1] During a discussion on the mosque soon to be built on the Çamlıca Hill and the future of Taksim Square, some of the participants and the audience constantly mention these two opposing groups that differentiate in their use of the public space with regard to religious practices. Participants of the talk are two leading architects: Nevzat Sayın and Can Çinici and author and public intellectual Dücane Cündioğlu. “Kalebodurla Mimarlar Konuşuyor,” conferance organized by Arkitera Centre of Architecture, 12 Jan. 2013 available at

[2] Ibid.

[3] Excerpt from an interview by Pelin Derviş and Gökhan Karakus with Uner Kırdar, 4 Eylül 2012

[4] Excerpt from an interview by Burak Boysan, Pelin Derviş and Gökhan Karakuş with Aydın Boysan, 20 Aralık 2011.

[5] Excerpt from an interview by Pelin Derviş and Gökhan Karakuş with Sadi Diren, 13 Ocak 2012

[6] Excerpt from an interview by Gökhan Karakuş with Ayla Tabanlıoğlu, 21 Haziran 2012

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Performance of Modernity: Atatürk Kültür Merkezi, 1946-1977, Press Release, available at – !/en/406/the-performance-of-modernity-ataturk-kultur-merkezi-1946-1977