Ankara: Snapshots of Modernism

Ankara’s republican architecture, which embodies Atatürk’s effort to modernise Turkey, has recently become a terrain of contestation: in these snapshots, modernist buildings are observed within the everyday urban scene.

Davide Deriu, Ankara: istantanee del Modernismo
The term 'invisible city' somehow befits Ankara. Neither its ancient origins nor its modern vicissitudes have bestowed upon the Turkish capital a recognisable image that might reflect a clear architectural identity.
Even the most famous monuments – such as the fortified Citadel, the mausoleum of Atatürk, or the ‘Atakule’ tower are feeble icons on the global scene. For better or worse, the city passes largely unobserved; only to leap into the international news at dramatic moments such as last spring’s street demonstrations, which bore witness to how Ankara (with its 5 million inhabitants) is alive and kicking, well more than a mere synecdoche for the Turkish government.
Davide Deriu, Ankara: Snapshots of Modernism
Above: Davide Deriu, Ankara: Snapshots of Modernism, Ulus Market (arch: Robert Oerley, 1930); top: State Opera, formerly Exhibition Hall (arch: Şevki Balmumcu, 1933-34; Paul Bonatz, 1947-48)
The city's fate changed drastically in October 1923, when it was elected capital of the Republic of Turkey. This desolate village in Central Anatolia, which had been a provincial capital under the Roman Empire, shortly became the laboratory of the nation state that rose from the rubbles of the Ottoman Empire: a showcase for the process of reforms through with which Atatürk projected the 'New Turkey' into the western orbit. To give shape to this project, a group of European architects (mostly of Austro-German origins) were called upon to build a modern capital at the feet of the ancient settlement. Between the 1920s and 30s, designers such as Ernst Egli, Clemens Holzmeister and Bruno Taut, to name but a few, contributed to redesigning the face of the city. Their diverse interpretations of modernism are especially evident in the buildings that line the central thoroughfare, the north-south axis that connects the old city with the first modern expansion.
Davide Deriu, Ankara: Snapshots of Modernism
Davide Deriu, Ankara: Snapshots of Modernism, Sümer Bank (arch: Martin Elsaesser, 1937-38)

A growing interest in this historical moment has been shown by various exhibitions and publications over recent years. While the secular and western values that Turkey was founded on have come under question, architecture has increasingly become a terrain of contestation. The flourishing of studies on early-Republican Ankara has been linked to campaigns in defence of its modern heritage, often threatened by reconstruction projects promoted by the political and business elites. The struggle to preserve modernism from a raging wave of junkspace has a special value in a city that has been, for the last 90 years, an embodiment of kemalist principles. The risk, however, is to idealise individual buildings as museum pieces, isolated in space and time.

This series of 'snapshots' observes architecture in its context, immersed as it is in the ever-changing urban landscape. Amid controversial plans for demolition and dubious restorations, this modernist heritage survives in a delicate relationship with its surroundings. It would be difficult to separate the buildings from the flow of everyday life; they constantly feature in the view from the street, and often frame it. Recognising architecture as a backdrop to the urban scene then becomes a way of reflecting on the legacy of modernism in today’s Ankara.

Davide Deriu, Ankara: Snapshots of Modernism
Davide Deriu, Ankara: Snapshots of Modernism, Emlak Property and Credit Bank (arch: Clemens Holzmeister, 1931-33)

Davide Deriu, lecturer and researcher, was visiting professor at the Middle East Technical University of Ankara (METU) between 2005 and 2007. He currently lives in London where he teaches architectural history and theory at the University of Westminster.


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