The Turkish Council of State has ordered three luxury apartment blocks to be bulldozed amid widespread outrage.
But will it have any impact on the country’s unstoppable, and often unlawful, construction boom?
The OnaltiDokuz Residence, which comprises three graceless shafts of 27, 32 and 37 storeys in the western district of Zeytinburnu, claimed to “redefine what it means to be a citizen”, offering its wealthy residents “a new perspective with breathtaking panoramic views”. Its million-pound penthouses were to provide a “unique living philosophy”, a vantage point from which “the city surrounds you in all its magnificence”.1 But the city itself wasn’t so keen. The development sparked widespread outrage, lumbering into view like an uninvited guest, photobombing cherished vistas of the 400-year-old Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia.
Now the Turkish Council of State has weighed in, approving an earlier ruling by an Istanbul court in May that ordered the buildings’ demolition. It ruled that the structures were illegal, as they “negatively affected the world heritage site that the Turkish government was obliged to protect”. The decision follows earlier murmurings from Unesco, that the city might be placed on its endangered list if the rampant construction continues to press ahead unabated. It is a landmark ruling, but not one that helps to clarify the legal situation of Istanbul’s unstoppable building boom in the slightest.
While the debate was raging earlier this year, the country’s crane-loving prime minister (now president-elect) Recep Tayyip Erdogan2 claimed ignorance. “I didn’t know,” he said. “I cannot count the buildings going up every time I come. Can you count stars?” He said he had spoken with the project’s developer, his good friend Mesut Toprak of Astay real estate, and “asked him to give [the towers] a haircut. He didn’t do it. I was very offended. I haven’t spoken to him for five years.”
- 1. Such cases are not uncommon, with recent policy changes further lubricating the path for historic neighbourhoods to be trampled and towers to rise ever higher. The government’s critics claim that the laws regulating the construction sector have been repeatedly watered down since Erdogan’s ruling AK party came to power. Turkey’s Public Tender Act has been amended 31 times since then, according to Oya Ozarslan, head of the local chapter of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, creating loopholes that developers are all too ready to exploit.
- 2. While planning law is relentlessly bored into a Swiss cheese, Erdogan continues to pronounce on architectural matters, like an Ottoman-flavoured Prince Charles. “I side with a form of architecture that accords with our culture,” he declared back in April. “In Istanbul and Ankara, there are structures that have gone against the characters of both cities. I don’t approve of vertical structures; I rather favour horizontal ones.” His solution? Mega-basements for every building: “Four storeys should be above the ground, while the other four should be built underground.”
While Erdogan might publicly denounce the high-rise craze, his ground-scrapers can be just as damaging. His penchant for reviving ancient forms came to a head in Taksim Square, when his preposterous proposal to bulldoze Gezi Park for a new shopping mall, modelled as a steroidal reincarnation of a neo-Ottoman barracks, sparked national protests that escalated into a violent struggle and worldwide condemnation.