Seeing the future of Turkey's culture in Istanbul

With Turkey’s face pointing towards a brighter future there clearly is plenty to see and hear in Istanbul.

 A scene from the Turkish opera 'Sinan,' which was performed on the opening night of the AKM. (photo credit: Parker Company)
A scene from the Turkish opera 'Sinan,' which was performed on the opening night of the AKM.
(photo credit: Parker Company)

A few weeks ago I was invited over to Istanbul, together with a compatriot journalist, and a whole host of fellow professionals from across Europe. The occasion was the grand reopening of the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi (Ataturk Cultural Center – AKM) located on Taksim Square, one of the major nodal points of this enormous sprawling city, on the 98th Independence Day of the modern state of Turkey.

This was clearly a milestone event in cultural Turkish life, and marked the latest twist in what has been something of a checkered timeline for the AKM. The plan for the initial building – then called the Istanbul Culture Palace – was submitted in 1946 but construction was halted after seven years when funds ran out.

Work resumed three years later, in 1956, and the project was finally completed in April 1969, a full 23 years after the whole exercise began. Sadly that wasn’t the end of the place’s trying evolution and, a mere 19 months after the center opened, fire broke out and the site remained dormant until the latest refit started in 2019. COVID-19 constraints notwithstanding, the design and construction team got the work done and the AKM finally came to be, in all its lustrous state-of-the-art glory.

The curtain-raiser was a suitably grand affair, attended by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Nuri Ersoy. Some time after we’d all taken our seats, in the sumptuously appointed 2040 capacity Opera House auditorium, Erdogan made a grand entrance whereupon all rose and applauded and the official opening agenda swung into high gear.

We were treated to a snappy video presentation of some of the architectural and hi-tech delights on offer while the MC – presumably – extolled the virtues of the newly made over center. My headset failed on me so I was unable to get a simultaneous English-language translation. That also left me in the dark regarding the exact content of the impassioned addresses of the president and Ersoy but both were very animated, and their speeches drew numerous interim ripples of applause.

 Remote view of Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS) Remote view of Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Still, that left me with plenty of time to absorb my surroundings and the spanking new fixtures and fittings. I was particularly taken with the outsized chandelier, made up of hundreds of light bulbs, which, when retracted, formed a number of concentric circles flush against the ceiling. When open it took on a layered inverted triangular shape, dropping down several meters.

We were later informed that the wood used for the towering interior was specially chosen for its acoustic qualities. Evidently, no expense or effort had been spared to ensure the public get their money’s worth when they trot over to Taksim Square for an opera, orchestral concert or, maybe, a jazz show.

All of the aforementioned genres, which dipped into Western and Eastern areas of artistic endeavor, were on offer at the start of the AKM’s second lease of life, kicking off with a performance of a Turkish opera work called Sinan, commissioned by the president himself. The storyline was based on the life and work of Mimar Sinan and was a salute to the man who achieved the title of Grand Architect. It seems Sinan, who lived in the late 15th to late 16th centuries, was an indefatigable character and oversaw the construction of more than 300 major structures, and other smaller scale projects, such as schools. Admittedly he did have a long run on terra firma – it is unclear whether he died at the age of 100 or “just” 97 – but his bio still makes for impressive perusal. He served as chief Ottoman architect and civil engineer under three sultans, and left Turkey with a lasting structural legacy, which includes the magnificent Sultan Ahmed Mosque – aka Blue Mosque – in Istanbul.

With the speeches done and dusted we settled down to watch the Turkish-language opera which, naturally, most of the press people could not understand. However, the music was fundamentally stirring, and the sets and costumes were rich and colorful.

On the morrow we attended a press conference at the center, courtesy of the culture minister. Once again there was a headset malfunction – not just mine, so I didn’t take it personally – hence I was unable to understand many of the minister’s responses. However, a large screen displayed some of the statistics and thinking behind the redesign. One Dutch journalist asked about the physical political context of the AKM, referencing the protests that took place at nearby Gezi Park in 2013 when, in fact, the center was due to be reopened, and whether that had any bearing on the backdrop to the new center.

The civic unrest was partly aimed at the governmental about turn over the makeover project, and the new plans to demolish the park – one of the few green lungs in Istanbul – and Taksim Square area, and to construct a new opera house, mosque and shopping mall, the latter to be housed in a replica of the Ottoman-era Taksim Military Barracks. Answering in English the minister smilingly replied that all was well now and said “we don’t look to the past, only to the future.”

That sunny forward-looking ethos informs much of the new AKM and, after the press conference, we were shown several audio-visual installations that certainly caught the eye and ear, and there were a number of exhibitions spread across a wide disciplinary spectrum. Minister’s Ersoy’s declaration about planning for tomorrow was borne out by a musical workshop for children we espied through the glass front of the Children’s Art Center.

The minister-led tour also took in the impressively designed library stocked with thousands of books about seemingly every area and facet of the arts, from architecture to rock music, art and activism, haute couture and Istanbul’s historic heritage. You name it the AKM library probably has it somewhere across its pristine three wooden floors.

The bare statistics don’t, of course, tell the whole recrafted AKM story. Still they do catch the eye. Completely reconstructed in two and half years, at a cost of TL 2 billion (around NIS 500 million), in addition to the 2040-seater Opera House culture consumers can avail themselves of the 802 capacity Theater Hall, the expansive AKM Gallery and AKM Multipurpose Hall. All told, the center incorporates an indoor area of approximately 100,000 sq.m., which also features a music platform, recording studio, the AKM Yesilçam Cinema and other facilities, such as the Design Shop, along with rehearsal areas, individual and orchestra study and rehearsal units, restaurants, a cafeteria, book cafés, workshops, and administrative and technical units.

We also got a good earful of the acoustic quality of the Opera House when we attended an excellent concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with dynamic conductor Robin Ticciati presiding. Fittingly the performance opened with a delightful locally created score, “Haydar Haydar,” composed by Turkish composer Özkan Manav, followed by Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 28 in D minor, with Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi delivering a scintillating reading, and ending with a moving rendition of Brahms Symphony no. 4. Rightfully rapturous applause coaxed Piemontesi back to the stage whereupon he treated us to a technically dazzling Debussy encore. The onstage action was appropriately enhanced by the pristine acoustics of the auditorium design.

The day after I returned home Grammy-winning American jazz trumpeter Chris Botti was center stage at the AKM. The Turkish cultural honchos appear to have at least one eye gazing to the West, with some local-Eastern fare mixed in too, as befitting a metropolis that geographically, and traditionally, straddles two continents and hemispheres.

The showcase unveiling didn’t stop at the AKM. The press group was also bused down to the cold and windy Galataport Istanbul complex, located right on the extremity of the European side of the Bosphorus. If there was any lingering doubt about the Turkish authorities putting their money where their mouth is, the new culture, arts and design hub comprehensively settled that issue. The arts facility there forms part of a mega-project that takes in a hotel, restaurant, 250 retail units and parking space for 2,400 vehicles. That lot comes in at a cool $1.7b.

When we could get inside, away from the chilly evening air buffeting across the straits, we were able to enjoy a wonderful exhibition by Armenian-Turkish photojournalist Ara Güler, aka “the Eye of Istanbul,” who died in 2018 at the age of 90. The monochrome spread included a captivating, informative and entertaining slew of shots from across Turkey from the mid-1950s through to the late 1970s that palpably and incisively imparted some of the contemporary zeitgeist.

Next up was quite a surprise as we proceeded to the Monet & Friends – Life, Light & Colour exhibition extravaganza. Anyone who was expecting to see some late 19th century canvasses hanging on the walls would have been summarily disabused of that notion.

It was described as “a unique and immersive SENSORY4™ experience awash with vibrant visuals and a stunning musical score.” The latter was irrefutable, and the technology tugged, nay yanked, most of the senses to provide a powerful high octane demonstration of the wonders of impressionist art, as seemingly innumerable jam-packed giant screens infused the consciousness with a kaleidoscopic avalanche of images, colors and sounds. Some of the 3D close-ups were, indeed, illuminating.

All the above is part of an ambitious government drive to fuel the local cultural scene and, naturally after the shenanigans of the past couple or so years, to revive the Turkish tourism industry.

The grand AKM relaunch was augmented by the Beyoglu Culture Route which wended its long and winding way along the popular Istiklal pedestrian street and environs to umpteen arts and culture facilities and points of historical interest. All told the Culture Route project was said to encompass in excess of 1,000 artists working and creating at 60 locations.

With Turkey’s face pointing towards a brighter future there clearly is plenty to see and hear in Istanbul.

The writer was a guest of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.