Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Explore the crucial milestones in the life of the now-troubled city on this interactive platform.
Istanbul has been in the headlines recently for the most heartbreaking news. But long before it became the stage for geopolitical instability, it was a bustling metropolis with a rich and complicated urban history.
A new online archive allows viewers to pull the curtains back and observe some crucial milestones in the megacity’s evolution. The Istanbul Urban Database, created by Nil Tuzcu, a researcher at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her colleagues at the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative, is a one-stop shop to view historical maps, plans, photographs, and transportation routes, all of which “contribute to the collective memory of Istanbul,” the creators write in a press release.
Here’s how it works: On the base map, users can overlay historical documents that go as far back as the 1850s and add georeferenced features like historical photographs. They can pile on multiple layers of data on the same map, or compare two milestones in a sliding window to see the change over time.
One key document on the map is the 1937 Prost masterplan, for example. Here it is overlaid with modern district boundaries, major roadways, trams, and ferries on the MIT online platform:
This plan was created at a crucial juncture in the city’s history. The Ottoman Empire had fallen by 1923, and in the new, secular Republic of Turkey, the capital was shifted from Istanbul to Ankara. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of this new nation-state, felt that Istanbul needed an ideological makeover—from an imperial city to a hub of secular modernity. To achieve that transformation, he roped in French urbanist Henri Prost who opened the city up—he reorganized the roadways into wide boulevards and punctuated the space with public squares and parks. These newly created public spaces were at the heart of Prost’s vision, and served not just a functional, but also a political purpose; Via The Case of Beyoğlu, Istanbul Dimensions of Urban Re-development:
[Prost] consciously repeated the reasoning behind the existence of parks as “in order to take women and children out of their cages.”
While Prost took care to conserve many of the historical Byzantine and Ottoman structures in the city, he also demolished some (like the Taksim Barracks) to make room for his vision. To be sure, urban reinvention is what his bosses wanted at the time, according to a 2004 paper by Cânâ Bilsel, an architecture professor at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. But his interventionist approach wasn’t favored by everyone. Apparently Le Corbusier, his contemporary, had conceived a different future for Istanbul. Here’s a quote by him from 1948, mentioned in Bilsel’s paper:
One of the biggest mistakes I made in my life was the letter I wrote to Atatürk. If I had not written this letter, I would have been working on the plan of Istanbul in place of my rival Prost. In this letter I advised the greatest reformer of a nation to conserve the city of Istanbul with its centuries old dust. I realized the error I had committed afterwards.
Since 2000, Istanbul’s been going through another transformation. This time, it’s trying to become a global city. That process has come with significant upheaval: suburban sprawl and waves of construction that have been criticized as economically and environmentally careless.
In this new era rife with urban and political insecurity, Proust’s Taksim Gezi Park, which itself came under threat from the government’s new development agenda, has become a symbol of resistance—a space where Istanbul’s residents can go to get respite on some days, and to protest on others.