(AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday launched a controversial project to build a new opera house in Istanbul, lashing out at critics of the plan and saying the building would be a symbol for the city.
The 2,500-seat opera house, due to open in early 2019, will be built on the site of the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM) which has been unused for over a decade and whose impending demolition has worried some architects.
Erdogan said the cutting-edge building would give new life to Taksim Square in central Istanbul, which was the hub for mass protests against his rule in 2013 sparked by an urban development project in the nearby Gezi park.
Backers of the project want the opera house to be as much as symbol of Istanbul as the Bolshoi Theatre is in Moscow or the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
"God willing it will become an honour and symbol for Istanbul and our country," Erdogan said at the launch.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) waves to supporters during the launch of a project to built a new opera house in Istanbul. Photo: AFP
The AKM, which for years has stood as an empty shell on Taksim Square, has had a troubled history.
It opened in 1969 but then closed almost immediately after a fire. It reopened in 1978, becoming the centre of Istanbul cultural life, but was then shuttered in 2008 for restoration that never took place.
Critics of the new project complain it will remove a symbol of the modern Turkish Republic founded after the break up of the Ottoman Empire by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, from whom the building takes its name.
But Erdogan said the resistance to the building’s renewal was "not because of sensitivity to culture but ideological obsessions."
He added: "After protests, court cases and commotion, the path of science, intellect and rationality has prevailed."
Taking a swipe at the Western-educated intelligentsia who criticised the project, he added: "I know that the new AKM will benefit the most those who have sabotaged it for years."
He added Taksim -- seen by many Istanbul residents as a chaotic mess best avoided -- would be fully pedestrianised with vehicle traffic passing underground, bringing a "new richness to the square".
What cultural programme will be put on at the new opera house remains unclear, but Erdogan lamented that Turkey had in the past made the mistake of imitating the West in culture.
"We failed to see this cultural imitation was a surrender to a world which considered us a rival and even as an enemy," he said.
"We are rejecting any surrender. We are working to turn Turkey into an assertive state which has a say in every domain."
There remains a lively cultural scene in Turkey, including Western opera, ballet and classical music, which is partly a legacy of Ataturk’s own love for the arts.
Attack on modern Turkey
In a signal the government does not want to be seen trampling over the past, the architect of the new building, Murat Tabanlioglu, is the son of Hayati Tabanlioglu, the architect of the original AKM.
The glass-covered modernist facade of the new building is also similar to the old edifice.
Opera houses are usually the places where rich elites go, "but this should change. They should be places where everyone can go," said Murat Tabanlioglu.
But Sami Yilmazturk, chairman of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, said the plan to demolish the AKM was "an attack against modern Turkey" because the building itself represents the values the Republic had been built upon.
"AKM is cultural heritage that needs to be protected," he told AFP.
"Can you imagine expanding or renewing Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque? AKM is such a building," Yilmazturk said, referring to the two most celebrated Byzantine and Ottoman monuments of Istanbul.
Yilmazturk described the the demolition of the AKM building as a "violation of justice" and a "constitutional crime".
Erdogan did not make clear in his speech when the demolition of the old edifice and construction of the new building will begin.