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Editorial View: Civil Unrest and The Nature of Public Space

Civil unrest in Istanbul and Brasília points up the historically contested nature of public space

Earlier this month, Brasília was the setting for public protests against transport fare hikes and the state squandering of resources on the 2014 World Cup. The familiar image of Niemeyer’s capital as a pristine
and heroic tableau of Modernist masterpieces was memorably subverted as protesters invaded the epicentre of Brazilian government and swarmed in droves over the National Congress. The unrest has since spread to other centres around the country, with reports of over a million people taking to the streets.

Something is definitely in the air. The Brazilian protests came hard on the heels of prolonged civil disturbances in the Taksim area of Istanbul, from which architect Selçuk Avcı presents a compelling eyewitness account (p12). The unrest that swept through the city in recent weeks was sparked by an unpopular plan to sweep away Gezi Park, a historic and much-loved space, in favour of rebuilding an old military barracks, with no clear idea about its role, other than ‘restoring’ Taksimʼs urban order to how it once was.

Ironically, as Avcı reports, the barracks was originally torn down to create Gezi Park, so this dismaying reversal of functions and loss of a public amenity has, unsurprisingly, generated intense disquiet. As public unease has escalated into wider resentment about aspects of Turkish government policy, it has been quelled with increasing physical ruthlessness by the authorities.

Though political regimes might wish otherwise, the contesting of the public realm, along with buildings and structures of symbolic significance, is an inescapable and essential part of human history. The apparently transgressive acts of occupation, assembly, protest and even destruction often catalyse wider social and political change. From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the more recent colonisation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, history is made in public view and in public spaces. Sometimes the impact of people taking to the streets, squares and parks can accomplish great things, but sometimes it has terrible human consequences, as with the 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Over time, places and buildings resonate with the deeds and memories of previous generations, forming palimpsests that illuminate the relationship between past and present. Tiananmen Square is unusual in that events there have been scrupulously excised from China’s national consciousness, but at Berlin’s remodelled Reichstag you can still see bullet holes and the graffiti of occupying Russian troops.

Until the recent disturbances, both Brazil and Turkey were viewed as stable regimes with enviably robust economies, but it’s becoming clear that this is at the expense of social cohesion. Despite its successes, the Turkish government needs to ‘create a participatory process at all local levels of decision-making’, writes Selçuk Avcı. The Gezi Park protesters now want a new contract between the state and its people. This ‘negotiated revolution’ envisages the establishment of a new social and political order without the coercion of tear gas and water cannon.

Catherine Slessor, Editor

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