Architecture student joins protest in Turkey

Yigit Ergecen at ground zero in effort to resist government plan, save Istanbul park

Rice School of Architecture senior Yigit Ergecen is one of thousands of people taking a stand in Istanbul, where protests over the policies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are in their third week.

Ergecen was pictured on the front page of a major Turkish daily newspaper covering the protests, and he credits an architecture class at Rice for inspiring him to speak out.

Rice architecture student Yigit Ergecen, at right in the main photo, was among several interviewed by Turkish newspaper Milliyet about their involvement in a protest of a government plan to replace a park in central Istanbul with a shopping mall.

The Istanbul native joined the gathering at Gezi Park in the heart of the ancient city to protest a government plan to replace the park with a shopping mall, a replica of the Ottoman-era barracks that once stood there.

On June 13, the prime minister met with protesters and forged a tentative agreement to await the outcome of a government court appeal to stop the shopping mall before submitting to a public referendum on the plan.

Earlier in the week, riot police had entered adjacent Taksim Square to disperse demonstrators but did not chase protesters from Gezi Park, where they had set up an Occupy Wall Street-style community. But on Saturday, police cleared the park of protesters by force, with tear gas and water cannons, and flattened the encampment with bulldozers.

“I’m OK,” Ergecen told Rice News by email Thursday evening, before the park was emptied. “I haven’t been in any clash with the police.” He wrote he would go to the park “whenever there is a risk of police attack” to take part in discussions and post news to Twitter and Facebook.

“Since the beginning of the event, people in the park are protesting about (the) increasingly authoritarian government,” he wrote. “The park in Taksim happened to be the space for it.

“The demolition of the park is still an issue, but now the protests are about a wide array of things that most (of the) well-educated young generation are increasingly feeling oppressed by,” he wrote. “It is the alcohol prohibitions, (the) wide range of ‘I want a generation that does this’ remarks — which are often followed by a law prohibiting something — or pressure on the people who oppose the prime minister, restrictions on the Internet, restrictions on abortion and remarks about how many kids an ideal married couple should have that got us to the park.”

Yigit Ergecen

Yigit Ergecen

Because of the protests, Ergecen found himself pictured on page 1 of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, on June 9. “That was a little scary,” he wrote. “I’ve been writing small paragraphs on why the park should be preserved, on what, in an architectural sense, these events meant. These somehow made an impression among my friends and one of them arranged for me to have an interview.

“As an architecture student interested in urban issues, I find it very fascinating that such events happen over an essentially architectural/urban questions,” Ergecen wrote. The park, he felt, “needs a major redesign. However, demolishing it to construct a replica of an 18th-century military barracks is pure anachronism. … I think it is not healthy in the urban sphere to construct public monuments that carry polarizing messages.”

Ergecen said his Rice experience “had a profound effect” on his feelings about the protests in his home country. He wrote to his Rice mentor, Carlos Jiménez, earlier this week to thank him “for a thought-provoking semester in which I personally had time and freedom to think about these subjects. Without the background I got from last semester, I probably wouldn’t have the courage to say things about this project.”

Taksim Square tear gas

Police confront protesters in Istanbul last week in an image by recent Rice graduate Hrothgar. The alumnus is a Texas native now living in Istanbul a few blocks from Taksim Square, the focal point of protests.

Jiménez, a professor of architecture and a former Pritzker Prize juror, said he took Ergecen and other students to Chile this past spring. “We talked a lot about the meaning of public space in the city,” Jiménez said. “(Ergecen) was very inspired by that discussion, apparently. So when he had the chance to put his money where his mouth is, as they say, he took the opportunity and started to rally some friends and has been at the square for some time now.”

The park protest became the flashpoint of widening unrest in Turkey, where secular factions are protesting what they see as the increasingly autocratic rule by the religious conservative government led by Erdogan, who took office a decade ago.

“I joined the protests, getting my share of the tear gas attacks of the police,” Ergecen wrote to Jimenez. “It all calmed down after (a) few days and now we are occupying the park, trying to keep it as a green space. The events grew out of the park, but became more about the oppression of our rights in Turkey.”

Ergecen said Taksim Square is popular among Istanbul youth. “It’s where most night entertainment is at,” he wrote, “where all the action is taking place and where we go to have fun. The whole district is quite Parisian.

“The interventions in the square and Taksim in general have a profound effect on how I perceive the city. The Islamist government has been trying to limit our night entertainment by making it difficult to get back home after 11:30 p.m. (and) adding a lot of tax on alcohol. … I feel like the physical space I enjoy is getting smaller and smaller with these top-down interventions by the government.

“It is a real contrast, and sometimes a huge disappointment, when I come back from Rice to Istanbul and see things I love forcefully turned into something that is not of me,” he wrote.

“My message to the Rice community would be not to worry about Turkey, at least for the people in the protests. We stand up for diversity of ideas; we stand up for our rights. … The right will eventually find its way.”

Rice’s Department of Political Science will hold a talk titled “What’s Going On in Turkey? Political, Sociological, Anthropological and Psychological Perspectives” at 6 p.m. on June 20 at Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium.





About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.