The early Republican Period of Turkey was characterized by a transformation phase to create a new identity in almost every aspect, including architecture. Ankara was chosen as the new capital, which also symbolised a new beginning after the domination of Istanbul for centuries. Therefore, Ankara was one of the main project sites for creating a new Turkish identity (Sancar, 2021). The first step was presenting the city planning field to the universities in order to achieve a successful transformation with a structured method. On this matter, many experts from Europe, and especially from Germany, were invited to educate architects and students on the modernist style. In Turkey, the current style, called Ottoman Revivalism, was related to the Ottoman roots; this style was not appropriate for the new need for a fresh start and the Turkish will of being free from the shadows of the past. This phenomenon is proof of how architecture is a tool to create a national identity or erase the previous one. Because, even if the lifestyle has changed, being surrounded by old-style buildings can work as a reminder of the previous period and may even awake nostalgic feelings.
For all cultural activities going on in the young capital, there was clearly a need for an exhibition centre. For this reason, an international competition was organized in 1933; among twenty-six participants, Sevket Balmumcu won the competition with his modernist design using more affordable materials that would not be over budget (Ergut, 2011). The idea of searching for a new national style by a local architect received positive feedback, and people were eagerly awaiting the creation of the exhibition centre. In a Turkish newspaper article from the year 1934, the building was even described as
a “jewel of art, of not only Ankara but of the entire world, worthy of being called beautiful” (Sancar, 2021, p. 967).
This description shows that the stylistic qualities of the Exhibition Hall were recognized beyond the borders of Turkey. The hall stood out in the international arena, so the national style was recognised not only locally but also globally.
Sevki Balmumcu. Exhibition Hall
Retrieved from: https://libdigitalcollections.ku.edu.tr/digital/collection/AEFA/id/13/
The Exhibition Hall's aim went beyond that of being a simple display; it was a place where people could learn about Turkish culture, land, and, by giving information about the new state, it made the public become an active participant in the transformation phase. The range of exhibitions varied from art to hygiene and to industrial products of Turkey. Additionally, the public could gather to learn and discuss the ongoing rapid revolutions in the capital by reading informative panels and using other visual tools (Ergut, 2011). From an architectural point of view, the building had an asymmetrical design, with solids in different heights. The building had many types of openings, the rectangular windows on the left side, horizontal windows, which is one of the prominent elements of modernist architecture on both the right and left side of the building, and sky windows to produce natural light for the exhibitions. The different volumes created complexity in the design, breaking the monotony: such as the clock tower in the middle with its distinguishable height, a distinct entrance with three flag post, and curved corners at the end. The circulation in the building allowed the visitors to be able to see all the exhibitions without missing any display.
Health Exhibition held at the Exhibition House in 1935
published in La Turquie Kemaliste,11 (1936), p. 6.
However, the story of the Exhibition Hall did not end then. The other area of revolution involved the art field, more specifically music education and its accessibility. Conservatories and institutions provided the city with better music education, but finding a place to perform posed a problem. In the late 40s, the budget was so tight that building a new concert hall was out of question. So, the government decided to turn the Exhibition Hall into the State Opera Building. In 1948, the German architect Paul Bonatz was chosen for this project; at the time he had already been teaching for two years at the Technical University and had been working as an advisor for the Turkish Ministry of Education for five years (Sancar, 2021). It is clear that an exhibition hall and an opera building have different requirements so that the volumetric change was inevitable. The diversity in the height had to be changed by adding some volumes, and the building became bulkier; moreover, the added columns and the roofs were extended with eaves as a reference to traditional roofs. The interior became more ornamented and simplicity was replaced with splendidness.
Paul Bonatz. State Opera, Ankara, 1946-1948. Exterior view.
Retrieved from: Atılım University Ankara Digital City Archive
Nevertheless, the change in the style was criticized and raised many questions. These doubts are valid when one compares the difference between the two buildings; some of these queries can be found in the detailed study of Ayca Sancar: “How can foreigners become ‘national’ in three months when an architect who lives here all his life is not?” versus “Was Balmumcu’s architecture a national one?”; these questions were then followed by a wider discussion about the difference between national and Turkish style, how it could be expressed with architectural elements and if Ottoman and Seljuk Architecture elements were only part of the past or part of the Turkish heritage. The main issue with this transformation was the concern about the shift from the Kemalist Modernization Project to past periods such as the Ottoman style. Meanwhile, “in a German journal article, the State Opera was described as follows:
Though the new opera in Ankara is modern . . ., it is definitely Turkish; however, it can only be the work of Bonatz. And incidentally—the following can by no means be said too loudly—it is really beautiful, simply beautiful!” (Sancar, 2021, 975).
It is quite interesting that the same place but with different styles and functions got exactly the same definition ‘beautiful’. The one that was built by a Turkish architect with an international style was appreciated by a Turkish journal, on the other hand, the one built by a German architect with a ‘Turkish’ style – as they referred - was appreciated by a German journal. The key point is how politics and the approach of the period can change the surroundings, and how an ideology can influence every aspect of life. This example makes one think about the difficulties of creating a new style and reflecting on what is local, national stereotypes and how far back in time a style needs to go to be considered national. However, one thing is certain: architecture is a three-dimensional story of the past.
Ergut, E. A.(2011). The Exhibition House in Ankara: building (up) the ‘national’ and the ‘modern’. The Journal of Architecture, 16 (6), 855-884.
Onge, S.T. (2007) Spatial Representation of Power: Making the Urban Space of Ankara in the Early Republican Period. In J. Osmond and A. Cimdina (Ed.) Power and culture: identity, ideology, representation (71-94). Pisa : Plus-Pisa University Press.
Sancar, A. (2021). Redefining Modernism: The Conversion of the Ankara Exhibition Hall into the Turkish State Opera. Journal of Urban History, 47 (5), 963–979.