The Genealogy of Public Space and its Politics

Onursal Erol

Archival research, which, somewhat inadvertently, has become the methodological foundation of my dissertation has proven to be a fantastically rewarding experience for me. The inherent thrill of historical discovery, and even the process of (gingerly!) engaging material that is hundreds of years old, undeniably contributes to the excitement one might derive from archival research. But this is not the whole story. It is thrilling also because of the very peculiar way that unsought for patterns start to emerge when one is steeped in archival material, leaving intellectual breadcrumbs of the most exhilarating kind in the mind of the researcher.


My dissertation investigates the genealogy of public space and its politics in a timespan of roughly three centuries, in imperial Ottoman and, later, republican Turkish Istanbul, that I have taken as the historical layers behind the culture of appearance and resistance in urban public space. The fundamental questions I asked had already been answered (or so I thought) by material kept at The Archives of the Greater Municipality of Istanbul, The Istanbul Research Institute, Cite de'l'Architecture & du Patrimoine, and the Gallica Archives which had provided me with the principal understanding of the official logics of creating/preserving/negotiating/eradicating/replacing urban public space in Istanbul and the official history of such transformations. As invaluable as those answers were for my purposes, they also left me with new and very specific hunches that were only strengthened by what I had access to through the University of Chicago's Special Collections Research Center.


Thanks to the generous grant offered to me by the Orin Williams Fund, I was able to pursue those hunches during Summer 2018 at Princeton University among the holdings of The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections and at UPenn in the archives of Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Ottoman and Turkish maps, urban planning documents, journals, touristic accounts, diaries, travelogues, letters & postcards, brochures, and photographs allowed me to go beyond the official records and find ample evidence that documents the vernacular use of urban public space in Istanbul. I am proud to announce the findings in two chapters of my dissertation as well as in a coming article.


What I uncovered disputes the linearity of the official narrative of the contemporary Turkish state, which depicts the history of public space in Istanbul as a sequence of successions. This inaccurate but pervasive narrative sets the parameters of the language and rationale of both the governance of public space as well as resistance within it. My research discovers an abundance of evidence that speaks to the heterotopic qualities of public space in Istanbul and establishes the existence of a continuous culture of negotiating appearance in public space as a form of performative resistance.


Onursal Erol is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science