‘When we got off the train, our way lay through a marsh, a cemetery, and the tumbledown Karaoglan Bazaar, past which was a fire-swept wasteland, and beyond that a village of adobe and half-timbered houses with winding streets, some cobbled and some unpaved… That was Ankara.’ This is how Falih Rifki Atay, a journalist, and friend of Ataturk, described Ankara at the dawn of the new Turkish Republic in his famous book Cankaya. This poor, humble town in central Anatolia whose past could be traced back to the early Hittites, which struggled up the slopes of a hill crowned with an imposing citadel of reddish brown Ankara stone, was proclaimed capital of Turkey in 1923. Today, Ankara is a Turkey’s second largest city with a population of over six million. The transformation of Ankara was, therefore, no ordinary building programme, but motivated by the desire to create a city worthy of its new status as capital, and which would set an example of modern values and lifestyles in keeping with the aspirations of the new regime.
Ankara had once been a prosperous commercial center, its wealth based on the famous angora wool, that silky soft hair of Ankara goats that was admired and sought-after throughout the world. However, with the signing of the trade agreement between Britain and Turkey in 1838, which opened the flood-gates for foreign imports into the Ottoman Empire, the town suffered a rapid and dramatic fall in its fortunes. The War of Independence caused a further decline, so that by 13 October 1923, when it was declared capital, a century of hard times had reduced it to a small town so dilapidated that it was likened to a village.
In his book The Rebuilding of Ankara and Our City Planning, Fehmi Yavuz explains that the aim was to build a city which would reflect Turkey’s victory in its independence struggle and the modernization of the nation itself. However, the limited means at the country’s disposal meant that ambitious plans were impossible for the time being.
Just like the War of Independence itself, Turkey would have to proceed slowly, step by step, creating something – if not out of nothing – out of nearly nothing. With the impetus of that initial enthusiasm, plans were laid. Everyone agreed that Old Ankara should be left as it was, and a new city built adjacent to it on empty tracts of land to the south and southwest. Under a law passed in 1925 allowing a compulsory purchase of land by the government, over 400 hectares of land, including the marsh where Genclik Park stands today, was made available. One of the first priorities was housing, and a land-use plan was drawn up for the district of Sihhiye between 1925 and 1927. In 1927 the German town planner Lorcher produced designs for this area and that around Kizilay, and construction of Yenisehir (the New Town) began. Two-storey houses had already been built in 1925 to house civil servants on land south of the railway, and the plan was to build residential areas of this type consisting of houses and gardens as far as Kavaklidere.
From Yenisehir to Kavaklidere it was almost impossible to find a single house without a tower and overhanging eaves. Regrettably, very few examples of these early Republic houses have survived.
In 1928 the Ankara City Planning Department was established. The department had aerial photographs taken of Ankara and its environs from a Junkers aircraft – the first time that this had been done in Turkey – and produced maps based on the photographs. The next step that same year was to announce an international competition for a city plan. The design by German planner Hermann Jansen, author of the Berlin city plan, was accepted, and he was invited to draw up a master plan for Ankara, which was officially approved in 1932. Many well known Turkish and foreign architects, together with many young architects of talent contributed to the project. In this respect, the building of Ankara served as a teaching project, and careers, as well as buildings, were constructed on its foundations. However, despite the dedication of those involved, they faced many obstacles, the most serious of which was the shortage of trained workers and building materials, and their high cost.
In the 1930s, the city center grew up around Ulus, and high-rise buildings and blocks of flats sprung up along Anafartalar Caddesi in Ulus, and along the main roads leading to Kizilay. In his book Daily Life in Ankara, Hurriyet Bilgen tells us, “Anafartalar Caddesi, with its blocks of flats, shops with awnings, and clean broad pavements, was quite a new addition to the Ankara cityscape. In Yenisehir, on the other hand, the innovation was more haphazard.” As Ankara sought to become a model of the new modern Turkey in appearance, so it did in terms of its social life, which broke out of its traditional bounds into balls, concerts, horse races, and weekend excursions. Over fifteen years Ankara not only gained carefully planned neighborhoods but unplanned urban sprawl typical of contemporary Turkish cities. The story of Ankara in the early days of the Republic is one of the dreams and aspirations that did not always come true but nevertheless had its triumphs and heroes.