Photo Essay

Words in Stone, Concrete and Stone Again: Building a Turkish National Self

Published anonymously /Edited by: Sanjna Menon

It is difficult not to stand in front of a monumental building, be it the Pantheon in Rome built 2000 years ago, or the Anit-Kabir in Ankara built a mere 80 years ago, and not feel you are in the presence of something bigger. 

Hitler described architecture as “words in stone” as it orders space and directs our interpretations of the world around us. It is architecture that symbolically embodies larger political discourses, and, over the past two centuries, is inherantly linked to the nation. While priorities of national identity shift as the nation is negotiated, architecture becomes a tool for embracing and translating the ‘spirit’ of the nation. 

Being  both ‘new’ and ‘historical’, as Benedict Anderson claims, the nation reaches back to an immemorial past and into a limitless future. During the early 19th century, increasing nationalist fervour, aestheticization of poltics and prominence of monumentality led to architecture growing in political and social importance as it played a role in the construction of mediated discourse between progress and tradition. Turkey, with its top-down nation-building project beginning in the 1920s, was a key example of this. Through tracing its architectural shifts through what is known as the First Nationalist Style, Modernism, through to a Second Nationalist Style, the different influences nationalism had on architecture and architecture’s power are made clear – as words went from stone, to concrete to stone again. 

The First National Style and Ottoman Revivalism 

In the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, a new nation had to be built and, according to popular history, the builders, primarily the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had a clear image as to what it had to be. Like most nationalist history, certainty was woven into the story later. 

The Ottoman Empire was not being rebuilt, but a separate new Kemalist country with new ideals and identity constructed from native Turkish culture and history was to re-awaken.  The need for a separate Turkish idenity led to the Ottoman Empire being declared an internal Other, however, the early upheaval of the early 1920s left room for ambiguities, complexities and contradictions – architecture reflected this. 

Typical understandings of Turkish nation-building is understood as a complete and simple severing of Ottoman history. But the First National Style, as it is classified, witnessed Ottoman revivalism alongside the slow adoption of new architectural language and construction. While architecture’s Ottoman character both supplied a degree of continuity and represent the uniqueness of the republic, it was done so in combination with new modern materials and techniques reflecting a progress-orientated Kemalist message that would be stressed later in the decade. The starkest example of this is the First Grand National Assembly which was seen as the only legitimate representative of the new nation’s sovereign will. This building was the core of the nationalist movement until 1924 when the assembly relocated. The new building would be used to represent Ataturk’s reforms and principles as well as match contemporary trends in nationalist movements, the opening speech of the Second assembly made this clear:

“the new Turkey… state is a people’s state, but in the past, it was a state of one person… The grand thought movements which rescued the certain societies from captivity and liberated them are the archenemies of people who relied upon obsolete institutions and decayed regimes… The new Turkey state is the representation of this grand idea which dominates the world and a realized example of its actualization” 

National transformation attempts were accelerating, and the Turkish identity was increasingly being connected to the state. With these, architectural design was changing to suit but did not lose its ambiguous and contradictory hue.   

Modern Movement and Narratives on Progress

From the late 1920s into the 1930s, Modernism took the world of architecture by storm. Using concrete, steel and glass, cubic forms, geometric shapes and removing all decoration and ornamental detailing, the Modern Movement claimed universal validity, functionality and rationality. Turkish leaders readily adopted this movement and Ottoman-revivalism was abandoned with surprising speed. Modernism was used to represent and to propagate Turkishness through a national, top-down construction of a new idenity and values.

This high modernism was the steel fist that would mould the Turkish public into modern Turks and would order every aspect of Turkish life and identity – or so it was aimed. Kemalism embraced modernism as a progressive discourse, allying this movement with nation-building and state power. Reform was aimed to be all-encompassing and revolutionary, using art and architecture as symbols and tools to create the Turk – a westernised, patriotic and modern individual in a secular, rational nation. 

Reconciling Modernism, also known as Internationalist architecture, with Turkish nationalism, did however, take effort. While Modernism’s aesthetic component were seen as important, nationalists’ focuses were on principles of ‘rationality and functionality’. Claims of internationalism were, of course, even more objectionable. To paper over the discrepancies, arguments that connected the two were concocted. These included the logical solution Modernism supplied in national contexts that meant modernism was inevitably national or that the functionality of traditional designs meant they must be modern. This identity Kemalists set was aimed to show Turkish strength and progressive abilities, rendering them equal to Western civilisation and in a position to demand equal rights.

The modern builds looked to the future and connected the nation forward. It was a state-sanctioned representation of the progressive, unique and modern people that the nation was holding. Progress and modernity was, however, narrowly defined within Kemalist bounds of secularism, westernisation, and nationalism. Not progressing with the nation was not an option, which became clear with the increasingly aggressive assimilation attempts being made across the nation. 

Second Wave of Nationalist Architecture

The 1930s also saw a more conservative architectural trend, stripped down classicism, take hold. Largely through the work of foreign architects such as Ernst Egli and Giulio Mongeri , the architectural wave travelling through France and Germany spread through Turkey. As monumental representations did in other increasingly nationalist states, these Neo-Classical buildings declared the nation’s strength, independence and glory. Harking both to a great, often mythical past and towards a great destined future, these builds propagated nationalism and ushered in a new architectural trend – blatant nationalistic architecture. 

Turkish nationalism was pushed into all aspects of life and culture. The focus on modernity and progress, depicted in art and architecture, remained but, by the late 1930s, nationalism placed the need for authentic Turkishness into centre stage. 

Identity through state-forced unity, and strength were stressed and packaged in a violent narrative. As a method of self-identification, ‘Others’ were further established. These Other were not simply the Ottomans which Kemalism claimed it has latched itself free from but also the threat from Western ideas of liberalism, individualism and relative cosmopolitanism. So, the West-centric needed Modernism was to be nationalised, or rather nativized. 

As a central means of legitimisation and idenity building, Kemalist nationalism traced its roots and history to an archaic civilisation of Central Asia. Turkey’s history was re-worked to suit its origin myth through the Turkish History Thesis and the Turkish Sun Theory. The latter claimed the Hittites were the ancestors of Turks, first indigenous people of Anatolia, and the cradle of all civilisation while the former stressed the racial purity and distinctiveness of the Anatolian Turk.  

This new history-based identity provided legitimation for multiple nationalist principles. Primarily, the nation and its unity were legitimised by ‘scientifically’ tying the nation to a pre-existing and timeless civilisation which has maintained its racial continuity to politically express its national essence through recent leadership. The genealogy of the Turks would also be used to legitimate claims of Turkish equality to Western civilisations and supply cause for the persistent negation of the internal Other which it would aggressively assimilate. 

Architecture suddenly saw decorative lions and double-headed eagles in Hittite styles gained popularity. These represented the Turkish identity’s expansion back beyond Ottoman ancestry and claimed ‘Turkishness’’ an undeniable continuity and exceptionality that was separate from the its Islamic neighbours and closer to those of the West. A key example of new nationalist architecture was the Anit-kabir, Ataturk’s Hittite and neo-classically inspired mausoleum. 

Fascinatingly, however, the Ottoman inheritance that had been severed so harshly began to seep back into Kemalist architecture. Once stripped on its Islamic and multi-ethnic nature, the authentic ‘Turkish character’ of Ottoman and Seljuk (the Islamic empire that preceded the Ottomans) design found their way back into nationalist architecture.


By the mid-1940s, as in many places across Europe, Modernist enthusiasm was lost and overtaken by nationalism, classicism and buildings echoing state power. Marked symbolically by Ataturk’s death, Hittite influences also saw a sharp decline. However, nationalism remained, albeit in a different form.

Today, nationalism still makes an appearance in architecture be it Modi’s current Kashi Vishwanath Dham Project or the Skopje 2014 program that covered 90s internationalist architecture with foam facades to resemble neoclassical builds. 

Nationalism by tying itself to origins and destiny, shifts it concentrations from here and now to the remote past and destined future. It preserves and reworks the past to use as evidence of its people’s identity, unity and rights. Architecture, speaking through a reservoir of recognisable, subtle but powerful symbols and elements is a key tool for national representation and construction.


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