The story of the building complex at the point where İstiklal Avenue meets Yeşilçam Street is one that informs us both of the entertainment culture of the Republican era and the transfer of wealth through the imposition of a Capital Levy (also known as “Wealth Tax” or “Capital Tax”), as well as of the gain-oriented transformation taking place of late and struggles waged against this. The building complex is composed of the Cercle d’Orient building facing the street, the cinemas Emek (the former Melek), İpek (formerly Opera, then the New Comedy Theater /Yeni Komedi Tiyatrosu) and Rüya (formerly Artistik, then Sümer, and later Küçük Emek – i.e. “Little Emek”) previously located in its inner courtyard area, and two apartment buildings (İsketinj and Melek). This structure was commissioned in 1884 to architect Alexandre Vallaury, also responsible for the design of the Ottoman Bank building, by Armenian statesman Abraham Eramyan Pasha, an important actor in the relations between the Ottoman State and Egypt. Former private secretary in Kavalalı’s palace in Egypt, a close friend to Sultan Abdulaziz, with native proficiency in Turkish and Arabic, and fluent in French, Abraham Pasha was a prominent figure within Beyoğlu’s high-society circles. He is known to have served as a member of the Assembly of Notables during the First Constitutional Era (1. Meşrutiyet), and as a member of the Civil Affairs Chamber of the Council of State (“Şüra-yı Devlet Mülkiye Dairesi”) under Sultan Abdulhamid.

In order to achieve the pomp and splendour befitting Abraham Pasha, Vallaury designed a five-storey, horizontal structure in the neoclassical style with prominent baroque elements stretching for an entire 45 meters along İstiklal Avenue. The most definitive features of the façade embellished with pilasters are considered to be its engaged columns and the grinning devil figure between two angels.

The building initially housed the Club des Chasseurs de Constantinople (Istanbul Hunters Club). Young club member diplomats going out on hunts on Abraham Pasha’s estate in Büyükdere would bring their catch to the restaurant here. The space in which movie theaters and apartment buildings were later to be constructed used to be the club’s garden, where there would be horse-riding in the mornings. Members of the Hunters Club and later the Grand Club (Büyük Kulüp) would park their horse carriages here. Off-limits to non-members, the Grand Club kept attracting the membership of the upper echelons of Ottoman society, senior officials and Istanbul’s elite. Renting two storeys to the club, Abraham Pasha kept his private apartments on the mezzanine floor. Luxury stores were opened on the ground floor. In no time the building became one of Beyoğlu’s liveliest and most bustling places, evoking curiosity and public interest.

Famous for his affection for hunting, dabbling in the stock market, and gambling, Abraham Pasha began experiencing financial difficulties before long and, according to the records of the Ottoman Bank, took out loans twice mortgaging the Cercle d’Orient building as collateral. In time becoming unable to pay off his debts, he ended up having to hand over the building in 1898. In 1919, immediately after Abraham Pasha’s death, the Ottoman Bank sold the Cercle d’Orient to a stockbroker by the name of Manouk Manoukian in return for 108,000 pounds. The ownership of the building and its inner courtyard later passed on to H. Arditi and A. Saltiel, and Abraham Pasha’s private apartments were converted into nightclubs run by Russians arriving in Istanbul in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Skating Palace was the first edifice to be built in the building’s courtyard presumably around 1909-1912, and it was used for skating purposes. In 1918 this was converted into a laid-back, shabby chic theater space called the “New Theater” (Yeni Tiyatro). Operetta Ensembles from Vienna usually performed here. The İskentinj building located in this spot took its name from the word “skating”.

In 1924, the Opera Cinema opened right behind the Cercle d’Orient building. It served the public as the Opera Cinema from 1924 to 1932, then as the İpek Movie Theater from 1932 to 1955, and later as the City Theater Comedy Stage (Şehir Tiyatroları Komedi Sahnesi). The Opera Cinema was opened by Mehmet Rauf Sirman and Cemal Pekin (the original founders of the company known as Özen Film today, then called Opera Film) in partnership with fabric merchant Papayanopoulos. Their agreement with Saltiel and Arditi was that these three would have the building constructed and would not pay rent for 10 years. Its architect was that of the other two cinemas, Rafael Alguadiş. In this gilded grand salon, with walls adorned by the artworks of Russian painters, guests were welcomed by tuxedoed personnel, and American movies were shown with the accompaniment of the Arnoldi orchestra. When the cinema was handed over to the İpekçi family in 1932, they changed its name to İpek. It suffered a fire in 1967 while being used as the Comedy Stage by the City Theater, and was renovated and reopened in 1968. It was left in a dilapidated state following a fire starting in a textile workshop within the compound towards the end of the 1970s, and the shutters of its entrance right next to the Emek Movie Theater remained closed for many long years.

The Rüya (“Dream”) Movie Theater located behind Emek was initially opened as Artistik, under the same conditions as the Opera Cinema – meaning this was also commissioned to architect Alguadiş by Sirman and Pekin who were to be exempt of rent for 10 years. This cinema, with its two balconies, velvet curtain and velvet-coated balcony railings, had its name changed to Sümer within the framework of the nationalization of names. In 1958, Emek Film reopened the renovated Melek Cinema as Emek, and Sümer Cinema as Küçük Melek (“Little Melek”). Remaining closed for a while in the 1962-63 season, Küçük Melek then reopened as Rüya and began showing Turkish films. It later got caught up in the sex film frenzy of the mid-1970s.

In 1924, 600-seated Melek Cinema was built in the mid-section of the courtyard by architect Alguadiş. The theater took its name from the art nouveau style yellow-orange coloured angel sculptures on both sides of the film curtain, and from the Melek Apartment building – which was the mandatory entrance into the cinema. The idea of opening a cinema hall here belonged to İhsan İpekçi, who saw how profitable the film sector was as he studied commerce in Berlin. Also father to former minister of foreign affairs, İsmail Cem, İpekçi opened the Melek Cinema after taking on the management of the Elhamra (“Alhambra”) Cinema in Beyoğlu. This was one of Beyoğlu’s most grandiose halls with its baroque and rococo style ceiling decorations, and its steep incline rendering the screen easily visible from everywhere. Melek served as one of İpek Film’s most important theaters over many long years. It hosted stately galas attended in ball gowns and tailcoats. In the 1940s and 50s, it was mostly American films and musicals that were shown here – so much so that the greatest box-office success of the period was Gone with the Wind.

When the Capital Tax imposed in 1945 caused the bankruptcy of non-Muslim owners Arditi and Saltiel the building complex (composed, at the time, of the Melek, İpek and Sümer movie theaters, the Cercle d’Orient building with its eight ground floor shops and two cinema entrances, another shop on one side, a printing press and two residential structures) was bought by the municipality, which put it on sale in 1951 and 1956. It was finally sold in 1957 to the State Retirement Fund (Emekli Sandığı), which met the tender requirements. The İpekçi Brothers ran Melek Cinema until 1958. Later on the Retirement Fund founded Emek Film, taking on the management of the cinema and changing its name to Emek. In this period, distinctive examples of European cinema were also included in the program alongside American movies.

Filmmaker and director Turgut Demirağ was put in charge of running the theater in the 1968-69 season, and Osman and İsmet Kurtuluş took on this role from 1975 onwards. Even though karate movies were shown for a short while in order to contend with the crisis experienced as a result of the spread of the television in the mid-1970s, it generally remained a space open to non-commercial films as well. Towards the end of the 1980s, high-quality examples of Turkey’s cinema were featured once again on Emek’s screen. The theater underwent comprehensive restoration in 1993 and was used for the very last time in 2009. As one of the main venues and the site of the opening ceremonies of the Istanbul Film Festival for 20 years, as well as an important location for Filmekimi, the Emek Movie Theater was among the few alternatives – along with Atlas and the now non-existent Alkazar – available to those wishing to watch non-Hollywood films in cinema.

The Cercle d’Orient building on İstiklal Avenue lost its former glory at the outset of the 1970s and became a run-of-the-mill Beyoğlu arcade. The Grand Club was relocated to the Anatolian side, the number of shops on the ground level increased, pool rooms were opened, and some of its spaces containing unique ceiling embellishments came to be used as storage areas. A fire sparked in the İpek Cinema used as a textile workshop at the end of the 1970s spread, wrecking the building. In time, only the shops at the entrance could be reopened.

In 1976, the Superior Council for Immovable Antiquities and Monuments (Gayrimenkul Eski. Eserler ve Anıtlar Yüksek Kurulu) registered both the Cercle d’Orient complex and Emek Movie Theater as protected cultural assets. In 1993, the Ministry of Culture No.1 Board for the Protection of Cultural and Natural Assets declared the area an Urban Heritage Site. In the meantime, the Retirement Fund sought to restore the building that had suffered quite heavily from the latest fire, and announced a tender in 1992 for this purpose. Kamer Construction secured the tender and signed a 25-year lease. In return, the building was to be transformed into a hotel with a carpark beneath it. The project prepared was not approved by protection boards; and, in fact, the Istanbul 2nd Administrative Court annulled it in 1999 on grounds that it did not comply with “protection principles and public interest requirements”. When the Council of Ministers declared Beyoğlu a renewal zone in 2006, the Beyoğlu Municipality prepared a project based on Law no. 5366 on “Renovating, Conserving, and Actively Using Dilapidated Historical and Cultural Immovable Assets”. The Social Security Institution and the Ministry of Culture were project parties. In 2009, Kamer Construction – which had secured the Retirement Fund tender and signed a 25-year lease in 1992 – drew up a new preliminary project, and this was approved by the Protection Board under the Ministry of Culture on the 10th of October 2009. This project, titled “Grand Pera”, involved the demolition of a series of buildings including the Emek Cinema for the exposure of the rear façade of Cercle d’Orient, considered a historical monument of the first order, and the construction of a shopping mall in the area thus opened up.

Both the first large scale protests and the trial process began in 2010. In a lawsuit filed by the Chamber of Architects, the Istanbul 9th Administrative Court unanimously ruled on the 24th of May 2010 to stay the execution of the project on grounds that “it could cause irreparable or near-irreparable damages”. The very same court, however, reversed its own stay of execution order on the 16th of November 2011 acting on a questionable expert report as well as a similarly dubious technical report. The expert report was questionable because, in fact, two of the three experts – the majority opinion, that is – had vetoed the project. The technical report approving the project was of dubious nature because Prof. Kutgün Eyüpgiller, one of the two academics who had prepared it, was consultant to Kamer Construction, while the other, Prof. Kaya Özgen, was retired and therefore did not have such signatory authority. The decision reached by the court in spite of this all eliminated the “legal bulwark” that was supposed to protect the Emek Movie Theater, and the Beyoğlu Municipality issued a construction permit for the project on the 13th of February 2013, even though the judicial process was still ongoing at the Council of State (Danıştay) level.

The fact that the block occupied by the Cercle d’Orient and Emek Movie Theater contained the best examples of a series of architectural styles and of the most advanced construction techniques employed in Istanbul from the latter half of 19th century up to the 1960s, that Emek had the most spacious interior to have reached our day from the early 20th century, and that it had largely kept to the stylistic preferences of the 1900s in terms of decorative features were the main reasons for the need to preserve the structure on site and as was. As of April 2010, in response to the struggle waged for the Emek Movie Theater, Kamer Construction announced that it planned on carrying the inner (wall and ceiling) decorations of the theater to the fifth floor of the new building, saying they were “simply moving, not demolishing”. It was not, however, simply these decorations that made Emek important in the eyes of cinemagoers.

We sought to protect and keep Emek alive for the sake of the film culture we were able to enjoy during festivals, at times in which we were able to break free of the kind of film-viewing imposed by commercialized cinema. In this film culture, there were films that pondered and told stories about what it meant to be human, to be alive, as well as the pleasure of waiting in line together for tickets, watching films with breaths held in jampacked halls, and talking about them afterwards… It was in order to retain this experience as human as sitting in the shade of a tree – although perhaps a more modern version, this experience brought into being by humanity itself, that we defended Emek.”

Quoted from an editorial piece written by Enis Köstepen for the 130th issue (July/August 2013) of Altyazı Monthly Cinema Magazine.

Naturally, cinemagoers did not settle for this mere “imitation”, cut off from the street and penned up in a shopping mall, having lost its independence and become a symbol of the greed for urban loot. The protests for the Emek Movie Theater took on a variety of different forms: at times a makeshift screen was set up to show films in front of Emek along with musical festivities, other times people organized vigils and held forums out on the street. All opening and closing ceremonies of the Istanbul Film Festival from 2010 onwards were marked by banners and slogans related to the demolition of Emek. On the 7th of April 2013, the police attacked a protest by thousands of cinema enthusiasts, including director Costa Gavras and actor Tuncel Kurtiz, using tear gas and pressurized water, and arrested four people. On the 14th of April, an even more crowded group gathered in the same street once more. On the 20th of May 2013, the movie theater was completely demolished. The mobilization against this demolition became the first indication of Turkey-wide protests to come against yet another construction project – the construction of the Artillery Barracks upon Gezi Park that is. The tearing down of Emek and the violent quashing of rightful public reaction against it played an important role among factors that led to the uprising in Gezi.

The police brutality in Gezi, terror attacks taking place as of the Suruç Massacre in July 2015, increasing police presence and violence, as well as the closure of small businesses and the opening of chain stores or shopping malls in their place significantly diminished the appeal of İstiklal Avenue. In the specific case of Grand Pera and Emek, however, there are also those who boycott this establishment in reaction to the demolition of a place so full of their memories.