Ankara Station: Keeping up appearances

 

by Bernard KENNEDY

 

 

If buildings could speak, they would all have tales to tell. Ankara’s nostalgic railway station has seen more ups and downs than most  Long deprived of the central role which it once enjoyed in the economic and social life of a young nation, it continues to ply its trade, thankful for all the custom it gets.

 

Cigarettes and embraces come to an end. A last door slams. The coaches start to shuffle down the broad, low marble platform counting off rows of green ironwork. Neither rushed nor delayed, a lunchtime train heads for Istanbul or the East. In the wake of silence, a passing clerk requests a sandwich from the fortress-like “büvet”. Under the 12-metre ceiling of the central hall, newspapers open again. Daylight floods in through the tall, double glass doors on simple city and country faces surrounded by solid marble, polished wood and shining brass.

 

There will be more arrivals and departures when dark falls – Istanbul, Izmir, Kars, Diyarbakir, Zonguldak and, as it is Thursday, Tehran. Yet despite their names - the Anatolian Express, the Bosphorus Express, the Çukurova Express, the Black Diamond Express – all will take long hours to reach their destinations. Seats are available on all.

 

Stylish setting

 

Ankara’s one-sided stone-clad railway station centres on a grand six-columned neo-classical portal flanked by rounded staircase "towers" and topped by the metallic emblems of the State Railways (TCDD). Ever-lower, ever-receding blocks to left and right, their horizontal lines emphasised, defer in perfect symmetry to this monumental centrepiece.

 

Such was the stylish setting deemed appropriate, in the second decade of the Republic, for the primary gateway to a new capital city. Once a social main line, however, the station has since been shunted with all its period embellishments to the sidings of urban life.

 

Strategic value

 

The railway had arrived in Ankara in 1892, an extension of the Istanbul-Izmit line and a branch of the Ottoman-Deutsche Bank "Baghdad Railway" project. Strategically it reinforced Ankara's ancient staging post role; socially it drew the town closer to modern trends and ideas. Thus the unsuspecting province was prepared for its later role as capital.  For administrative purposes, a house called the Direksiyon was constructed next to the original two-storey station. And it was from here that Ataturk coordinated most of the War of Independence.

 

The early Republic needed no convincing of the importance of rail, unifying the existing networks and doubling the length of track. Resuming its eastward march, the Ankara line reached Kayseri in 1927, Sivas in 1930 and Erzurum in 1939. Meanwhile, the twisting carriage-way that traversed the swamp between the Ankara station and the city centre at Ulus became a straight-backed, tree-lined boulevard. On an adjacent plot rose a new six-floor TCDD headquarters designed by Mimar Kemalettin, leading protagonist of the "first national architecture movement".

 

Rising classes

 

Kemalettin’s HQ - later to become a training centre for railway staff - was completed in 1930, three years after the death of its architect. Arranged around a courtyard, it incorporated decorative elements of Ottoman public and vernacular architecture, In contrast, the new station, designed by 25 year-old Ţekip Akalýn and opened in 1937, was fiercely international.

 

A gazino or music hall was built simultaneously, surrounded with parkland and linked to the station by a colonnaded walkway. While the formal station restaurant became a meeting place for politicians and high-ranking bureaucrats, the Gar Gazinoso, with its 32-metre clock tower and upper storey viewing terrace, played host to foreign orchestras and revues. A night out to remember for Ankara's eagerly-westernising upper and middle classes!

 

Roads and motorways

 

Within a generation, social norms and habits changed. High society migrated to the south of the city, the railways were neglected, new roads were built and bus companies mushroomed. Until the 1980s, the slow-but-comfortable Blue Train or sleeper remained a privileged means of travelling between Istanbul and Ankara. But then came the motorway, the explosion in car ownership and the increase in air traffic. Symbolically, the Transport Ministry abandoned its powerful 1941 edifice beyond the station for an Eskiţehir Road location.

 

The gazino served briefly as a Turkish Airlines office and terminal but now stands empty and shrunken. Across the wide station forecourt, Kemalettin’s light facades have largely stood the test of time, but relegated to the status of a regional directorate they await an uncertain fate. The station itself lives on: tickets are still sold behind the time-worn marble turnstiles; the waiting room still fills, and the restaurant still serves. But little business is done in the post office and barber’s shop, while dust gathers in the baggage hall and behind the left luggage windows.

 

Praying for a future

 

The Direksiyon Building, with its Atatürk mementos, is carefully preserved as a museum, its roof respectfully accommodated by the canopy of Platform One. Turn back and you come to the TCDD Museum and Art Gallery. On a separate site across the distant commuter tracks is an open air exhibit of steam engines. The VIP lounge is a museum too, in all but name.

 

Outside the first TCDD headquarters, sharing a garden with an empty pool and a retired locomotive, grows a twisted yet muscular blue fir, rivalling the building for both age and height. With the pacing gendarmes it has guarded Ankara’s station through thick and thin. The wind has brought news of high-speed trains which might halve the journey time to Istanbul and restore the supremacy of rail. And the tree prays to live to see the day when its humbled protégé is back at the heart of things.