The Right for City Space: Who is Responsible for the Ugly Look of Ukrainian Cities?

2 October 2012, 16:30

Architecture and public city space policies have come under fire of late. Specifically, scandals have arisen in connection with some construction sites, the ruining of architectural monuments, disregard for the opinions of UNESCO, and protests near Kyiv's Hostynnyi Dvir, which is soon to be transferred into private hands.  Svitlana Shlipchenko, an expert in architecture and urbanism, discussed these issues with The Ukrainian Week.

U.W.: The problems with Andriyivskiy Spusk and Kyiv's Hostynnyi Dvir have proved that the current authorities are making it easy for anyone to remove a building from the heritage assets register or to take it out of public hands. Who should determine the strategy of Ukrainian cities development and how?

The problem has several levels. Some time ago, building was based on ideological concerns, but authorities still stuck to the register. Today, the register is incredibly “flexible” not only for officials, but also for ordinary citizens. It might seem strange, but Ukrainians have no idea about what they want to preserve or how to best do it. The issue of preservation concerns not only monuments, but also some living space. Ukraine participates in almost all international conventions on protecting architectural heritage, but at the same time authorities go out and repair the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra with modern materials. Besides the tool of international influence, the city's community should not be ignored either.

For example, the problems of Kyiv's Podil district require an integrated approach. Kontraktova Square is the only space in Kyiv with European potential. Meanwhile, in Europe there is always an active group in the city administration, as well as mediators, promoting a compromise with architects and the whole community. The more discussion and competition they have, the better. The issue lies in the fact that the Ukrainian general construction plan is based on instructions from the top. In fact, the country should adopt the experience of integrating “strategic plans” with a bottom-up approach.

U.W.: What if there is no time for discussion because bulldozers are already on site?

Activists' protests at construction sites are like “an ambulance,” but it is a symptomatic remedy, not sufficient to solve the problem. It is good that they attracted attention to Hostynnyi Dvir, but the authorities may still completely ignore them. It is worth mentioning that the classic Hostynnyi Dvir was  built by Luidgi Rusca in 1809. It was a project typical of many cities in the Russian Empire. The building got its current appearance after a subsequent large-scale restoration of the site by Valentyna Shevchenko in 1980. Consequently, under the law, Hostynnyi Dvir does not have the status of a historical monument. It is not even a building replica (recreation or variation of architectural monument), as the construction was made only “with regards to” Rusca's two storey project. Nevertheless, people got used to Hostynnyi Dvir, it has become a part of the square, of the city’s memory and it should not be closed. Let's make it a public commons, attractive both for Podil residents and for tourists. Let us organize local, original stores, instead of chains,  and let's have cafes and galleries, and give the site special “attractions”.

U.W.: What other tools of  influence can be used besides protests?

First, publicity and public awareness are needed. For instance, after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall the issue of restoring the German capital was solved with the help of a series of discussions and competitions, as well as active participation with the media. Second, it is necessary to openly involve professional designers and well trained architects familiar with the site’s history, including its social role. Blair Rubl, famous urbanist and director of the Kennan Institute (USA), recently visited Ukraine. As a guest on a TV program, he was shocked by the categorical comments and self-confidence of Ukrainian architect Serhiy Babushkin on the role of an architect in developing Kyiv. A professional does not act like that, because urban development is a two-sided process. Even when working on the London Eye Ferris wheel, which is just an amusement ride, architects explored everything at Thames Quay, since the Eye would considerably change the local area.

U.W.: What do you think of architectural “innovations” designated for Euro 2012?

In fact, Ukraine should not have taken part in the competition for hosting the championship. On the one hand, there were opportunities for the country, but corruption eliminated them. The championship reminded me of the  1980 Olympics in the USSR. I should say that the stadium designs deserve a separate comment. Sites like Olimpiyskiy Complex are never built in city centres these days. It is dangerous and nobody has ever tried to evacuate so many people from sites not adapted for large crowds. Let alone the quality of work at stadiums. The question is who will own all of these objects afterwards. It is not clear whether these stadiums are intended for sports clubs or for general use? For instance, I would appreciate having open ground near Kyiv's Football House, where children could play. There was a small stadium, widely used by local inhabitants, but for Euro 2012 a parking lot was constructed in its place. The question is, is it possible to get the stadium back? For instance, in Portugal, which also hosted the championship, small towns of 50,000 constructed stadiums with a capacity of 40,000. Meanwhile, stadiums must be supported after the championship, they won’t be off-line. Ancient Rome could afford to build arena with a capacity of 40,000, as it was fully packed, but Ukraine and Portugal do not have this potential today.

U.W.: Has Ukraine had any interesting architectural achievements in the last 20 years as an independent state?

I suppose not. I don’t like any current projects. What I do like is the German Embassy's building in Kyiv. Its authors were trained in the Bauhaus architectural tradition. One should pay attention to the windows and compare them to nearby houses standard frames, not designated specifically for the object. Ukraine should consider the issue of professional training for young architects and changes in architecture teaching. Today an architect has to not only build an object, but also to develop its design within the city, taking into account all the cultural, social, urban planning aspects, etc. I don’t like the way Mykhailivskiy Cathedral in Kyiv looks after reconstruction. It is not a recreation, and so who decided it should look like it does now? Or for instance who is to decide that the Churchof the Assumption of the Virgin Pirogoscha should be reconstructed based on its 12th century look and not that of 1934, when it was demolished? Still, of course, it is good that the symbolic axis between the Mykhailivskiy and Sofiyskiy Cathedrals was restored, so that there is no vacuum. That corresponds to the past look of the churches.

U.W.: Has Ukraine ever tried to invite any world experts? Several years ago rumour said Ricardo Bofill, a prominent figure in world architecture, would visit Ukraine…

Firstly, on his way from Boryspil airport to Kyiv centre Bofill lost all the interest in constructing any objects in our country. Secondly, there was a trouble with Mystetskiy Arsenal art centre. The company of Arata Isozaki, a wonderful Japanese architect, was the official winner in the tender for the relevant projects, but only Andriy Myrhorodskiy, a puppet Ukrainian builder, has had the real opportunity to work on them. Ukrainians are afraid of open competitions and are careful about experts participating. Who is to struggle with them? Surely, not the local experts who have stacked up kitsch houses in the ancient Podil streets of Kyiv.

U.W.: What do Ukrainians lack that keeps them from understanding issues of organizing city space?

They lack skills of common existence within a city, as well as urban tradition. Every citizen lives in his/her apartment, having had no stable city existence due to numerous revolutions. Meanwhile, it takes time to work out urban tradition. The medieval city of Siena with its own Constitution dated 1260 is a good example. Meanwhile, Kyiv had only several streets with stone houses and was mostly covered with mansions hidden behind fences. Thus, people do not understand they cannot put fences several meters high or build a balcony in the form of a castle, as all of this will symbolically belong to the street, not only to the owners. In this sense, Ukrainians have a homestead mentality. Still, it is also wrong to impose neighbourly life or establish Unions of Apartment Building Co-Owners. Anonymity is one of the advantages of a big city. Still, there are some unwritten rules, in particular one cannot store his box of potatoes on the stairwell or put a grate on the front door of the building, for instance. Ukraine lacks adequate notion of the limits of private and public spaces.

U.W.: Is there potential for Ukraine to organize mass construction of quality multi-storey housing?

What is the point in building it? Few cities organize mass construction of this sort. They build private cottages or three- or four-storey houses at least, maybe five-storey, if they are very large. Several years ago, protests in the Paris suburbs demonstrated what might happen when people live in HLMs, that is how they call multi-storey houses, similar to Kyiv's Borshchahivka for instance. It is social housing, and will have problems with servicing in 10 or 20 years.

Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, once said, “a good city is one that gets people to go outside for a walk.” Do you want to walk around a dormitory that looks like a place just to spend one night? Currently Ukraine is suffering functional zoning consequences from the Soviet system of land use and urban planning. Of course, all the world cities have dormitory districts of this sort, but it is not an option for Kyiv. The trend of “new urbanism” was popular in post-war Great Britain, France and the Scandinavian states. Still, their houses were more integrated, having had more individuality, including private, multi-storey, cottage houses. Meanwhile, Ukraine has single-type houses and a standard residential concept. Soviet people had no choice, as they received a standard apartment without choosing or buying it.

U.W.: How is Kyiv developing now? Housing in suburbs seems to be more affordable and convenient for many people.

De facto, Kyiv has it, of course, but de jure there is nothing of this sort, which limits the city’s opportunities for land use, development, solving the issue of city cemeteries, waste deposits. The problem is more serious here. Investors, when building a new dream-town, stick to the gated community principle, meaning they do not care about anything outside of their own gates. Meanwhile, the entire civilized world aspires to take into account many parameters, including the issue of convenient pedestrian areas, objects to be included in public areas and conditions for disabled people or families with children. It seems as if disabled people only live abroad, where they can be seen and they are active, while Ukraine seems to have no-one but healthy people. Disabled people are excluded from the city space and that is that.

U.W.: Suburbs are filled with not only cottage settlements, but also with the gigantic mansions of the rich. Will there ever be historical and cultural preserves in place of these complexes, something like a “new Kachanivka” national preserve?

There is no way to avoid the gentrification process, when rich people buy out the best land for their houses and establish luxury “mansion communities.” Still, six-meter fences are really a problem. I once read about the family of a post-Soviet politician who bought a plot of land in a Bavarian village. They started to build a fence in the Soviet style. The neighbours were quick to tell them that they could not build it that way and that they should remove it, as there is a law, local rules and fair courts. As for Kachanivka… I should say, the mansion of Viktor Yanukovych shows how a poor man might imagine luxury. And for him it is gold and swans. Kitsch rarely looks like art.


Svitlana Shlipchenko is an expert in architecture and urbanism, fellow worker of the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, professor of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Fulbright scholar of the International Education Exchange Program at the University of Pennsylvania. She has undergone training at the Cambridge University Department of Architecture and at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. She is one of the first Ukrainian researchers of modern world architecture and the author of the books “Architectural Principles of Postmodernism” and “Inscripted in Stone.”

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