With fighting in Ukraine only intensifying over the last week, nuclear power plants have been attacked by Russian forces, residential areas have been reduced to rubble, and 1.5 million people have fled the country at the time of writing. As major finance and gas companies suspend their operations in Russia and sanctions tighten, some of the largest architecture firms in the world have paused work in Russia in a show of solidarity.
But while these actions are intended to isolate Russia economically and politically until the cost of invasion is too high to continue, they do little to alleviate the conditions on the ground. In 2019, Ashley Bigham and Erik Herrmann, founders of Outpost Office, were invited to lead a design seminar for the inaugural year of Ukraine’s first independent school of architecture, the Kharkiv School of Architecture. What they found was that students were eager to envision and design for a post-Soviet Ukraine while keeping true to the country’s roots, both traditional and from more modern examples.
AN reached out to Bigham, who was a Fulbright Fellow in Ukraine in 2014, for more information about the risk to the country’s historic structures and common urban fabric alike, and how the Kharkiv School of Architecture has weathered the war thus far.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
AN: Ukraine’s cultural and historic sites are being bombed or are at risk right now. Are there any you would care to highlight? Either that have already been damaged or are in danger?
Ashley Bigham: At the beginning of this conversation I want to state that the most important thing right now is that we focus on the survival and humanitarian needs of all people currently in Ukraine and those who have fled this war. The destruction of Ukrainian art and architecture is just one tragedy in a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis.
Last week security-camera footage of a missile strike on government offices in Kharkiv was widely circulated. This government office building is situated on Kharkiv’s “Freedom Square,” also the site of the Derzhprom building, one of the largest and most complete examples of constructivist architecture in the world. There are no reports at this time of damage to the Derzhprom building, but this is one of the many I worry about. Take for example the dazzling experimental market halls of Ukrainian architect Alla Anishchenko. Constructed in the 1960s and located in many Ukrainian cities including Kharkiv, the capital Kyiv, Cherkasy, and Rivne these structures use the repetition of simple geometries and expressive structural features to create dynamic, open interior spaces. Her designs are not only exemplary examples of modernist concrete structures, they are important pieces of city infrastructure still operating as food markets or grocery stores today.
During the first days of the invasion, Ukrainian President Zelensky recorded one of his daily video addresses in front of the ‘House with Chimeras’ in the capital city of Kyiv. This unique Art Nouveau building from 1903 designed by the Ukrainian-Polish architect Władysław Horodecki is covered in sculptures of mythical creatures and large animals. Its highly ornamented facade (truly, one-of-a-kind) was the President’s way of proving to the world that he remained in Ukraine despite false reports from Russia that he had fled the country. Defiant, he stood in front of this well-known building—beautiful and distinctive—so that there could be no doubt that he remained in Kyiv.
It has been reported that the museum housing the paintings of Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko was burned. Prymachenko’s work is a national treasure; bold and colorful compositions featuring themes and motifs from Ukrainian folklore. The anguish of this loss was assuaged this week by revelations that the paintings may have been saved by some museum staff, but this is just one example of the fragility of cultural artifacts in a war zone. As Russia continues to indiscriminately bomb civilian buildings in almost all Ukrainian cities, I have no doubt that we will see the loss of important cultural artifacts in the coming days.
There’s a lot of attention being given to the bombing of the Babyn Yar memorial and of the older government buildings in Kharkiv, but a lot of what is beginning to be targeted are apartment buildings. The Brezhnev-era ones are not structures that are generally architecturally admired but do visually shape a lot of everyday life in the region, and the loss of functional structures is devastating. Is there anything else we should keep an eye on?
In addition to the destruction of individual buildings and damage at symbolic sites like the Babyn Yar memorial, we are seeing the destruction of the urban fabric en masse. While it may be difficult to fully explain the architectural significance of each individual building bombed in this war, we should not forget that the urban fabric itself is an important architectural artifact.
For example, there are several cities in Ukraine which are studied specifically for their urban plans. The city of Slavutych was the last Soviet ‘ideal city’ designed to house the residents who fled the Chernobyl disaster. The city was designed as a collaboration between several nations each displaying unique architecture styles in distinct districts. The city planning of Slavutych also focused on being child-friendly and comfortable for residents with ample green spaces, pedestrian pathways, and integrated social services. Another interesting example is the linear city designed to house the workers of the Kharkiv Tractor Factory. Linear cities reorganized the relationship between housing and industry as cities experienced great advances in technological production in the 1920s and ’30s.
Most importantly, the urban fabric of a city should be important to the architectural community because it is significant to the people who live there. How do you assign value to your family apartment, your favorite cafe, your elementary school, or the maternity hospital where your children were born? We are witnessing the destruction of Ukraine’s collective memory through the targeting of civilian buildings from Soviet-era housing blocks to local kindergartens. A friend recently shared the smoldering remains of a cafe in Kharkiv, reflecting on the many texts, conversations, and friendships that began in this little neighborhood shop.
How is the Kharkiv School of Architecture adjusting? More broadly, how are Ukraine’s architecture students adjusting with the disruption to their education?
All aspects of “normal” life have ceased in Ukraine including higher education. Ukrainians are focused on daily survival, remaining in contact with family members in different regions, and providing for their medical needs.
The students at the Kharkiv School were sent home several days before the invasion began to be with their families or relatives. The teachers and staff who remain in Kharkiv are living in basements or underground shelters as the city is under near constant bombing. Those who were able to leave the city of Kharkiv are pouring all their energy into organizing and mobilizing humanitarian efforts: deliveries of food and medical supplies, housing internally displaced people, organizing transportation for refugees to leave the country safely, and sharing reliable information about the current situation.
Do you have a sense of what practitioners in Ukraine are thinking? I know this is a harrowing time both professionally, as it seems like all work has stopped, and from a personal perspective as both lives and livelihood are on the line.
One colleague from the Kharkiv School said they “dream of returning to rebuild Kharkiv,” but for now, their focus is on their immediate safety. Every day of this war is bringing new challenges for citizens. There will be a time when architects will play a role in rebuilding Ukraine, but right now practitioners are doing what all Ukrainians are doing: volunteering to defend their cities, cooking food for displaced people, learning first-aid skills, sheltering children or the elderly… simply trying to survive.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention? What should people do if they want to help?
There is no place in Ukraine that is safe, yet millions of its citizens remain to defend their country. The world has watched the heroic efforts and resilience of the Ukrainian people in awe. However, we cannot let this admiration distract us from our own responsibilities as citizens in a globalized world. Ukraine desperately needs our help now and will continue to need support in the long term as they recover from this devastating war.
The Center for Urban History in Lviv, a trusted organization which works to preserve architectural history in Ukraine, has organized some information on how to support Ukraine: https://www.lvivcenter.org/en/updates/how-to-support-ukraine/
In addition to donating money, I have seen architects offer creative ideas for helping those affected by war: firms are offering paid internships for refugees, architecture schools allowing transfer students from Ukraine, artists are auctioning NFTs to raise money, etc. I would encourage everyone to consider donating their unique skills to aid in this humanitarian crisis.
Ashley Bigham is co-director of Outpost Office and an assistant professor at the Knowlton School of Architecture at the Ohio State University. In 2014 she was a Fulbright Fellow in Ukraine.