Ukrainian architect and architectural historian Ievgeniia Gubkina weighs in on what is at stake when reconstructing the country

Rebuilding Kharkiv

Ukrainian architect and architectural historian Ievgeniia Gubkina weighs in on what is at stake when reconstructing the country

A war-damaged building in central Kharkiv (Pavlo Dorohoi)

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine reaches its one-year mark, English architect Norman Foster’s new masterplan for the country’s second largest city of Kharkiv is well underway. According to a recent update from the UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe), the masterplan will be based on five “pilot projects,” including a “heritage project” in the form of a new architectural landmark in the center of the city.

Foster initially announced his involvement in the reconstruction of Kharkiv in April 2022 with the release of the Kharkiv Manifesto, in which he vowed to “deliver the city of the future,” starting with a master plan. At a glance, it seemed that Kharkiv had lucked out: Foster, a Pritzker Prize laureate, was offering his services pro bono. Yet, many Ukrainian architects were skeptical. Kharkiv-based architect Oleg Drozdov warned of potential “intellectual colonization.” During a war in which Ukraine’s national identity was at stake, was it appropriate for Foster, an outsider, to position himself at the helm of reconstruction?

In order to make sense of this, Hannah Su sat down with Ievgeniia Gubkina, an architect, a leading Ukrainian architectural and urban historian, and a Kharkiv native. Gubkina has also authored and edited several books, including Soviet Modernism. Brutalism. Post-Modernism. Buildings and Structures in Ukraine 1955–1991, that offer in depth research on Ukrainian architecture, particularly Soviet modernist buildings. This work was upended when Russia invaded her home country on February 24, 2022.

This interview began in May 2022 and was updated to account for current events. It has been edited for length and clarity. Ahead of the release more information about Foster’s plan for Kharkiv, Gubkina’s keen insights continue to be relevant. Unheeded, Kharkiv risks a missed opportunity and further loss of heritage.

(Pavlo Dorohoi)

Hannah Su: I’m glad that you and your daughter were able to safely evacuate. It must have been difficult to pack your lives into a suitcase and leave. You mentioned you wanted to return to Kharkiv soon. Is that still the plan?

Ievgeniia Gubkina: So, of course, my nature is to desperately want to go back to Kharkiv. Recently, I talked with my old friend from my school years; she is an architect too, and she decided to return. She sent me a lot of photos of what Kharkiv is like now, just from her phone. And I really cried. Kharkiv is like my relative.

During the time when Kharkiv was even more in danger, I was more willing to come back, just based on the feeling that I should somehow rescue my city, that I should help my community to resist. My best friends are mostly from the NGO field, people, activists from the LGBTQ community, and from environmental and human rights organizations. I would like to be with them. It’s like solidarity: You want to feel common things, and to resist together.

I’m thinking about how I can help with my expertise. I’m able to contribute to heritage preservation issues, advocacy campaigns, fundraising, and promotion at the international level. When it’s not immigration, by choice, I would choose to adapt to the situation. First of all, I have to save the life of my daughter. Then I can help Ukraine with cultural issues abroad.

HS: Where have you spent time since leaving Kharkiv?

IG: I’m a member of PAUSE, the national program for the urgent aid and reception of scientists in exile and received a short-term fellowship at the Sciences Po Urban School. I stayed in Paris last summer because the National Commission of Ukraine for UNESCO and the UNESCO headquarters is here. My idea was to contribute to a communication between the Ukrainian side (ministries, experts, and activists) and the international community.

HS: Norman Foster is now working on rebuilding Kharkiv with the city’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov. Foster also released the Kharkiv Manifesto, vowing to bring together “the best minds” in architecture, planning, and engineering “to bear on the rebirth of the city of Kharkiv.” What is your reaction to this?

IG: I listened to Norman Foster’s manifesto on May 11, 2022, during the event hosted by RIBA in partnership with New London Architecture where I was invited as a speaker. Then, someone in the audience asked the participants, “Do Ukrainians feel they need advice on the further development of their cities from Western, white, privileged architects?” And then I answered that “the West should move away from mentorship into relations of partnership.”

I believe Western architects should have been extremely careful when working in a city and with a city that was seriously damaged by the war, which suffered a huge number of civilian casualties. If they really want to help, they should have made a choice who they work for—who is their customer—and that is very important. Thus, I would like to pose this question to Norman Foster if I have that opportunity in future. Having architects for a few generations in my family, I know the nature of architects. The main question for any architect is: Who is your customer? If his customer is society, or the community of Kharkiv, it’s one thing. If his only customer is Mayor Ihor Terekhov and the City Council, it’s a different story—and it means a different strategy for us as activists. Civil society in Kharkiv has a huge distance from stakeholders, from Norman Foster, and definitely from Terekhov, a very typical post-Soviet administrative leader. The post-Soviet city management system is not obliged to involve residents in the decision-making process at the legislative level, which is a legacy of the Soviet command-administrative system that needs to be reformed. Furthermore, the system is quite neoliberal and closely connected with construction developers through non-transparent mechanisms.

The second disturbing factor is the weak legislation on heritage protection, which has many loopholes and does not guarantee that heritage sites will be preserved during the implementation of a new master plan or individual reconstruction projects.

I’m scared of that combination: vertical and non-transparent city management system, soft regulations in the field of heritage protection, and urban planning. This combination, under the conditions of Russian aggression and extensive destruction committed by the Russian army, becomes a dramatic issue for Kharkiv heritage, uniqueness, and identity.

Looking north along Konstytutsii Square in pre-invasion Kharkiv. The city’s city council building, with its corner tower, is visible on the left. (Pavlo Dorohoi)

HS: Could you elaborate on the existing historic preservation–related laws in Ukraine?

IG: Preservation laws here are very weak. After Ukraine’s independence, we made a lot of reforms. However, when people say that they are for reforms and support further legislative reformation, they usually don’t ask or know what particularly will change and how it will affect municipal or governmental policy. Reforms in the heritage preservation field over the past thirty years were not aimed at tightening legislation, but at easing responsibility for the destruction of heritage sites. They simplified the procedures for removing objects from national or local listings while making it harder to add newer buildings for protection.

It’s the same for the term decentralization: It’s a great concept. But how will we decentralize? The methodology and direction matters. Decentralization can be great, but sometimes it isn’t because power is concentrated in city authorities or local administrations.

This concentration of power can be especially controversial for the field of heritage protection. As a result of decentralization reforms in Ukraine, a controlling function over heritage protection was transferred from the Ministry of Culture to municipal authorities where these heritage sites are located. In most cases, this led to conflicts of interest since those who contest and threaten heritage sites often have close ties to those who are supposedly in charge of its protection. Moreover, the government often loses control over the observance of national laws and the actual preservation of heritage sites which should have been protected by law. This has led to the complete or partial destruction of many heritage sites throughout Ukraine.

Usually I talk about modernism, stylistic features, movements, ideas, and intentions, but I think that heritage legislation really matters. Before working in any city or urban environment, an architect has to understand the system (administrative, legislative, economical) that lies behind and how it works. This is important not only to adhere to formal requirements but to keep the urban landscape and its infrastructure in alignment with national heritage protection laws. The case of Kharkiv and Foster should not be an exception. Otherwise, an architects intervention might change a city no less than consequences of war or it may remain on paper as a beautifully designed masterplan with no chance for implementation. How many similar paper visions have we had throughout our history of architecture?

The same block along Konstytutsii Square after Russia’s shelling of the city (Pavlo Dorohoi)

HS: The release of the Kharkiv Manifesto and Foster’s initial meeting with Terekhov was met with some wariness from Ukrainian architects; for example, Oleg Drozdov, one of the founders of the Kharkiv School of Architecture KSA, warned of intellectual colonization.” In light of this, how do you think Foster should proceed with conversations about reconstruction?

IG: A conversation implies that one side talks, and then the other side responds. This dialogue builds some kind of relationship. The contacts that have already happened between Foster’s team and others cannot be called a conversation. A conversation is when two or more parties carry on a dialogue between each other. The situation in Kharkiv now looks like that one side is producing a result that does not take into account any external discussion or dialogue; it just leaves a place for others to comment. There has been no Ukrainian response, and it is not expected, because dialogue and relations have not been built. The work took place between Foster + Partners, the Mayor, and City Council. Still there are zero relations between Ukrainian civil society and Foster’s team. I would say this is a mistake.

Moreover, Ukraine has a strong civil society. That is something that is a part of our identity historically, not just after 2014—which was very important for civil society development, but even before that; it was something that is in our blood. To return to your question, for an architect, that relationship should first be built somehow: How to design the type of communication between architect, urban planner, or thinker—whatever we call Foster—and society, who will actually be the clients, as they will live in that built environment?

The master plan, as I understand it, is huge—it’s about the lifestyle of an urban community and society in the scale of the city. It’s not just the design of separate buildings; it’s about how the city lives, looks, and feels. I think there should be negotiations with local communities through participatory engagement and sociological analysis.

HS: One thing about architecture that doesn’t go unnoticed is that it can be so detached from the individual human experience, which can be discouraging. But so far, there are a number of examples in which Ukrainian architects have risen to the occasion when confronted by the harsh realities of war. What could reconstruction mean for the role of the architect?

IG: I think there is still some optimism for the role of the architect in this process. Every 25 to 30 years, the idea of what an architect does changes, not just stylistically but also philosophically, mentally. That moment can be the opportunity to make a change in understanding of what is actually the work of architects, what is the role of architects, and how to react and how to respond to such tragedy as a war and the whole range of related social questions.

Of course, we can hide and say, “Okay, we are deeply concerned—let’s talk about something abstract. Let’s, again and again, try to push some very old patterns of behavior of architects,” Or we can make changes. I think today’s architectural discourse is too conservative. Not just about issues of war, but ecological, political, and economical issues should finally start to influence architects. Because architecture is, after all, a deeply social activity. Right now, architects face an opportune moment; if we do not react to that, institutionally and systematically, as a community of architects, we will fail. Architects can become complicit in the old order, which is no longer possible after everything that has already happened to Ukraine. And this risk, unfortunately, is inherent in the very profession of an architect, and many will tend to such rigidity. Moreover, this is the fourth danger for Kharkiv: to lose a chance for change—to lead a shift in understanding what architecture can be—is to miss the turn of the epochs.

Looking west along Heroiv Kharkova Avenue before Russia’s invasion. Assumption Cathedral is visible in the background. (Pavlo Dorohoi)

HS: The broader implications for architects surrounding the reconstruction of Ukraine that you mention remind me of what Ukrainian-American Olesia Danylova told me, that a victory for Ukraine is a victory for democracy. I think this is applicable for architecture as well.

IG: I agree. We shouldn’t be so optimistic and naive as to think that architects alone will change our society. It would be good (and maybe this is the minimum of what we should expect) at least to be critical of ourselves and about everything that is going on. This feels different than previous generations who had ambitions to change someone else but not themselves.

What we can still do is to start being extremely conscious. The criteria of democracy would work here very well; they can help to understand who your allies are. For architects who want to work with difficult territories, it would be good to apply these criteria. Surely Foster can work in any location, but here the concern is how to work with this place.

This situation with Foster’s masterplan is an example of a top-down approach which was widely used by Mayor Terekhov and his predecessor. It would be great to start talking with people, to switch focus from communicating just with political leaders to at least speaking with civil leaders and activists. It’s too difficult to talk with 1.5 million city residents, so at least talk with community voices. Today is the time not just to help as you think is best—as was a common approach throughout the 20th century—but to ask what kind of help this particular community needs.

Ievgeniia Gubkina is a Ukrainian architect and architectural historian specializing in the architecture and urban planning of 20th-century Ukraine.

Hannah Su is an undergraduate student at the Princeton University School of Architecture.