Public relations expert and Kyiv architecture volunteer talks about the correlation between urban space and culture of society, ways to involve city dwellers in the transformation process, and architectural issues and the potential of Ukrainian cities

On Urban Space Culture

Let’s imagine a Petri dish in which microorganisms are cultivated. They propagate and transfer their genetic code to subsequent generations with probable alterations. For any culture the sense of existence is identical, that is, transfer of information and practices.

Urban culture means understanding why we need a city and how we are going to live in it. When you come to Paris you see space, each square metre of which has been well thought out. And many places in the city were thought out even 200 years ago.

Nobody has thought over the urban space of Kyiv. Everyone believes this will be done by someone else. However, the problem is that there is no one else out there. It is totally possible to shape Kyiv and turn it into a city with European-level comfort. Yet, the quality of urban space is maintained not by one-shot measures, but rather via supported multitudinous practices. Culture is about doing something regularly. No one but several million people living in Kyiv can turn it into their dream city. If you ponder over broken-down pavements near your house entrance, you are most likely to be the only one thinking about this.

On the Responsibility of Architects

The main function of architecture is to give meaning to space. An architect models a human behaviour pattern in each given place. Contemporary dormitory districts in Kyiv were developed within the framework of the modernistic architectural illusion of that time, an illusion of a garden city. Sectional house building technology enabled quite cheap construction of such districts. The upshot is that we received our own Pruitt-Igoe. It’s a neighbourhood in Missouri developed in the mid-1950s by Minoru Yamasaki, who designed the Twin Towers in New York.

The idea was to construct a district of social multi-storey houses. Such a district was “the great hope”: it was duly designed and built, but turned out to be absolutely marginalised due to the way it was arranged. Local inhabitants who had moved there from depressive areas introduced their usual behavioural and communication practices. The site had no bounds, and everything around multi-storey houses was communal, meaning it was nobody’s. Dwellers neither had everyday small interactions, nor could they maintain relations and cooperation. Too many people used one and the same area, being unable to remember their neighbours; no social connections were established. Inhabitants took their apartments as little burrows where they stayed overnight in order to leave for the outside world in the morning.

Marginalisation of the district caused a communal tragedy. Dwellers were moved to other places, and the buildings were pulled in 1974. America rejected neighbourhoods of that kind, though retaining another extreme — huge suburbs and inevitable motorisation.

Meanwhile, in our cities they continue to build endless Pruitt-Igoe. Do we really need so much housing that causes the degradation of society? Why do we continue this very type of construction?

Ukrainian architects are in the grip of senseless construction norms and their own poor expertise. There are no occupations like urban planners and urban designers who would set limits for urban space development. It is totally possible to build in a different way in our cities as well, and this would be economically reasonable, but no one knows how to do this.

Nonetheless, it is architects who eventually create life scenarios and are responsible for those.

On Urban Economic Models

A city is a place where people gather together to exchange experiences. When a district is compact, e.g. Podil or the Upper City area, there are numerous opportunities for such exchange.

What about dormitory districts? You go into a field with towering buildings. Enormous distances between houses have economic consequences: walking from one house to another means investing time and effort. Thus, you think of having a car, but parking is scarce. Modernists dreamt of houses in a garden, while their progenies received houses in parking lots. This is their current urban space.

What can be done about this? In Berlin, they started pulling such houses, but the space became even less compact and degraded even more. They halted demolition and began to arrange community vegetable gardens, actually setting boundaries across the territory. All countries in the zone of Soviet influence faced this problem, and no general solution was found.

Now we must think what to do about this. Designs of many panel house series are intended for 50 years of use, and a number of construction junctions in such houses corrode. These houses will stand longer, but the problem will arise already in our lifetime.

There are economic models ensuring a close compactness relevant for the city, though by different means, first of all by including a return to block building. Barcelona, built in blocks from skyline to skyline, is one of the most comfortable cities to live in. Built in the block construction model, the ground floor is “active”, containing stores, cafés, restaurants, workshops, travel agencies, medical consulting rooms, law offices. The ground floor absorbs the urban economy, while small architectural objects become unnecessary. The second floor is solely for offices, and in the evening it turns into a layer of silence between busy streets and residential floors. All this shapes a comfortable city, for, if you have a private business on the ground floor, you will, at least, ensure that the pavement in front of your entrance is clean and lighted.

On the Restart

Kyiv has plenty of green areas. Accessibility is an issue though. Can a huge wild island be considered a park if it is located across the river 5 kilometres away from the place you live in? There are parks in downtown, but they are parks only in terms of their legal status. These areas have no meaning and lack basic infrastructure, even toilets. In the European view, these are not parks, but rather desolate pieces of greenery.

I’ve been living in Moscow for a long while now, and watching the “reboot” of Gorky Park. This Stalin-era “culture and leisure” park was constructed for solemn promenades by Soviet citizens. In post-Soviet times, the ceremonial imperial space was occupied by cheap amusements and kebab stalls.

The reboot began with the abolition of paid entrance to the park. They stopped amusements, evicted kebab sellers, and installed boxes to collect public opinion on desired changes. Nobody wished for anything supernatural: most people named benches and garbage cans, yet everyone felt their involvement in the park’s transformation.

Simultaneously, a design bureau was developing the park’s layout. The task was to change the space as soon and as cheaply as possible. The park was cleaned and lit. Comfortable sitting areas were equipped, such as light terraces, benches. Yet, the main thing that changed in the park was the rules of conduct. Guards walked around in civilian clothing, and their duty was not to punish people, but to resolve conflicts.

Young people got a bit of a shock. People faced the fact they now had an urban space and started being aware of it. Moscow is a complex, atomised, and rather depressing megalopolis. A single well thought-out space was enough there to beget the active hope of city dwellers for possible prospects.

Kyiv’s potential is incomparably higher, but a major issue is a total lack of understanding of how to manage the process properly. There is no completion between architects in space design. Design contests customary for Europe are horrifying to Kyiv City State Administration.

A year ago, the city arranged a rather successful contest on Kontraktova Square. The winner’s project will most likely be implemented. At the same time, transformation of space is about working with people, not with bricks. No one speaks to people. Officials see the city through car windows, neither using the urban space, nor understanding what and why should be changed. It is much easier to build a parking lot for the annual City Day. Will Kontraktova become a well-considered space or a product of bureaucratic creativeness and budget optimisation? Will this space work for decades or become run down by the next elections?

All reasonable initiatives in the city currently originate from the grass roots. The Kyiv community is gradually gaining awareness of its right to manage the city and is starting demanding not just termination of scandalous construction projects, but professional development of territories, holding of design contests, and regular civilized operations as well.

On the Reboot of Lviv and Vinnytsia

Lviv was the first city in Ukraine to be “rebooted”, and the changes are most noticeable there, although tourism has basically “burnt out” the historical city centre. Lviv inhabitants use an expression: “prior to the tourist occupation”. Where people lived before, it’s impossible to buy bread today. Lviv has sacrificed a piece of its body in order to reboot the entire city. The sense of Lviv’s strategy to attract tourists was a change of priorities in favour of urban space development. Lviv city administration estimates that the local economy currently receives 400 million euros annually. The money is mostly spent by Ukrainian tourists, not foreigners. The space has actually become better for tourists. Lviv is the first example of a pedestrian-friendly city in Ukraine, a city of 5 km speed. Lviv inhabitants have understood the main square should not be necessarily a shopping centre roof like in Kyiv.

Interesting processes are taking place in Vinnytsia. The city has actually advanced in its comprehension of real urban life scenarios. For instance, they have started pulling the tram route closer to the railway station, turning it into a transfer hub.

Everyone now looks at Lviv and Vinnytsia as examples, trying to follow them. The window of opportunity is not very big: in the course of decentralisation funds will gradually leave Kyiv.

City dwellers should already understand what a comfortable city is like and start wanting it.

On the Chief Architect

A chief architect does not build houses, but a city. Everywhere in the world this occupation is called urban planner.

A chief city architect is the mayor’s right hand. The former gives meanings, and the latter implements. Looking at a city’s layout, a competent chief architect sees how people will live, whereas an incompetent chief architect sees what he was taught in 1963 at a Soviet university. Thus, the chief architect of Kyiv sees there only the names of deputies, oligarchs and ministers who own the land plots in question, as well as the endless war of developers against city dwellers. A chief urban planner in a European city is the mayor’s deputy or adviser. In Kyiv, he is subordinate to the deputy mayor on construction, who is basically a foreman.

Through a tradition of some two hundred years, the Kyiv governor entered the chief architect’s office, and they jointly discussed how to build the city. Nothing like this has taken place in the last 25 years. City dwellers want to see real changes in the urban environment, but the remit of municipal management makes it possible to create models only.

Europe will not show up in Kyiv by itself. It should be invented, designed, drafted and constructed, taking into account all interests and avoiding conflicts. When the events on Maidan took place, Ukrainians realised they had their own country. Now it’s necessary to look around and think over every square metre. Architects are the most important people in Ukraine for the nearest fifteen to twenty years. They implement a big social demand for new reality, new living scenarios and standards. Politicians are not so important. 

Major limits in the work of an architect are boundaries and ownership issues. Therefore, architecture means policy.

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