Architecture has faced many challenges in modern Ukraine: shifting narratives around cultural heritage and the legacy of Soviet architecture, predatory developers who willfully ignore planning regulations, a struggling economy, and widespread corruption to name a few. Ukraine’s state institutions of higher education often grapple with badly needed reforms, bloated by outdated bureaucracy and limited resources.
But today, only five years after a peaceful revolution came to a tragic end and with war waging at its eastern border, Ukraine’s first independent school of architecture has just completed the inaugural year of its bachelor program in architecture. The newly established Kharkiv School of Architecture (KhSA) and its dedicated community of educators and students are hopeful signs of the bottom-up reforms possible in post-revolution Ukraine. In spite of the frustrating global tug-of-war over its lands, and the sobering societal struggles, a new generation of leaders are being trained to construct Ukraine’s future.
Calls for reform in post-Soviet Ukraine have been steadily building for many years but became a global focus in 2014 during the “Maidan” movement (now termed the Revolution of Dignity). Although it began in Kyiv as backlash to the former President Yanukovych’s decision to reverse an EU agreement, the movement rapidly grew to multi-city protests. The protestors’ grievances grew to include Ukraine’s systematic and widespread corruption, which affects many aspects of daily life, including in higher education. As Lviv-based historian Yaroslav Hrytsak told the Kyiv Post at the time, the revolution was characterized particularly by, “young people who are very educated, people who are active in social media, who are mobile and 90 percent of whom have university degrees, but who don’t have futures.” Today, the legacy of the Revolution of Dignity is a young generation that continues to work towards political, social, economic, and educational reforms.
For the leaders of the KhSA, the question is how the architects they are training can be not only become responsible practitioners but the reformers Ukraine needs. One of the many positive societal shifts in post-revolution Ukraine is a growing engagement in the built environment. Young activists are leading a charge to save Ukraine’s remaining Soviet modernist architecture from destructive forces, including decommunization laws and aggressive development. Additionally, many architects are returning to Ukraine after training or working abroad and leveraging their experiences to bring visitors and new ideas into the Ukranian architectural community through workshops, forums, and other public programming.
A New Model
Kharkiv is an industrial city in the northeast corner of Ukraine. The country’s second largest city, Kharkiv was the first capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic before the capital was moved to Kyiv in 1934. In architecture circles, Kharkiv is perhaps best known as the site of Derzhprom, a Metropolis-like complex of constructivist towers interlinked by iconic skyways that made it the largest single structure in the world when completed in 1928.
The KhSA fronts a small square near the confluence of the Lopan and Kharkiv Rivers. Behind its sparkling white Beaux-Arts facade, the activity of the school is intense and frenetic. The lower level galleries are filled with studio spaces and exhibitions. Upstairs, the “big hall” hosts lectures and symposiums on an almost nightly basis. The basement workshop is filled with mock-ups, models, and countless meters of wood. The school rents various lab spaces to a coding academy, a VR company, and other start-ups. The greatest hub of activity is the small office on the lower floor. Inside, the young tutors and directors that run the school day-to-day meet constantly, often planning events and the school’s schedule on a weekly or daily basis. The conversation is intense, vigorous, and constant. No one in the room is over 40.
The KhSA serves a unique population—of its first class of eleven students, ten are women. The students range in age from 18-to-44, many with families and children. Everyone in the first year class is Ukrainian, but the school is in the planning stages of an international master’s program, which they hope to introduce in the coming years to attract students from around the world to study in Ukraine.
The KhSA is a new type of architectural education in Ukraine. The school’s statement of purpose is to “prepare a future generation of professional responsible architects and urbanists who will implement spatial changes in Ukraine and will create a quality environment with an emphasis on modern technology solutions, community challenges, and new ideas.” A workshop earlier this summer at the school focused on rehousing some of the nearly 1.5 million internally displaced Ukrainians who have fled the Eastern conflict zone near the Russian border. The school’s founder, Oleg Drozdov, sees training architects to tackle the real-world problems of the Ukrainian context as his young institution’s mandate. Drozdov leverages relationships from his successful practice to identify organizations, municipalities, and projects that could benefit from a relationship with the school.
To celebrate the first year of their newly established bachelor’s program, program director Kuba Snopek and his colleagues decided to hold a public exhibition and architectural education symposium. Our practice, Outpost Office, was invited to lead a seminar that would work with students to curate, design, and fabricate the exhibition, Open/Work.
We quickly discovered that KhSA’s first class was a prolific one. We began by asking the students to collect every single piece of work they had produced and arrange them on the floor of the big hall. Over the next few hours, our students assembled an immense landscape of work, including compositional studies, material experiments, construction details, and modest houses that concluded their studio studies. After a conversation about the work, we asked the students to sweep through the school again, gathering tools, books, posters and any other ephemera that was significant to them. We explained that we were seeking answers to a deceptively simple question: What makes an architecture school?
In many ways, our approach to this seminar and exhibition draws inspiration from previous research work on organizational and material systems of open-air markets and bazaars. Starting in 2014 as a Fulbright Fellow in Ukraine, Ashley became fascinated with architectural logic of organization, tectonics, and display methods found in Ukrainian markets. In 2016 she led “Bizarre Bazaar,” a travel seminar with students from the University of Michigan’s Taubman College to study these environments and make legible their design modalities of organization, governance, and logistics.
Like all start-ups, the KhSA works with limited resources. In this spirit, the exhibition utilizes inexpensive materials typical of bazaars and markets in Ukraine—white metal grating, glossy white tiles, and generic LED lights—along with the bazaars’ highly curated organizational approach to display.
The white metal grating used as the exhibition’s primary material is also erected by bazaar vendors to densely suspend their goods. Students worked collaboratively to explore organizational methods and detailing more often associated with museum storage than acts of display. Objects in the floating archive are arrayed to produce micro-narratives that celebrated significant accomplishments of their first year. The exhibition not only included student work, but items borrowed from around the school including lecture posters, books, pencils, ✖️ ‘s (for Ха́рків), pillows, hard hats, woodworking tools, and at least one concrete whale. Ultimately, the exhibition is a moment to reflect on a remarkable milestone before another important “first” arrives… second year.
This project would not have been possible without the supporting institutions that funded our research in Ukraine the last five years, including the Knowlton School of Architecture at the Ohio State University, University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the Fulbright Program, the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, and the KhSA.