This spring I travelled to Kiev to take part on the CANActions International Architecture Festival with my fabulous friends from Urban Forum Almaty. When I wasn’t lounging at the ‘post-industrial chic’ festival in trendy Podil, I was strolling the city trying to make sense of a city that in small doses is exhilarating, and in large doses can result in a severe headache. Look with a tourist’s eye and you see golden domes…. Look with an urbanist’s eye and you see something far more complex going on.
My fellow panelists and I, skeptical that we would be able to rouse a disused factory full of young architects on the subject of ‘Architecture as a Political Manifestation’, were pleasantly surprised. A raft of energetic young Ukrainians approached me once the panel ended to discuss the politics of public space, complexity theory, the financialisation of housing and everything in between. The creative, irreverent spirit of young Ukranians is spirited. But the unruly, sometimes hostile, city they are up against is a formidable foe.
Kiev is a city where anything goes. And that anarchy is written into its very fabric, and built into its walls. Rather than the tight urban logic we might expect, straitjacketed by its Soviet-imposed form, we find a city where every attempt at control sees wildness and whim escape at the edges. In may ways this whimsical spirit is a refreshing change to a visitor, especially to urbanists trained on the restrained, chic logic of the Scandinavian city form.
It is wild. Unruly. At a new restaurant called ‘The Last Barricade‘ your hostess will waltz you past displays of “Ukrainain cheese!” and artefacts from the revolution, then sit you at a bar that begins to move sideways into a secret chamber…. I had a similar reaction to the (delicious) neon green eggs benedict I was served at hip brunch hangout ‘My Lovely Uncle‘.
But while that wildness can be exhiliarating, the impression the urbanist within me was left at the departures terminal was one of a rich cityscape papered over with increasingly opportunistic development, thanks to the dysfunctional system of urban development that underlies it.
Here are five snapshots and trends to look out for if you are exploring the city.
If there is one image that sums up the city for me, it is not Kiev’s iconic golden domes. It is those balconies. One of the initial challenges in getting a sense of Kiev’s architecture is only partly that most of it has either been demolished and replaced with a pastiche re-enactment, or that it is draped in a brash advertisement. If it escapes these two fates, it has likely to have received the ‘boxing in’ treatment.
The materials vary – often PVC plastic boxes are balanced on top of old balustrades. This customisation of buildings might not be unexpected and is found across the region. In many ways it is a reaction to Soviet forced ‘publicness’ across the region – a grasp to reclaim a few extra metres of valuable public space to house a growing family. But while in many other post-socialist cities it is the pre-fab ‘khruschevki’ that receive this treatment, in Kiev this extends to some of the city’ finest heritage. It even goes for some of Kiev’s finest art nouveau facades.
2. The Monster of Podil
The ‘monster’ is an unmistakeable canary-yellow building near Kontraktovaya Ploschad. In the midst of the flat whites and gourmet hot dogs of Podil – Kiev’s new hipster heartland – the monster stands as a reminder of who really gets things done here.
The story goes that the monolithic structure was built with no permission by a confident local oligarch with no permission for the several additional floors. When the political winds changed and he fell out of favour, the building ground to a halt and remains an empty shell in the ensuing limbo.
It strikes me as something you could only get away with in Kiev.
Continuing the trend, just downstream of this study in canary is the so-called ‘oligarch ghost town‘ of Vodvizhnka. It has gained an unlikely fame as the subject of a number of media articles . Built by hubristic developers in the frenzy of the years before the global economic crisis, the £85 million redevelopment of a historic area with mock 19th-century pastel town houses now lies largely empty due to the collapse in demand – a far cry from the workshop-lined streets that were traditionally home to local craftsmen.
Walking through the neighbourhood certainly feels eerie. Gleaming signs welcome you into suspiciously empty cafes and beauty parlours. It feels like a film set, and indeed it is reportedly a popular backdrop for wedding photo shoots. A warning against the excesses of oligarch-led regeneration.
3. Underground palaces
But not the ones you might think. Soviet cities were renowned for the metro lines built as ‘palaces for the people’ as we in the West were rolling out the tarmac for the age of the private car. The Kiev metro is particularly spectacular.
I have written elsewhere about the important role played by the small-scale retail in the underpasses (“perekhods”) that link those palaces together. However in Kiev, they have taken this one step further. The Soviet-era underpasses have been further excavated to expand into cavernous underground shopping malls.
The most spectacular one lies underneath the famous Maidan Square. In an ironic twist, I was told that the shops in the underground Globus Mall at Maidan did not close throughout the entire Maidan revolution in 2014 – an event viewed as one of the great anti-establishment uprisings of our times. Telling.
4. An iconic Mikrorayon
The building block of Kiev, like many other post-Soviet cities, is the ‘mikrorayon‘. The common habit of calling these ‘sleeping zones’ (‘spalniye rayoni’) is misleading – they were actually designed as self-contained neighbourhood with schools, play areas, cultural centres and small shops, all laced together by metro infrastructure and tram lines.
Danish planning guru Jan Gehl made an appearance at the architecture festival this year. His popular theory of the ‘human scale’ neighbourhood is not often applied to the output of Soviet-era planning.
This might go for the vast parks and central boulevards built for military parades. However I would argue that whoever dreamt up the ‘mikrorayon’ was a step ahead of Gehl and his colleagues. The ‘kruschevki’ blocks along the shores of the Dnieper may today be looking a little shabby, but the careful layout of the districts – a transit-oriented, walkable layout with ample green space – is the stuff of the the progressive masterplans of today. Walking round Kiev’s quietly iconic ‘Rusanivka’ district, public life is still very much thriving, even if the lack of maintenance means it is not among the most desirable corners of real estate in the city.
5. Making the case for Kiev’s modernist architectural heritage
Given Ukraine’s strategic and industrial importance to the Soviet project, the city was gifted a number of Soviet modernist gems. There has been uproar over the destruction of ornate Soviet-era mosaics in a quest for ‘de-communisation’ amid rising political tensions.
And what is replacing it? Ornament. Newly built high-rises are monuments to ornament – all curves, embellishments and mirrors, an emphatic rejection of the clean lines of the modernist tradition.
A young photographer I met during the festival is on something of a one-man crusade to convince a reluctant nation that modernist heritage is still heritage, despite all of the baggage the Soviet project brings with it in the country – his own Ukrainian Modernism project tells the story much better and more beautifully than I can.
There is an ongoing campaign by architectural enthusiasts to save the futuristic ‘flying saucer’ near Lybidskaya metro. It was once a Soviet scientific institute and library. Today it looks rather sad, is swamped by the Ocean Mall built next door, and threats to the high-rise building that accompanies the saucer. Hopes are it can be transformed into a Science Museum. However the ordinary Ukrainians I spoke with did not seem particularly concerned about its future – “let them demolish it… it’s so ugly”.
The Hotel Salute, a prominent landmark designed by architect Abraham Miletsky, is also worth a look for enthusiasts – venture inside to experience the time warp. As is the Memory Park, a cemetery up on a hill on the outskirts of the city, its smooth curves designed by the same man in the 1960s in a bid to help people deal with the psychological trauma of death.
Telling Kiev’s story…
Kiev is not all doom, gloom and corruption – the three separate botanical gardens create the sort of oasis in the city that I have rarely found elsewhere in the region. I also stumbled across the vast, traffic-clogged Kreschatyk boulevard as it was pedestrianised on Sundays – enabling mothers with prams and strolling couples to reclaim the street for the weekend. And the city’s ‘hipster revolution‘ is still at the stage where the novelty is welcomed rather than resented.
However if there is one refrain that I heard in the city, it was – “please will you tell people how disastrous the city is”. And here is the problem. Both before and since the dramatic Maidan revolution of 2014, the West has put Kiev in a different box from the ‘stans’ – somewhere more European, more regulated, a bit more ‘like us’. However every story I heard was a close echo of those I heard in the authoritarian ‘stans’.
One young Ukrainain I spoke with who lived in Minsk (capital of the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’ and a place that is ‘at least one revolution behind the rest of us‘) told me that life was significantly easier to live out in the Belarusian capital than in his home city.
Even in a short trip, I really got the sense that even the most resilient Kievans had really started to feel insulted by who is included and excluded from the spoils of what could be a truly spectacular city. When I optimistically pointed out that at least Kiev managed to survive the mass cull of trams in the region in the early 2000s, the response was stories of trams stalled on daily commutes after expensive cars were lef parked across the tracks with impunity.
Ultimately cities thrive on chaos, which is what makes them so endlessly fascinating. But Kiev needs wresting from the grip of the oligarchs before more of its heritage is destroyed. A country’s politics are often written into the fabric of its cities, and Kiev’s urban development is causing some to ask how much has changed since the drama of Maidan?
So this is me just telling a little of that story.