Soviet architecture worth saving?
Kyiv’s iconic Soviet-era “spaceship” building risks being swallowed up by a new mall that will soon rise near Lybedska metro station. The controversy over the mall’s construction plans has raised the question of whether examples of Soviet modernist architecture even deserve to be preserved in Ukraine.
New urban movement The Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first satellite, on Oct. 4, 1957. Less than four years later, on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s orbited earth — the first human to do so — in his Vostok spacecraft. These event put the Soviet Union far ahead in its space race with the United States at the time, but America pulled ahead by the time of the first U. S. Apollo mission moon landing on July 20, 1969.
But, throughout the 1960s, owing to its early successes, the idea of human domination of space and Soviet space achievements continued to be reflected in Soviet architecture.
The famous “Flying Saucer” was built in 1971 by architect Florian Yuriev as part of the building of the Ukrainian Institute of Science and Information. Yuriev, now 89, spoke at the Kyiv Biennale last November. His lecture was a huge success and inspired a group of activists to start a movement called Save Kyiv Modernism to preserve and protect Soviet modernist architecture in Kyiv.
Initially, the developer of the Ocean Mall, which is being built behind the Ukrainian Institute of Science and Information, and right next to the recently built Ocean Plaza Mall, pledged to renovate the Soviet building and its “Flying Saucer.”
However, the project was changed and, according to the photos, the saucer will now be incorporated in the new building as part of its entrance. Moreover, the construction of the mall will destroy the unique concert hall located inside the saucer, urban activists say.
Under current legislation, buildings constructed between 1955 and 1991 aren’t considered a part of the city’s historical or cultural heritage, and therefore aren’t protected from demolition and reconstruction — unlike historic buildings from the 18th or 19th century.
In addition, anti-soviet sentiment in Ukraine has risen since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, which saw former President Viktor Yanukovych ousted from power, Russia's seizure of Crimea and the start of the Kremlin's war on Ukraine in the Donbas. In 2015, the Ukrainian government launched a decommunization campaign in a bid to get rid of the symbols of communist rule, which resulted in a nationwide campaign to topple Lenin statues and rename Soviet-russian city, town and street names.
But architect and urbanist Oleksiy Bykov believes Soviet modernism is just as valuable as any architectural style from other historical periods.
“We need to preserve all history,” he says.
What is Soviet modernism? Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ended the era of Soviet monumental classicism with an order on Nov. 4, 1955 introducing a “Fight With Excesses in Construction” concept. New Soviet architecture was required to be practical and plain in form. All the same, architects still managed to exercise some creativity even within strict rules of Soviet architectural orthodoxy.
Some of the resulting modernist buildings have become landmarks in Kyiv, such as Kyiv Crematorium or the Salyut hotel, while others remain relatively unknown even to locals. The Save Kyiv Modernism group recently released its first map featuring 70 modernist buildings that are in various states of disrepair.
Bykov fears that, in the absence of any legal protection and state conservation policy for Soviet modernist buildings, they will become an easy target for property developers. In his opinion, urbanists, architects and developers have to work together to find a solution.
“Revitalization is a global trend that rethinks how old buildings can be converted into something new functionally, while preserving their form and cultural value,” Bykov explains. “A good example in Kyiv is Platforma, a former Soviet plant that has been turned into an art and public space.”
Soviet architecture could also be a tourist attraction, he added.
Once considered “ugly and bleak architecture,” modernism and brutalism have gained popularity, attracting scores of foreign tourists, artists, photographers, and researchers to former Soviet cities since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The obsession with abandoned and decaying post-communist infrastructure has even got its own term — “ruin porn.”
However, this has often been criticized for fetishizing the repressive Soviet regime, and glossing over the effects of economic decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Kyiv authorities are facing a swelling challenge: not enough kindergartens.
Part of the problem is just population growth. While Ukraine’s overall population has shrunk to 42 million over the past four years, Kyiv’s metropolitan area keeps growing — to about 3 million people — as people in rural areas seek better opportunities in the capital.
But part of the problem is profit-hungry developers. A longstanding city regulation requires all construction firms building residential developments to allocate 1.2 hectares for an on-site kindergarten.
Authorities and residents, however, say that this law is ignored in the interests of commercial development.
This year, Kyiv City Administration estimates that almost 3,800 children are on waiting lists to get into kindergartens, with some parents filling out kindergarten applications immediately after their children are born.
Kyiv authorities are mulling a stricter rule that requires developers to place a kindergarten on the first floor of every residential building, according to the Ministry of Regional Development and Construction.
It’s difficult for Kyiv residents to know where to buy. Developers will often fool potential buyers by including social infrastructure, such as medical centers and fitness centers in plans, as well as spacious parking, schools and kindergartens.
But, once construction is finished, residents move in
to find that the promised benefits don’t materialize. The trees aren’t planted and the nearest kindergartens are out of the district.
One such instance provoked an outcry late last year, when local media reported about a scandal involving a residential complex along Solomii Krushelnytskoi Street in Kyiv’s Osokorky district.
Stroyobzor reported in November 2017 that owners who had invested in apartments under construction protested when a promised public school with swimming pool and stadium did not materialize. Instead of putting in a school, the developer, Zhitloinvestbud-ukb, planned to build two more residential buildings. The press service of Zhitloinvestbud-ukb refused to comment.
The lack of kindergartens is an even more serious problem. Currently, the most overloaded districts in Kyiv are Darnytsky and Svyatoshinsky, forcing parents into years-long waiting lists or suffering the inconvenience of having to take their child to another district. Perverse Incentives The incentives to ignore city legislation are high, since money can be made by selling apartments on the 1.2 hectares allocated for kindergartens in each building.
But even developers who do build public kindergartens run into problems. Authorities are often not in a hurry to recognize the kindergartens, as it’s expensive to fill the space with equipment, hire teachers and pay for communal payments.
“After the kindergarten has been built, the city simply refuses to consider it in the balance. Perhaps, because there is nothing to earn money from,” said Glieb Shemovniev, press secretary of constructing corporation Ukrbud.
The online news portal Minfin keeps a list of reliable construction companies in Kyiv, based on the number of residential units they’ve planned and completed. Among them are Ukrbud, Zhitlobud, Arcada, Intergal-bud and Comfort Life. However, Olena Terestchenko, a coordinating board member of the non-governmental organization Kyivske Viche, says that many of these construction companies have close ties with Ukraine’s lawmakers.
“Construction companies lobby for their interests at the Verkhovna Rada,” Teresychenko said.
“For example, the former head of Ukrbud (Maksim Mikitas) is currently a member of the Verkhovna Rada, while Intergal-bud belongs to the former deputy of the Party of Regions Vladimir Zubik.”
Whether these connections assist them or not, the bottom line is that many developers, having received land in Kyiv, don’t want to build schools or kindergartens, because they aren't profitable. Some, like Comfort Town, turn their kindergartens into private kindergartens, extracting high fees from needy parents. Making Kyiv comfortable But there is a trend that is gaining popularity — residential complexes are being built as small towns inside a metropolis. Such complexes include all the necessary infrastructure to meet the social needs of residents: health clinics, kindergartens, schools, parking space and shops. But such developments also tend to be more expensive than the average apartment in Kyiv. Schools and kindergartens will typically be private with much higher prices. For example, the tuition fee for sending a child to first grade at a school at Comfort Town, a residential complex with a total area of 40.7 hectares, is Hr 12,500 per month. Meanwhile, the average monthly salary in Kyiv is Hr 13,300. Such high prices are justified considering that building a private school can cost $10 million, Ihor Nikonov, founder of KAN Development and main shareholder of Comfort Town, said. “I do not believe that the state can do such projects. In any case, the school will not bring us profit,” Nikonov said. Such amenities are good ways to keep construction firms accountable since there is a stronger sense of community among the neighbors in such complexes, he says. “Residential complexes create a mood for people, create feedback and if the developer deceived everybody and did not plant even a single tree, this creates negative energy around,” Nikonov added. Maxim Bakhmatov, managing partner of UNIT City, a Kyiv innovation park that rents offices to tech companies, agrees. UNIT City will include two schools and two kindergartens; one set is public, the other is private. “Residents are expected to be representatives of Ukraine’s creative economy and we will continue to create an environment for them,” Bakhmatov said.
The Soviet-era "Flying Saucer" building in Kyiv is being taken over by a mall being built nearby. Photo taken on May 9 in Kyiv. (Volodymyr Petrov)
Residents of Comfort Town residential complex walk near its education center on May 22. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
Kyiv developers sometimes fool potential buyers by including social infrastructure – medical centers, fitness centers, spacious parking, schools and kindergartens in their plans – but then fail to deliver after buyers complete their purchases.