Activists have had enough of historic buildings neglect
On July 12, Dmytro Soloviov spent all night at the Soviet modernist building “Kvity Ukrainy,” (“Flowers of Ukraine”) in Kyiv. It wasn’t a party, nor a nighttime adventure. Soloviov was there to protect it from being demolished by a real-estate developer.
“This building has historical, cultural, and architectural value, it is a bright representation of modernist architecture,” Soloviov told the Kyiv Post. “But only in Ukraine is modernist architecture actively destroyed,” he said.
According to the development plan, the building was set to lose its iconic 1980s look with its distinct grapevine-covered façade and turned into office building with glass walls.
The plan outraged Kyiv residents who protested against it on July 6. And when the actual demolition started, many flocked to defend the building.
As a result of the protests, the police arrested the construction site to investigate the development’s legality, but the building is still at risk. Just like many others in Kyiv.
A lot of historical architecture in the capital has no state protection and is often sacrificed in favor of big developers. At least 14 of these buildings have been knocked down since 2018.
But 2021 has been especially heated, putting eight more buildings at risk. Amid government neglect, their protection has fallen on the shoulders of activists.
“If this continues, we won’t have any architectural examples of the second half of the 20th century in Kyiv,” says Soloviov, who also runs the Ukrainian Modernism Instagram account.
It’s hard to imagine the historic Sichovykh Striltsiv street in Kyiv without its “Flowers of Ukraine.”
It was designed by the renowned Ukrainian architect Mykola Levchuk and built in 1985. The five-story structure stands out with its cascading shape and an unusual purpose: The building housed a plant research center that resembled a modern coworking space for scientists, as well as a greenhouse, flower market and an art exhibition space.
“It was like the first public space in the Soviet Union,” Kyiv lawyer and activist Dmytro Petrov told the Kyiv Post.
The building was initially owned by the state enterprise Flowers of Ukraine until it became private. For the last several decades it has been rented out. Since a grocery store moved out from the ground floor two years ago, the building has remained empty.
A fence erected around the building in early June took locals by surprise. Weeks later, the 30-year-old grapevines that have been winding around the structure’s facade started to dry out — the plant’s roots had been cut.
It turned out that the building was being prepared to be reconstructed into an eight-floor, modern glasswalled office building with a food court, gym and a co-working space.
The developer behind the project is the local company PrJSC Flowers of Ukraine. According to the Village Ukraine media outlet, the building was purchased by two private investors from the international investment fund Rockwill Group.
The July 6 “Save Kvity” protest and the public outrage online drew no reaction from the new building owners. And on July 12, heavy machinery started the demolition.
To stop the process, activists broke the fence and physically blocked bulldozers even though they had already destroyed the lower part of the atrium.
Oleksii Pyshnyi, the head of PrJSC Flowers of Ukraine and the managing partner of Rockwill Group
called activists a “group of aggressive people” who “invaded” the construction site even though the company had all the needed documents for reconstruction.
The Kyiv Post reached out to Pyshnyi for a comment but hasn’t heard back yet.
However, both the Ministry of Culture and the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Kyiv City State Administration said they didn’t authorize the developer’s plan. Both bodies are supposed to approve any plans to construct or reconstruct buildings located in a historic area, even if the building itself has no state protection status.
Though the police have arrested the building to investigate, activists continue to keep watch to prevent further deconstruction. They have also called on the authorities to give the building a protected status.
“We want to preserve the authentic facade of the building,” Soloviov says.
Even if the developer eventually loses, “Flowers of Ukraine” is just one example that points to a growing issue.
“It’s not just about one particular building, there is a systemic phenomenon and this protest is an expression of public outrage against these chaotic illegal developments,” Petrov told the Kyiv Post.
Many of the historic buildings remaining in Kyiv are private property. In most cases, they became property of new owners through corrupt privatization schemes, experts say. And these owners rarely, if ever, care about their cultural and historical value.
Petrov says demolitions of historic buildings in Kyiv intensified in 2011 when the government decided to exclude Hostynnyi Dvir (Hospitable Courtyard), a 19th century shopping center, from the list of architectural monuments, planning to open a modern shopping mall instead.
“It was one of the most notorious cases,” Petrov says.
According to Petrov, the situation with Hostynnyi Dvir is just a minor case compared to the crisis Kyiv is facing today.
At least 14 historic buildings have been knocked down in the capital since 2018. They include the 1886 bread factory, the 20th-century two-story mansion on Nyzhnoiurkivska Street and the 1940 “Radar’’ military factory.
Most of them will be replaced with apartment complexes or business centers, experts say.
Activists are also fighting to preserve at least ten other buildings at risk of being destroyed. They include the 1984 “Meridian” House of Culture, a modernist structure that was bought by ex-President Petro Poroshenko’s Roshen corporation to transform it into a new concert hall. Another one is the 1973 round-shaped market designed by well-known Ukrainian architect Alla Anyshchenko.
Architectural researcher and activist Semen Shyrochyn says that the crisis is caused by real-estate developers who aim to own property in the city center at any cost. To achieve that, companies “do whatever they want, without having their actions approved,” Shyrochyn says.
To stop developers from destroy
ing heritage, Ukraine has to protect these buildings through introducing new legislature, activists say.
Although rare, there are cases when activists have managed to save historic structures from demolition.
The most famous one was Soviet modernist “Flying Saucer.” It was in danger of being swallowed by a mall under construction behind it for over three years. But thanks to a whole movement for its preservation, the building received government protection in 2020. The new status will likely save it from the developer’s plans.
Petrov says that the official status of architectural monuments would ensure institutional protection of the buildings. “But the process itself is now complicated and can take years.”
According to Shyrochyn, more than 90% of historic buildings in Kyiv are not officially listed as monuments, which is why they lack governmental protection and risk extinction at any moment.
Petrov says there is a need to improve the procedure for obtaining the status of architectural monuments and to make it automatic when buildings reach a certain age. Shyrochyn says Ukraine can follow the example of some European countries that start protecting buildings once they pass 100 years automatically.
Until then, activists are ready to hold the line on the heritage front.
“If we stop, Kyiv will be changed beyond recognition in the nearest future,” Petrov says. “We have to fight.”