Dmytro Malakov is a noted Ukrainian ethnographer, expert on Kyiv history, author of a number of guidebooks, albums, and monographs. The following is his interview with Den’s Summer School of Journalism, concerning Soviet architectural absurdities in Kyiv, including high rises and the ill-famous Stalinist baroque.
This interview lasted for more than two hours, with Summer School of Journalism students posing questions concerning Soviet realities, something they could only try to imagine because they were born after the USSR’s collapse: Kyiv ruins after WW II, the way the city started being rebuilt, its surviving architecture, and above all, what made the Ukrainian high rises so different compared to US skyscrapers and how could Kyiv’s ancient environment be preserved.
Maria SEMENCHENKO: “Architecture has always abided by the sociopolitical situation. It was monumental under the Soviets, meant to impress the man in the street. Medieval architecture was mostly in terms of defense. What about Kyiv today? What architectural trends would you single out?”
“The sociopolitical foundations changed, as did the political system, and this society entered a phase for which it was not prepared. Today’s architects are people raised and educated under the socialist system with its command economy, when anything that happened had to happen in keeping with set procedures. Ukraine became independent and everything had to be started from scratch, including construction. Then came time for free enterprise and then one could build whatever could be built if one had enough money. It was then Kyiv architecture began to change for the worst.
“Until the mid-1950s, all construction projects were funded by government-run enterprises and agencies that were allowed to have central budget deductions. Even then Soviet architecture looked weird. The ruling communist party didn’t bother to solve such problems; there were lots of other issues on the agenda. At the time the architects were free to make their designs the way they chose. Until the 1930s, the main trends copied those prevalent in Europe: constructivism, cubism, and free-for-all design. But then the ruling party started getting control of all industries and arts. The ranking nincompoop functionaries started by destroying private ownership in the agricultural sector, after pressuring the intelligentsia in the technical sector (1929-30). Followed the 1932-33 Holodomor. They held the rural populace by the neck and proceeded to pressure the creative intelligentsia in 1937, then focused on the Soviet military in 1938. As a result, Soviet architecture was dominated by patterns devised by the ruling party before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Western European constructivism was now taboo. It was replaced by Stalin’s baroque (popularly known as barrackque, from [prison camp] barracks). Eventually, good old, mostly classic, styles started being allowed.
“Soviet architecture entered a new phase after the end of WW II. Now the classic monumental constructivist trends that were predominant in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union before the war were out of fashion. Now the [Soviet] architects were assigned the task of finding something new, something Soviet and better than what was being practiced in the accursed imperial capitalist West. By the late 1940s Kyiv had a thriving ceramic industry when bricks started facing a strong competitor, ceramic tiles. At the time trainloads of trophies were coming from the defeated Third Reich to Kyiv. Among other things, they contained big Spanish baroque albums. Nikita Khrushchev was shown them and said he liked them. He ordered postwar reconstruction along those lines, as evidenced by postwar Khreshchatyk Street, the Ukrainian capital’s main thoroughfare, especially by the buildings round the Passage. The architects were eventually made to believe that such designs were germane to Mazepa’s baroque.
“Under Ivan Mazepa, this Ukrainian baroque was applied to churches built way back in Kyivan Rus’, including St. Sophia’s Cathedral, Dormition and St. Michael’s cathedrals. At the turn of the 1950s, Soviet authorities ordered this baroque applied along the lines of socialist realism. The result was what any architect in the West would describe as ridiculous, I mean the ‘free-for-all’ style. Kyiv intellectuals would laugh at the sight of construction projects by the Passage. Those first architectural monstrosities became popularly known as ravings of a mad pastry cook. They looked like cake ornamental tops of whipped cream. At the time the learned part of our society refused to accept them. But then the architects in market demand decided to use frills en masse, trying to keep pace with trends in the West, except that such construction projects were funded by local housing authorities, whereas major ones on Khreshchatyk St. were funded by the city budget.
“In 1954, the [ruling communist] party came up with this slogan: ‘Architectural Frills No More!’ Khrushchev wanted housing construction projects en masse, to be funded under a separate central budget appropriation clause, rather than using the [meager] budget of the pertinent government agency. He wanted apartment buildings erected using standard cheap designs. Previously, the architect adhered to a certain style, but each housing project turned out to look individual. Then they adopted a five-story design because more than five floors required an elevator under set standards, and such a project would cost more. There appeared bathroom units including the toilet and in some cases the [small] kitchen had a [tiny] corner shower.
“That way architecture simply ceased to exist and the Academy of Architecture was renamed the Academy of Construction and Architecture. At the time each standard construction project had nothing by way of ornament and architectural expression. Apartment buildings throughout the Soviet Union were planned and looked the same and architecture as a creative field of endeavor became extinct. When it became necessary to design public buildings, each such design had to differ from the next, have a regional touch, yet ferroconcrete and panels were invariably employed. As a result, the Palace of Sports, for example, looked exactly like any given industrial facility.
“After the planned economy was discarded, followed by the grabbadization campaign, the managers of all such facilities privatized them. More often than not, the new owner would destroy the facility and the urban architects could now make their own designs the way they saw fit or as commissioned by the customer. Still, they were products of the old education system and they couldn’t immediately adopt modern approaches. This creative helplessness, unpreparedness, inability to apply one’s talent had very sad consequences. High rises started being built en masse, including homes and offices, without knowing the architectural foundations that had never been taught [under the Soviets]. To quote from [the first president of Ukraine] Leonid Kravchuk, now we had what we had. I have visited the United States three times, each time staying for a month and a half, and I have my view on their skyscrapers. [Under the Soviets] we were taught that they were wrong, that we didn’t need that kind of architecture, yet each high rise I saw was a model of architecture, in the sense that there were no unnecessary frills.
“After Ukraine became independent, memorial sites that were of the utmost importance for the national identity were restored – I mean the golden-domed St. Michael’s and the Dormition Cathedral [the latter on the Lavra Cave Monastery grounds, blown up by the Reds before they had to retreat from Kyiv and would then blame the Nazi occupation authority. – Ed.]. This heralded the revival of national consciousness; it was a very important and correct move.”
“It is interesting to note how high rises came to be [in the Soviet Union]. Leonid Utiosov [then a pop star from Odesa] once said that for the Soviet people notions such as saxophone and skyscraper were symbols of capitalism. When the Soviet versions of skyscrapers started being erected in Moscow, in the early 1950s, each was referred to as high rise because the word ‘skyscraper’ was taboo. The fact remains that those Soviet high rises were designed after the Chicago skyscrapers in the early 1920s. That was a step back because the US projects with their ornamental components were twenty years old and then the practice was abandoned as the US architects realized that what made a skyscraper beautiful was proportion and precise correlation between the height, width, depth, color, tissue, and facade. Their skyscrapers look different now, yet each remains a model of taste and aesthetics, something our practicing architects can only dream about, in Kyiv anyway. What is happening to Kyiv architecture is strongly reminiscent of what was happening in the US, in the late 1920s. This is strange, considering that there is no Iron Curtain and our architects are free to travel across the ocean to enrich their experience. Well, we have what we have.
“Speaking of Kyiv architecture, the master plan remains to be officially approved. The former Mayor, Oleksandr Omelchenko, authorized what was termed as consolidation of urban development and some of the local architects promptly came up with proposals, saying look at these two buildings, they are still in good shape, but the two-story one between them is not; it should be torn down and replaced by a modern structure. Other more experienced and unbiased architects had their reservations: you can build a new structure, but you must abide by the blue line. The blue line is the line of the eaves and the red line indicates sidewalk construction, so that the general architectural style germane to Kyiv could be preserved. This style implies the so-called tape/stripe planning, with the structures kept in the same style, as is the case with Budapest, Paris, and London where the historical heritage is preserved with jealous care. There one can’t build structures downtown that will be taller than the existing architectural ensemble. In Kyiv, this was silently allowed and such construction projects mushroomed. The ban on construction in public gardens and children’s playgrounds was lifted the same way. What followed was a frenzied construction campaign that made Kyiv start to lose its original attractive visage.”
EVERYTHING PAID FOR, BOUGHT, AND SOLD
M.S.: “You said in an interview that there was a special committee in Kyiv, in 1912, tasked with preserving the beauty of the city. Among its members were architects and painters. Do you think such a committee would have potential today?”
“Probably, but I keep reminding myself of the way people in old Kyiv’s Podil district pronounced the first five letters of the Ukrainian alphabet: Ah-Bee-Vee-Ho-Dah [a play on words, the resultant phrase means anything to make a profit. – Ed.]. This approach is still there. I was a member of a committee for the preservation of memorial sites. This committee was supposed to ban some projects and recommend others. I was also a member of a committee tasked with the changing of place names and those of memorial sites. I had to quit [in both cases] because all activities boiled down to greasing one’s palm, because everything was being paid for, bought, and sold.”
Yaroslav NAZAR, Ivan Franko National University of Lviv: “US skyscrapers were built from a pragmatic point of view, because they wanted each such construction project to occupy a minimum of space while being large enough to accommodate homes and offices. Is it true that skyscrapers ought to be erected in Kyiv instead of preserving all those old beautiful and aesthetic baroque structures and building new ones in the same style?”
“America is a young country with a short history, where an iron with a wooden handle can be regarded as a rarity. Cities were laid out in the US on a rectangular grid. In Ukraine, this kind of planning was practiced in the townships with 90 percent Jewish residents, within the Pale of Settlement. Jews there had total control over trade and financial planning. All such business offices were located in the center and those who wanted to do some shopping had to visit the township which was the center. Likewise, in the US such townships were centers of local culture, but then the economy started gaining momentum whereas the centers remained, so they had to grow upward [by building high rises]. There is no such need in Ukraine, so all such projects parrot the US ones of the period, so one can squeeze all one can out of a given construction site. Modern architects [here] view high rises with 20 floors as construction costs, and any more floors as revenues from the whole project. There are no laws with restrictions on construction in certain areas of the city, I mean historic sites. We have a saying that law is a pillar; you can’t step over it, but you can sidestep it. Therefore, one can make a profit by lowering construction costs and building a high rise. The irony of the whole thing is that there is plenty of construction space, so building high rises appears to be nonsensical, but not from the profit-making point of view.”
IMPERIAL POLICY HAD EVERYONE INVOLVED; IT IS STILL THERE
Ya.N.: “You have mentioned Khreshchatyk St. that showed a totally different architectural style before WW II. Is it necessary to restore Khreshchatyk St. to make it look the way it did back then?”
“When [the communists] were destroying architectural sites in Kyiv, in the 1930s, Ukrainian baroque structures were the first to be demolished. That way the Soviets wanted to annihilate the Ukrainian national identity; they wanted to build a ‘single united Soviet people.’ That was clearly a political campaign. After Ukraine became independent, memorial sites that were of the utmost importance for the national identity were restored – I mean the golden-domed St. Michael’s and the Dormition Cathedral [the latter on the Lavra Cave Monastery grounds, blown up by the Reds before they had to retreat from Kyiv and would then blame the Nazi occupation authority. – Ed.]. This heralded the revival of national consciousness; it was a very important and correct move. As for Khreshchatyk St., it was destroyed in 1941, on Stalin’s orders: the Soviet land was to burn under the feet of the German occupier.
“But that didn’t make sense. After WW II, when Khreshchatyk St. started being rebuilt, it had to be returned its original architectural style because that style was authentic. The street had been narrower, cozier, a pleasant environment for a peaceful and thoughtful viewer. [Instead] after the war, the main thoroughfare was planned as parade ground for mass [communist propaganda] events. The street had to look grand, but whoever conceived the idea failed to make it an architectural reality. It was like Moscow’s Garden Ring, then Arbat, both planned to add grandeur to the Soviet capital city. Both proved complete architectural fiascos. Today one can’t even discuss the possibility of destroying everything built under the Soviets. This is simply unnecessary. Most of the structures restored in Kyiv are true gems of the national heritage.
“Back in 1803, the Senate [Synod] of the Russian Orthodox Church issued a law banning construction ‘in the Ukrainian style.’ Starting in the 19th century, churches were built in the classical style, and later in the so-called Russo-Byzantine style. That was precisely the case with the Convent of the Protection of Our Most Holy Lady in Kyiv and with the Eastern Orthodox churches in Warsaw, Vilnius, Tallinn, and Berlin. The imperial style was asserting itself everywhere. When Kyiv entered the era of revival of religious buildings, most local intellectuals were opposed to the idea. The imperial policy had everyone involved and it is still there. I believe that the Greek Orthodox Ascension Cathedral, built in the new style but with all the religious hallmarks of past Christian epochs, is one of the best such projects in the 21st century. The album Maliovnycha Ukraina (Scenic Ukraine) was published last year. It contains photos of the best samples of Ukrainian architecture.”
HOSTYNNY DVIR: AN ORNAMENTAL RATHER THAN ARCHITECTURAL FEATURE OF THE MAIDAN
Maria PROKOPENKO, Donetsk National University: “The reconstruction of the Hostynny Dvir [lit., Guests’ Yard, best translated as Shopping Arcade, located in downtown Kyiv. – Ed.] made headlines this year, with groups of concerned citizens trying to impede the project but meeting with the developer’s aggressive resistance. Would you care to comment on this? What do you think lies in store for other historic sites in Kyiv?”
“What is the Hostynny Dvir all about? It was built after a fire in Podil in 1811 that ruined everything. The structure was re-planned and the result was the Shopping Arcade in the center of Podil, as the city district’s main shopping center. The ‘guests’ were merchants. Other such shopping arcades were built in St. Petersburg and Moscow, I mean its GUM Central Department Store by Red Square. Each merchant had its own ‘row’ where his goods were on sale, but all merchants were under the same roof and it was very convenient. In the early 1980s, when [Kremlin ideologues] came up with the idea of Kyiv’s 1,500th anniversary, it was decided to restore the Fountain of Samson and the Shopping Arcade in Kyiv.
“Valentyna Shevchenko, of the Ukrproektrestavratsia [officialese acronym for Ukrainian Project Restoration. – Ed.] Institute, was the author of the Arcade’s design, relying on the original project created by William Hastie. Now premises were to be built to accommodate the Ukrrestavratsia [Ukrainian Restoration] Concern, the Derzhbud [State Construction] Library, Ukrproektrestavratsia Institute, etc. As time passed, those who supported the idea of the Hostynny Dvir as a historic site and those who regarded the structure as an architectural failure started fighting, defending their views. With all respect due our parliament, the Verkhovna Rada passed a resolution deleting the Hostynny Dvir from the list of the city’s historic sites. I am grateful to the Editors of Den for carrying my story about the building of the Verkhovna Rada and what happened to it during WW II. The original design belongs to the architect, Zabolotny, who was conferred the Stalin Prize for it. Now I can’t stop wondering about the MPs who work in that building and who have allowed to destroy his library which is at the Hostynny Dvir. I agree that the structure does not meet modern standards, but it is an ornamental rather than architectural feature of the Maidan; it serves to remind one of the original design and historical situation.”
THERE MUST BE LOTS OF MUSEUMS
Natalia PONEDILOK, Dnipropetrovsk National University: “In yet another interview you said that Kyiv badly needed museums. What kind of museum projects did you have in mind? What about the existing ones?”
“First and foremost, the museum must be new, as opposed to Soviet times, when museum guides strictly upheld the established methodology, and any deviations whatsoever were forbidden. The planning of every exhibition was checked several times and confirmed. Items on display were from a given museum’s collection, not from source collections. All over the world it is an accepted practice that a permanent exhibition cannot occupy more than three-quarters of a museum’s area, because the residents of the city in which this museum is located cannot visit it every day.
“The Museum of Science and Technology in Chicago is a good example. They change/update one-third of their exposition every quarter of the year. Each resident, let alone tourists, is kept informed about such changes. In other words, the interests of the general public are kept in mind. At the Kyiv History Museum, we used source collections, the Air Force staged its exhibit, and the Israeli embassy organized the Jewish Poster exposition. People are attracted by such museum arrangements and is often asked how often one has visited that museum. That’s publicity, on the one hand, and on the other hand, this practice adds to the museum’s revenues. Each museum has to exist relying on proceeds from periodical exhibits.
“There must be lots of museums, lots of art galleries with solo artist and collector exhibits. The government tried to take over the Kyiv History Museum in the early 2000s, for purposes best known to the Cabinet. Under Leonid Kuchma, a directive was issued, ordering the Kyiv History Museum transferred from the non-residential premises to the Ukrainian House [former Vladimir Lenin Museum. – Ed.]. Last year, after long debates, we were allowed to use an unfinished construction project near the Teatralna Metro station. We placed the most important items on display on two floors and kept the rest for exhibits. Now the museum is making a profit by staging such exhibits, with the emphasis on Kyiv history, of course. I believe that’s a normal process, and I repeat that there must be lots of museums.”