Staff and students of a Ukrainian architecture school have restarted classes in temporary facilities and are creating emergency housing in Lviv after they “desperately fled” the besieged city of Kharkiv at the start of the war.
“We left Kharkiv on the first day of the war, on February 24,” said the school’s deputy vice-chancellor Iryna Matsevko speaking from the school’s temporary premises at the National Academy of Arts in Lviv, around 800 kilometres to the west of Kharkiv.
“We heard explosions,” she added. “I still remember this sound. We were stuck in a traffic jam. People desperately fled the city in cars.”
“What we can do best is to educate the younger generation”
A group of around 15 staff and students are now located in Lviv, with the rest of the school’s 40 students and 25 faculty expected to join over the next two months.
In an exclusive interview, Matsevko and the school’s co-founder Oleh Drozdov explained how they are rebuilding the Kharkiv Architecture School within Ukraine while creating temporary housing for other displaced people.
“It was our decision that we want to make a strong statement and stay in Ukraine,” explained Matsevko.
“Ukraine is in need now, so what we can do best is to educate the younger generation and get together experts from Ukraine and abroad to think start to think about after the war,” she continued.
“Our teachers and researchers got a lot of offers for scholarships and positions at other institutions and architects got invitations to work in foreign offices. But for us, it is extremely important to be here and work here.”
Located in the west of Ukraine, the city of Kharkiv had a population of 1.5 million before the war. It has been heavily bombed by the Russian army, leading to the “barbaric destruction of architectural heritage”.
With no prospect of immediately returning to Kharkiv, Matsevko and Drozdov are working to establish a semi-permanent base for the Kharkiv School of Architecture in Lviv.
“It is quite a peaceful city,” explained Drozdov. “It is getting bombed from time to time, but it’s nothing compared to Kharkiv, which is completely being destroyed right now and continues every day to lose, buildings, people and infrastructure.”
“We have had to make long-term decisions for our school”
Plans for the Kharkiv School of Architecture are still in flux and its staff aim to remain in Lviv for at least a couple of years.
“Our feeling and our thoughts about school are continually changing because the situation was unclear and it’s still unclear,” said Matsevko. “Initially, we thought the war would last for a few weeks and we would immediately go back to the school in Kharkiv.”
“We wanted to make the school a platform for dialogue, discussion and projects in development, but now we, unfortunately, understand that the war will last longer, and we have had to make long-term decisions for our school,” she continued.
Drozdov and Matsevko expect the majority of its 40-strong student body, which dispersed across the country in the lead up to the war, to physically return within the next couple of months.
“We have started our academic program,” explained Drozdov. “We have already done the second week and are working out how to combine offline and online classes because several students are already in the city.”
“The school and other activities help us to keep feeling positive because are students are happy to return to school and they are going to continue – it’s our future,” added Matsevko. “We are responsible for this younger generation they rely on us, they believe in us.”
Established in 2017, the private university, like many around the world, had just restructured and was rebuilding with new programs following coronavirus disruption. However, the war has forced Drozdov and Matsevko to rethink the direction and role of the institution.
“We will develop our programme here and also the focus of school will be changed, because the school’s mission was to introduce updated approaches and methodology to architecture education,” said Matsevko.
“Now we have another mission to it to introduce new courses and discussions on post-conflict cities”, she continued. “We will adjust our programme to give more knowledge and skills to our students who will reconstruct our cities.”
“A big challenge will be to attract inhabitants back to Kharkiv”
The school will aim to educate students on a practical level to understand how the country and city of Kharkiv in particular can be rebuilt after the war.
“There will be reconstruction of the buildings the military is demolishing, and this is a quite specific type of restoration and reconstruction,” Drozdov said. “Students will also have to understand new security aspects for architecture.”
Drozdov also believes that there is potential to improve the country’s cities, which will be key to attracting people back after the war is over.
“A big challenge will be to attract inhabitants back to Kharkiv – there will need to be a huge power of motivation,” said Drozdov. “Why would people return to a city which is just 30 kilometres from the Russian border?”
“There is an opportunity to dream of a new direction – a city with new infrastructure, with new functions, with water quality, green infrastructure,” he continued. “And it will be very important to involve the inhabitants in the process of rebuilding.”
Drozdov and Matsevko also expect the school to be involved in intellectual discussions surrounding the challenges of rebuilding and maintaining connections to the city’s past.
“The Russian army is erasing memories because buildings keep memories of different periods,” said Matsevko. “It is very important to keep this memory and we have to remember the war.”
“Kharkiv has a really complex history, it was part of the Russian Empire and one of the most important Soviet cities, so this heritage is present in the city,” she explained.
“We have to keep this memory because it’s part of the city’s identity so there are intellectual challenges, which we need to discuss. It’s something invisible that will physically shape the new city.”
School and studio are creating temporary housing
Along with teaching, the school is collaborating with students and Drozdov’s architecture studio to create spaces for others arriving in Ukraine after fleeing from other parts of Ukraine.
They have converted a sports hall in Lviv Regional Sports School for Children and Youth in Stryi Park into temporary accommodation for 132 people.
“Many people are involved in this process,” said Drozdov. “We are combine building equipment to partition up the space. We do it quickly, it’s doesn’t take a lot of time. We have a small group in the office managing this process.”
To continue operating the Kharkiv School of Architecture requires funding and support from architectural academics. Details are listed on its website.
“We are facing challenges because we just moved here without any support,” explained Matsevko. “So we really need financial support for maintaining our school and our students and teachers, but also we need institutional support as we have some gaps as some tutors can’t teach now.”
Drozdov and Matsevko are participating in a webinar named The Kharkiv School of Architecture’s call for support organised by UK magazine Architecture Today on 21 April.
The war in Ukraine has forced millions of people to flee from their homes. Interior designer Katerina Kovalenko told her story of escaping the country in the early hours of the morning to Dezeen.
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