This year, the program of the Traveling Docudays UA festival includes the film Audience Emancipated: The Struggle for the Emek Movie Theater. The history of Istanbul protests is not just a struggle for an iconic place which is important for the citizens. These protests were political, in a wider sense, because they were concerned with the question, Who owns the urban space? They inspired us to start a conversation about the Ukrainian context. By involving local experts, artists, urban researchers, and activists in the discussion, we want to study how public spaces develop in Ukrainian cities, and who influences the changes in public space.
The discussion program in Kharkiv included a conversation about the heritage of modernist architecture and its preservation. The discussion was moderated by Yevhenia Hubkina, an architect, researcher of architecture, co-founder of Urban Forms Center. We talked to Yevhenia about the problems faced today by Ukrainian cities and, in particular, about the fate of our modernist heritage.
Why, in your opinion, is the heritage of Soviet modernism particularly endangered today?
I actually constantly find myself facing this dilemma of how to interpret it. On the one hand, we all play the role of advocates of this heritage, and it would be more convenient to tell the aggressors who are attacking the modernist architecture that it is “just” architecture. It is utilitarian, or it is art beyond politics, so it should not be touched, it doesn’t threaten you in any way. Today, in the discussions with the Institute of National Memory, when the conversation involves architecture, they claim that they are not touching it, that there are no problems at all. On the one hand, it is one of the tactics for defense against the aggressor, but on the other hand, we are losing a very important element, because architecture is much more politicized than other areas of cultural activity. So I think that its destruction is actually related to the values it promotes, with the ways of living and thinking, the types of activities which it directs, organizes and regulates. Of course, there is a problem that somebody might not like something from the aesthetic perspective, but it is secondary. There are also some purely economic problems, when it is easier or more profitable to build something new. But the discrimination by political characteristics exists.
In addition, most of these buildings which are endangered are cultural institutions that were designed as public spaces. In the context of the film about the Emek movie theater, film theaters are the focus.
Yes, I think that modernism as a whole belongs to the discriminated group. We can construct many hypotheses about why it is happening. But one of the factors is, of course, its main function: when you are developing the strategy and the purpose of some action as an architect, function is what allows you to implement this purpose in particular. The functions of a certain object determine the values it promotes. The essence of buildings as “sociocultural everyday life” is aimed at socially useful infrastructure, including for communication, community development, horizontal distribution of power, so that people could talk to each other as much as possible. I think that in the times of my parents’ generation, since 1991, people heard all the time that we do not need these functions at all, that they are ineffective, uninteresting, that these are retrograde functions. I remember how many people were glad that film theaters were shutting down. But people are not the main agents of decision making here, in contrast to the government and the business. For example, I know about a study by the Lithuanian theorist of architecture Marija Dremaite, who analysed campaigns that aim to discredit modernist architecture and concluded that most of these campaigns are supported by developers and big business in order to destroy a certain building. These buildings are described in negative terms, messages about their ineffectiveness, uselessness, ugliness are spread, as well as the claims that they are Soviet heritage which is hostile to our history. When she looked for the origins of these ideas, she found out that they were actually funded by business.
In Ukraine, the official memory policy is also an important factor. The unwillingness to accept Soviet history as our history...
Yes, it is a set of factors. However, I think that we always make the economic factor secondary in our discussions. But in fact, it is decisive. In the film about the Emek movie theater, it was clear that the government was supporting the interests of big business, and it is the business that makes the final decisions. I think that we should pay attention to the role of big business in our cities, because we underestimate its impact: we think that it is soft, that it is only about money, supermarkets, selling a product, “business is good,” “give freedom to business,” and so on. And we cannot see this monster which engulfs or incorporates culture, a whole sphere of our activity. And modernist architecture is mostly cultural buildings.
Still from Audience Emancipated: The Struggle for the Emek Movie Theater
Please tell us more about the situation in Kharkiv.
In Kharkiv, socially and culturally significant buildings are now endangered; because the buildings with everyday purposes have disappeared long ago. Both reforms and media campaigns will now facilitate funding cuts for these buildings. Because the media also constantly reproduce the opinion that these buildings are unprofitable, that they are impossible to heat, the directors of these film theaters constantly say that they want efficiency and to put these buildings up for rent. For me, the big problem in Kharkiv is the Opera and Ballet Theater. I realize that heating it costs enormous money, that it was built of natural materials which need care and maintenance. But we cannot assess everything that is part of our culture only according to its efficiency, and, even better, its “heat efficiency.” We have developed incredible criteria which are used to destroy numerous buildings. They are transformed and changed. On the other hand, the Opera Theater is managed by the Regional State Administration. All the time, we hear that it is too big, and that we need to do something about this building, which means putting its rooms up for rent. And this means that it will turn into a monster made of many separate parts, a store here, a cafe there, a salon somewhere else. When we talk about reform, it is all about efficient maintenance, but it is not aimed to create contemporary plays, change the approach and the content of the theater. Making the Opera attractive for new audience, making it speak a contemporary language and engage the problematic aspects of our society. The request here sounds like, “Give us more money, and we will make more of the same performances with the approach of the 1980s.” And, at the same time, there is a need to reduce the costs of building maintenance. It is very sad.
Another aspect is about city planning. Kharkiv is a socialist city, and it means that it is, fist of all, not a dense city. Because density is a characteristic of a capitalist city. What do the majority of urbanist publications promote? That we need a dense city. I wonder where this thesis comes from, because it actually benefits developers greatly. We need to determine what is good and what is bad for the Ukrainian society. The privilege of socialist cities is now stigmatized as something boring, uninteresting, dangerous, depressive, gray, monotonous. For a time, one of the slogans of Kharkiv city planning was, “Save emptiness!” Empty spaces is our privilege and amenity which we own. The uncommercialized, unrented space. For Kharkiv, empty zones are a sensitive issue, because we don’t even notice when we lose this space. The local government treats every green zone, including parks, as reserve land for future construction. And, of course, this involves corruption schemes, too. When all of it is built over, we will see, as we joke, the “Make me Kyiv” approach. Because then, after the empty spaces, the “non-empty” spaces will be used. Then the first to go will be the heritage, because it is an amenity inherited by city residents.
Discussion “Kharkiv Modernism: Architectural Heritage and Memory Politics”
You have spoken many times about the lack of our own methodology in Ukrainian scientific studies. About the formation of schools and studies which do not take into account the local context and just ape the methodology of western or Russian schools.
Yes, recently I’ve been noticing, both in research and in school programs, the copying or partial adoption of methodologies developed in a different context. In the end, we have a kind of chaos, “We are in favor of everything good and against everything bad.” It won’t work. As trivial as it sounds, any scientific study starts with problematics, with formulating a problem. And I see a widespread tendency in contemporary science and urban studies that we call a problem something that is not a problem in our context. It is important to understand and create this hierarchy of problems before we start solving something. It always seems to me that we are trying to solve problems which are not the most important. As a result, we constantly run into contradictions which emerge when we try to apply a certain theoretical model to a different country.
In studies about Ukraine or post-Soviet space in general, or about our society, it is often the case that Ukrainian researchers copy the approaches and methods of researchers from, for example, the US or Russia or any other place where they have been, read something, or become part of some school. Either completely or, as in the case of Russia, by appropriating the method but replacing, substituting other (our own) elements. I believe that this is a wrong way to do it. There are thousands of methods, they can be combined, mixed, new ones can be developed, depending on our goals and problems here and now. Then we, the scientists, will help the society and also be accountable to it. By thoughtlessly reproducing the patterns, expectations of other scientific schools, we are not trying to understand the reality and solve the problems, but to solve someone else’s problems. And, maybe, we are getting further away from the actual state of affairs, cementing the mistakes. We hide, fail to see interesting, important phenomena and urgent problems here and now. Ukraine is an interesting field of research, and the Ukrainian researchers in particular, who have the experience of living here, who are engaged in local political and everyday life, could say a new word in the global science, become new blood, reveal a number of crises which exist not only here, but everywhere in the world. And not just humbly ape others, dissolving in the mass of authoritative researchers.
It is a huge responsibility of scientists to the society that we don’t have our own scientific schools, our own methodology, our own institutes which develop it. This is the only way to understand the contemporary social challenges.
Today, we can observe a change in the work of an architect which you aptly called “the death of the architect.” It is partially related to the participative element of city planning and the involvement of community in decision making. Could you say more about this?
In my opinion, the work of an architect in contemporary Ukraine is understood on the level of the 19th century, when architects were these patriarchs who had small bureaus which they managed personally, and they created architecture. There is an old dilemma, Is architecture about ethics or aesthetics? Modernist architecture is, of course, rather about ethics, about the social order, it is an attempt to respond to the social crises in the society and to resolve them. Of course, these decisions fall behind, because years pass before solutions are found, and when they are, they are already outdated, they are criticized and deconstructed. A patriarch with the capital “A”, of course, prefers aesthetics, he makes the decisions by himself. He doesn’t care about the participative element in city planning. During our discussion in Kharkiv, the conversation turned to some authoritative figures who “know better.” It’s a trap. I think that it should become common sense that nobody knows better. The architect’s job is a service job, they always serve someone. But, for some reason, they either serve the power or the big business. Instead, we should demand from architecture to serve the interests of citizens, and not in a declarative way, but in reality. To do that, they need to work with the people. Speaking about “the death of the architect,” I think that we have built too much. Building is for the 20th century, and I don’t understand what else we can build. I don’t think of architecture as an art, what is the most important to me is its social function. We have built with excess, and now we need to decide what to do with all that and who makes decisions about it. When we talk about cinemas, theaters, these are public buildings. Even the terminology defines their function, they belong to the city residents.
Conversation by Daryna Nikolenko.
Photo credit: Chrystyna Pashkina