Ukrainian architect Oleg Drozdov talks about building at the time of war
by Vladimir BelogolovskyAug 19, 2022
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by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Apr 07, 2022
One month into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I reached out to Oleg Drozdov (b. 1966), one of Ukraine’s top architects, the leader of the architectural studio Drozdov&Partners, which he founded in 1997 in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city after its capital Kyiv, and co-founder of the Kharkiv School of Architecture, KHSA in 2017. The privately funded and independent institution, the first and only such architecture school in Ukraine, is licensed to award Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Architecture and Urbanism. Due to the ongoing war, which brought so much death and destruction to this European nation—according to The New York Times, four weeks after the Russian invasion, more than 1,000 civilians lost their lives, 3.5 million refugees left the country, 12 million Ukrainians are on the move (a quarter of the country’s population), and many cities and villages are reduced to rubble—the school moved east to Lviv near the Polish border.
In the following interview over Zoom between New York and Lviv we discussed the current safety situation in Ukraine, the role of architects in helping refugees, developing guidelines for post-war Ukrainian cities, the exciting process of educating young people, what makes Kharkiv a utopian city, and a phenomenal future that awaits Ukraine after the war. We spoke in Russian, the first language for both of us. When I asked the architect whether his school needs help now. He said, “Get involved. Visit us online and see what we are up to.”
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Before the Russian invasion on February 24, which already has become one of the darkest dates in this century’s history, you lived, practiced, and taught in Kharkiv. You are now in Lviv. Are you safe?
Oleg Drozdov: (OD) Lviv remains a relatively safe place. We are here because some of our partners and professors had connections with locals through their relatives and friends. Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, Lviv has been steadily growing into one of the leading cultural metropolitan centres in the country. We were warmly welcomed here. We feel very strong solidarity expressed in just about every way. People approach us and try to help as much as they can. Our school is now being hosted by the Ukrainian Catholic University here. They offered us a rent-free space, which allowed us to resume our classes quickly, although mainly online. This is still challenging because some students must interrupt their attendance whenever they hear sirens summoning them to run into bomb shelters. That’s our new reality. Some students attend classes in person. We did experience attacks by artillery fire at the city airport and in the suburbs, but in Lviv people try to continue to go on with their lives. We are all optimists here.
VB: You mentioned that some of your students are seeking safety in bomb shelters. Does this mean that many remain in Kharkiv?
OD: Yes, some are still in Kharkiv and its region. Some students moved to Central and Western Ukraine. And even those students who are already here, can’t be fully efficient since we still can’t rely on such ubiquitous resources as a library, wood shops, lab classes, and so on. Our working environment is still challenging. Of course, we are receiving so much support from all over the world. Some of our former students and other professionals in Europe try to help the school. Many of our professors received invitations to teach at several European universities. I received job offers from various international architectural practices for architects in my studio where we had 26 architects before the war. Most of us decided to remain in Ukraine.
VB: What are some of your priorities now?
OD: We focus on helping to solve the humanitarian crisis—how to build temporary shelters, interior partitions, and furniture for refugees. And we are already thinking about what to do with so many damaged structures after the war, how to rebuild and reuse our cities. We are working on creating temporary modular housing. We develop guidelines for post-war Ukrainian cities. And we plan to engage architects from around the world. These initiatives will serve as educational projects and real-life strategies that we hope will be adopted by our city mayors and governors to identify the new challenges. And, of course, we now have new energy consumption challenges for all of Europe. We still haven’t learned our sustainability lessons from the past challenges and now we are faced with challenges of even greater magnitude. Our cities will need to be entirely restructured and rethought, not merely rebuilt. The accent will be on prefabricated architecture. In fact, panel constructions proved to be very efficient. It was this architecture that gave millions of people social mobility by improving their living conditions back in the 1960s and 1970s. I am already thinking of how to work with the damaged panel housing blocks after the war. It is important to give a second life to recycled materials and to keep a fluid trace of time and history.
I must mention that several decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was losing its resources, particularly human resources. Many professionals left for the West and a number of cultural institutions lost their importance. This trend started to turn around in recent years, especially in sectors such as IT, agrarian industry, heavy industry, mechanical engineering, etc. New cultural institutions are being created. I can see it even based on our practice—we used to work mainly on international public projects. Over the last decade or so we are able to find more such competitions and commissions in Ukraine. Our school is a good example of that. It serves as a platform for uniting professionals and accumulating knowledge and talent in producing meaningful cultural projects and initials to improve people’s lives. We are proud of these new opportunities, at least this is how it was before the war.
VB: After the war, the whole world will be looking for ways to help you to rebuild Ukraine. All top international architects will be seeking projects in Ukraine, including those architects who now closed their offices in Moscow.
OD: I hope so, but I worry about the potential colonisation. It is important to plan this process in a smart way. There are firms that may want to come for their own egotistical reasons. But they will need to engage fully with the local specialists, professionals, and authorities to better understand and collaborate on new strategies, not only individual projects. It is also important not only to rebuild the country physically but to keep building our civil society. We have been building it since the 2004 Orange Revolution; this process accelerated since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Donbas War. Our school is a product of all these political events. The war consolidated us.
VB: I heard that some of your students are now defending Kharkiv.
OD: That’s true. Two professors and two students are now in combat.
VB: Let’s talk more about your school. What was your initial intention?
OD: The idea to start a new independent architecture school first originated in 2009 when Kharkiv-based designer Yuri Ryntovt initiated such discourse. He invited me and Eugene Asse, the founding Dean of Moscow School of Architecture, MARCH, another independent school, which was created a few years later, in 2012 in Moscow. It was the time shortly after the financial crisis when it became clear that we needed a new approach to architectural education in the country. In 2011, I had a chance to serve as a co-author and critic of a semester-long project at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University in New York. It proved to be an important educational experience and model for creating our school. Then there were the events of 2014, which accelerated the need for a new course and envisioning a new Ukraine, more independent and innovative. That’s how the idea of starting a new architecture school came about.
By then many of our professional and human connections with Russia were cut off and we started to build new connections. This freedom from our past and the lack of traditions gave us a very sobber vision of something radically new. The financial support came from several Ukrainian businessmen and the concept was drafted by some of the architects in my studio. The school opened in 2017. The key idea was to envision the profession of the architect as the integrator and moderator, not merely a designer.
VB: Because the AI will take care of architectural production and maybe even design.
OD: Absolutely. So, we need to develop a clear vision of what the new architect’s role will be. This architect will have to integrate and moderate different interests, knowledge, social programs, building industries, and politics. The most important role of this new architect is to understand what needs to be done, why, how to achieve it, and who is the beneficiary. Eventually, we attracted the attention of many like-minded educators from around the world, and we dived into this exciting process of educating young people. The idea was not simply to teach history or design but to understand what architecture can offer to contemporary society. Yet, we also focus on acquiring deep technical knowledge of the profession. Swiss education became one of our models. Our main direction is a kind of radical materiality. Our students receive very direct, hands-on experience. We are preparing responsible practitioners with an emphasis on tectonics.
VB: How big is the school and what is the main language of communication?
OD: We have 25 professors and 40 students. Many of our students are receiving their second degrees with us; they come to architecture from very different backgrounds—mathematics, philology, law, engineering, and so on. Interestingly, many of them wanted to study architecture initially but they could not find a national school they could trust, which is a great honour for us. Many of these people came to our school after some years abroad. Now we have been accumulating their diverse experiences. Our main language is Ukrainian. We let some professors make their comments in Russian. And close to half of our classes are taught in English.
VB: You said that creating a new school of architecture is the most important achievement of your career. The school’s website says: “Our ambition is to become the best school of architecture in Eastern Europe, to start a new tradition in Ukrainian architecture, and to train a new generation of architects and urbanists.” What is the school’s mission?
OD: Every school has its mission, as should be in the case of every nation. Let’s be honest, Ukraine is a developing country. Therefore, it is important to build a certain foundation on which Ukrainian happiness, so to speak, can be erected. This goal is urgent. For example, at one point, my studio had more than 70 per cent of our projects abroad. Then I decided that it was my responsibility to focus on contributing to the creation of a healthy professional climate here. The new school is a part of this goal of developing critical discourse in the profession. Sure, our distant goal is to reach the heights of some of the top British and American schools where ideas are pushed to the extreme. But at this stage, we need to focus on pragmatics. At the same time, we want to train our graduates to produce poetics of architecture. We want to facilitate the production of thoughtful, sophisticated, responsible, and straightforward architecture. We need to be grounded. That’s why our diploma projects are very specific, and everyone has a real client. Our students acquire very important communication skills to understand project briefs, interview clients, and defend their ideas in public.
VB: You mentioned MARCH in Moscow and your website lists Strelka, another independent architecture school in Moscow as a partner. Do you still work with them closely?
OD: Strelka donated to us books published by Strelka Press; yes, we are partners. But we never collaborated in terms of academic exchange or working on projects together. Our relationship with MARCH was formed mainly through a very close friendship with Dean Eugene Asse. They consulted us from the very beginning. Yet, despite our close friendship, we took a different path academically. In any case, even though we continue to have good personal connections we all understand that there will be no academic collaboration of any kind in the foreseeable future due to the ongoing war between our countries. It is inconceivable.
VB: In relation to the Russian invasion your website states: “Kharkiv School of Architecture strives to become a platform for communication and dialogue between our friends and experts from different countries except Russia to rebuild Kharkiv and other destroyed cities after the war.”
OD: We believe that all Russians are responsible for this war. Russian liberals carried their protests in a capsule, without trying to integrate, collaborate, unite, and create a civil society in a broad sense. Russians had a chance to drain the country in protests. They haven’t done that. Very few people took their protests to the streets. It is too late for that now. This country has no civil society. Our people are different fundamentally.
VB: I can hear sirens. Do you need to run?
OD: They sound from time to time. Here in Lviv, they mean that there are some attacks in the suburbs. After Kharkiv, I no longer pay much attention to them. In most other cities in the east, this would have been a signal to proceed to the bomb shelters. Here we are safe, for now. But in Kharkiv, there were 80 bombardments just last night alone.
VB: Let me ask you. You studied architecture in Kharkiv but you were born and grew up in Volgodonsk, Russia. How did you end up in Ukraine?
OD: Volgodonsk is very close to Rostov-on-Don. There is a school of architecture there, but I did not like the city. Kharkiv was almost as close geographically and my father did his Ph.D. in Chemistry in Kharkiv. That was my only connection. And then I stayed.
VB: In what language did you study in Kharkiv?
OD: In Russian. That was the common language at universities in Ukraine at that time.
VB: I read that you refer to Kharkiv as a utopian city. How so?
OD: It has a history of being a very ambitious city. Just think of it, it was a provincial town when in the first few years of the 19th century the initiative to build a new progressive university was expressed. It was unimaginable in Imperial Russia, but that was achieved. Throughout its history, Kharkiv tried to build the most utopian visions. It was still a small city when in 1919 it became the first capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and it remained so for 15 years. That led to erecting Gosprom or the House of the State Industry by Sergey Serafimov. Built in 1928, it became the second tallest building in Europe and the tallest in the Soviet Union. This constructivist masterpiece is the most ambitious urban project ever built in the USSR. The complex became an alternative centre in relation to the old city of Kharkiv. The city saw many progressive ideas realised on a grand scale. It was a true polygon for testing radically new town planning and architectural visions. New Kharkiv, a new social city, is another utopian project—a residential micro-district for the local tractor factory for 120 thousand inhabitants. This archipelago of building clusters eventually grew with other satellite neighbourhoods into a single city. Then there was a huge international architectural competition for a multipurpose 4,000-seat musical theatre, the biggest in Europe. It was never completed but the competition drew international attention. Two-thirds of all entries came from all over the world. Finally, Kharkiv’s utopian nature manifested in the fact that with just one type of prefabricated panel it was possible to build a city for half a million residents. This means that a third of all residents live in buildings built out of the same material and in the exact same way. And what is particularly amazing is that Kharkiv remains an unfinished project. It has huge potential because none of these utopias were ever completed. Kharkiv is an open-ended city.
VB: What will Ukraine be like after the war?
OB: Our cities will be rebuilt. It will be a country of new industries. World brands will be partnering with local manufacturers. I hope the post-war world will be more careful about seeking their collaboration with authoritative and dictatorial regimes, and America and Europe will be looking for alternatives. Already we have become a new country. We proved our democratic nature to the world. This war, which already going on for eight years, is the fight for our collective freedom and for the personal freedom of every Ukrainian. We have a phenomenal future, both for our country and the architecture of public and cultural projects. We are going through an incredible resistance movement now. The war will push further reforms in education, economics, and all spheres. We will push for the realisation of our country’s full potential. Now that so many people fled their cities, we need to motivate them to come back to rebuild. This will be very hard. But we will rebuild our national identity and each and everyone’s personal identity. We have a supercharged young generation that is now coming through the experience of the army and volunteer movement. We will be building a new place for a just society. Most importantly, our people care for one another and we share incredible solidarity.
Click here to know more about Kharkiv School of Architecture.
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