Ukrainian architect Oleg Drozdov talks about building at the time of war

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks to Oleg Drozdov about moving his office and school from Kharkiv to Lviv, rebuilding Ukraine, and designing his own house as an endless film.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Aug 19, 2022

A quick search for leading architects in contemporary Ukraine will inevitably bring you to Oleg Drozdov, the principal architect of Drozdov&Partners (formed in 1997) and a co-founder of Kharkiv School of Architecture (KHSA), the first and only private architecture school in Ukraine, in operation since 2017. Both entities were started in Kharkiv, the second biggest city in the country after its capital, Kyiv. In March I talked to the architect about the school and his vision for Ukraine after the war, and this month we discussed the move of his practice and school to Lviv, the intentions behind some of his projects, the current state of Ukrainian architecture, and who are the country’s most influential architects. A portion of our conversation follows a short introduction.

Oleg Drozdov was born in 1966 in Volgodonsk, Russia, less than 250 kilometres east of the Ukrainian border. He studied architecture at Civil Engineering Institute in Kharkiv, and graduated in 1990, following military service in the Russian Far East. Upon his graduation, Drozdov went to Sumy in northeastern Ukraine to practice architecture for two years before leaving for Prague where he attempted to pursue an artistic career as a painter, experimenting with rusted surfaces in a sort of dialogue with nature. He returned to Kharkiv several years later to restart his career as an architect.

In his earlier architectural projects, Drozdov experimented with gesso, playing with two opposing ideas — uncompromising contemporaneity and patina of time. These mostly interior design commissions included fashion boutiques and restaurants that were the first in Ukraine to incorporate frameless glazing. These strikingly modern spaces pushed the idea of transparency, openness, and exhibitionism. Eventually, his work transitioned from celebrating new and bright surfaces to what would be more agreeable with the passing of time. He continued to experiment with blurring boundaries between the house and garden, interior and exterior, and finding commonalities between private and public, commercial and public spaces. His current focus is on returning architecture to its essence by underlining buildings' tectonics.

VG Horse Club an equestrian club in Kharkiv, Ukraine |Oleg Drozdov | Drozdov&Partners | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
VG Horse Club is an equestrian club in Kharkiv, Ukraine Image: Andrey Avdeenko, Ivan Avdeenko, Courtesy of Drozdov&Partners

The architect's most well-known projects include VG Horse Club, several commercial centres, and apartment buildings — all in Kharkiv — as well as houses across Ukraine and Café Très in Montreux, Switzerland. Since the Russian invasion, the office collaborated with Lviv studio Replus Bureau and Ponomarenko Bureau from Kharkiv on designing and building 17 shelters within schools and sports facilities, serving at least 15,000 people. The architect's theatre — Teatr na Podoli in Kyiv — turned Drozdov into a public persona in the country due to a huge amount of discussions about this building's appropriateness in the city's historical heart. It became a certain Rubicon of Ukrainian architecture, attracting intense debates. This engagement of Ukrainian citizens in scrutinising the quality of the built environment will surely be critical in the upcoming massive rebuilding process.

Teatr na Podoli in Kharkiv, Ukraine |Oleg Drozdov | Drozdov&Partners | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Teatr na Podoli in Kharkiv, Ukraine Image: Andrey Avdeenko, Courtesy of Drozdov&Partners

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Before the war, you were based in Kharkiv, the city that you had to flee. Now that you are in Lviv, could you talk about your current situation?

Oleg Drozdov: Both our office and school, moved to Lviv, 1,000 kilometres to the west, within the first week after the war started. We set up the new office and returned to work two weeks later. The school was also operational within weeks. I knew that there were going to be lots of refugees in this part of the country. So, we contacted the mayor's office here about setting up shelters. Parallel to that, we organised fundraising campaigns. Our architects, students, and their parents all volunteered on these projects.

VB: Where are you operating from in Lviv, both your office and the school?

OD: The school initially moved to a rent-free space at the Ukrainian Catholic University here. And now we found a more permanent home at the Lviv Academy of Arts. We are organising fundraisings to get money for renovating these spaces. We will start our much-anticipated school year in September. Already one month after the war started, at least half of our students and professors, moved to Lviv and we started having our classes half online and half in-person. And our office was initially hosted by a local firm, AVR Development. Recently we moved to our own new space, which was rented to us at half market price.

Petra Sagaydachnogo street, Kyiv, Ukraine |Oleg Drozdov | Drozdov&Partners | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Petra Sagaydachnogo street, Kyiv, Ukraine Image: Courtesy of Drozdov&Partners

VB: What projects are you currently working on at the office and how many of you are now in Lviv?

OD: We now have 15 people here. Before the war, there were 27 of us. Three people left the country. A few others had to stay with their families in Kharkiv and other cities. And several people took a break due to the incredibly high level of emotional stress these days. And some architects are working remotely.

Among the first projects that we returned to work on were our commissions in Switzerland — a city villa and an apartment building. There are also a couple of projects in Dnipro — a museum for the municipality and a city art gallery called Dnipro Center for Contemporary Culture or DCCC, a new major cultural hub with public recreation zone and committed to maintaining free access. Then there is an educational campus in the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine. And there are co-housing and co-working projects in Lviv and the medical campus in Kharkiv.

In addition to these commercial commissions, we are working on research projects, including reconsidering municipal rental models and collaborating with factories on developing new materials and building types. We explore ideas for using prefabricated concrete panels and other elements in these projects, particularly in those buildings that were damaged during the war. And we explore ideas for utilising materials that come from demolished buildings and how to revive the typical Soviet microraion or micro-district model by increasing density but lowering the number of floors, improving insulation to better reflect climate change, and inserting new public functions.

While we are doing all this work, we put on hold our normal salaries and profits and live and work as a sort of commune. We share apartments, responsibilities, and profits. In short, we don’t treat working on our projects as a business. 

Anti Patio a family house completed in 2004 in Kharkiv, Ukraine |Oleg Drozdov | Drozdov&Partners | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Anti Patio, a family house completed in 2004 in Kharkiv, Ukraine Image: Andrey Avdeenko, Courtesy of Drozdov&Partners

VB: Anti Patio is your own house. How would you formulate its main concept?

OD: It is a container for living. It is a vessel that contains many incredible plots. It changed my life by letting me live many lives that I could not predict. The first days that I moved there, almost all my time was spent staring at things with my mouth open. I learned so much. I started paying very close attention to every detail in the garden. I should point out that being in every room you are entirely surrounded by the garden and the views that go on for many kilometres. So, the house is like an endless plot or film. It is open to a very fulfilling experience. Many of my friends were provoked by the house as far as their change of behaviour or mood. This place keeps accumulating many important meetings and conversations that took place there. And it is a whole other world for my friends' children.

Interior view of the Anti Patio house |Oleg Drozdov | Drozdov&Partners | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Interior view of the Anti Patio house Image: Andrey Avdeenko, Courtesy of Drozdov&Partners

VB: And what can you say about your Horse Club?

OD: There we wanted to marry the vernacular architecture and the industrial architecture. The project’s tight budget led to the idea of a very unusual façade. This was our second project for this client, after designing his villa. That’s how we knew that he owned a forest where he had been collecting fallen trees. So, I asked if we could utilise them as a display of trunks at the building’s front. This forest is very decorative, and the client protects it dearly. The challenge was to use these elements not as décor but as an integral part of the construction. So, these trunks, in fact, carry the weight of the front wall, although their mere presence evokes the classical order of architecture with certain Post-Modernist connotations. But for me what’s important is that it tells a story. This story is about integrating the material and the legacy of the site and making it a part of the new project and how old materials are used in new ways.

The other interesting particularity about this project is that it is all designed around the physiology of the horse because just about every dimension — door openings, corridor widths, temperature mode, ventilation, pavement materials, not to mention such details as washing and massage equipment — everything is catered to these wonderful animals.

Pensacola Cityblock in Florida, USA |Oleg Drozdov | Drozdov&Partners | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Pensacola Cityblock in Florida, USA Image: Courtesy of Drozdov&Partners

VB: I would like you to elaborate on some of your quotes. The first one: “To be, not seem to be.”

OD: To that, I would add — to live, not to own. This means that what’s important is not to own a representation of something but to enjoy life itself. Architecture should help us do that in the most direct and provoking ways, not just package our dreams in fancy materials. I like when architecture is not merely a space for the accumulation of stuff but a tool to learn and enjoy life. I try to separate the essence from mere make-up.

VB: “I don’t see any boundaries between Artist, architecture, art, and life.”

OD: It is true. I see the world both as an artist and an architect. Of course, there are works of architecture that have nothing to do with art. [Laughs.]

VB: “We want to change our cities for the better.”

OD: This slogan is key for our school. The idea of the school is to form a community with common values and the need for honest and deep discourses, and it is the community that will form our cities. Our cities cannot change simply by adding singular, even good-looking buildings. We all must be agents of change.

VB: “Architecture must declare its position to the environment, place, and time. Buildings evoking grandiose funerals of the construction materials are to be avoided.”

OD: It is all about creating buildings responsibly. And I think some of the most celebrated buildings with their dubious experimentality from the late 1990s and early 2000s are now incredibly outdated. While some earlier projects, such as those by Marcel Breuer, only become more relevant. I think he has become the most contemporary architect whose buildings are about eternity, proximity to nature, performance, depth, and tectonics — qualities that contemporary architecture has lost.

VB: Even though the war is still in a very active phase, architects are already discussing the future of the country’s reconstruction. Some foreign architects rushed to take part in the rebuilding efforts. Any thoughts on that?

OD: As we progress in this process it is important for us, not simply to transition from being a colonial state under Russia to becoming another colonial state of the West. I was one of the initiators of the Ro3kvit urban coalition, which engaged in a collaboration with western specialists in three areas: research, education, and public programs. Any progress must be done collaboratively with local authorities, the population, and, of course, local architects. These relations should be established before any architectural objects will be designed. Already we established our ongoing conversations with local municipalities, community activists, and foreign architects as consultants. The situation presents a chance for Ukraine to accumulate huge global knowledge about the most successful urban projects and integrate it into our context. New projects should not fall from the sky drawn up by an established foreign architect.

Hospital in Kharkiv, Ukraine |Oleg Drozdov | Drozdov&Partners | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Hospital in Kharkiv, Ukraine Image: Courtesy of Drozdov&Partners

VB: Is there such a notion as contemporary Ukrainian architecture?

OD: Our architecture is going through a unique transformation. I am particularly interested in the work that started after 2014, the year the war between Russia and Ukraine first broke out. In the last three years, I have been serving as the Mies van der Rohe Award expert, nominating buildings in Ukraine. 2014 brought a certain agenda that has been forming architecture. Before that, it was entirely driven by consumption and profits. Since 2014, there is a new community awareness and a new social agenda. The beginning of the war signalled the moment when Ukrainian society started to form. After the war architecture will change dramatically but even between 2014 and now it has matured significantly because our society is undergoing an incredibly dynamic transformation. Our architecture will reflect that. There is a kind of hipster urbanism that has become quite central in our cities.

VB: Which buildings built in Ukraine since the turn of the century would you identify as the most important?

OD: I would pick a temporary open-air stage structure called Stage, the main venue of the 2018 cultural festival Construction in Dnipro. It was a collectively designed, ground sourced and ground funded public space. The design was led by architect Tomasz Świetlik and urban designer and researcher Kuba Snopek, both from Poland. Another project that I also nominated for the Mies Award is the Center of Andrey Sheptytsky, a cultural centre, and library at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, designed by Behnisch Architekten and built-in 2017. Its architecture may be excessive and redundantly polyphonic, but its social impact is quite phenomenal. It is extremely active. They constantly organise all kinds of public events.

The third project I would include here is the Memorial of the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred by Guess Line Architects in Lviv which opened in 2019. It is a very appropriate statement and testimony that established new relationships with the city — the way it works with tragedy, memory, public space, and the park. Finally, I would mention the Renovation of the Spassky Bastion and Church in Kyiv by AER Architects completed in 2018. All four projects are more about a new social model than architecture in a narrow sense. This is what Ukrainian architecture was missing before. Only speaking of social qualities, we can really discuss contemporary architecture.

I would also say that Ukrainian architecture is quite regional with Dnipro being a strong leader, while Lviv is a close second. This has a lot to do with the work of Alexander Dolnik [1954-2013], the late Dnipro architect. In his buildings, you can recognise numerous quotations from 20th century architects, but he surely found his own language. He was the leading architect in the country in recent times, leaving a very powerful legacy.

Shelter, modular frameworks made of cardboard pipes installed in different cities of Ukraine. The framework is designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. Places are designed to hold more than 440 people |Oleg Drozdov | Drozdov&Partners | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Shelter, modular frameworks made of cardboard pipes installed in different cities of Ukraine. The framework is designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. Places are designed to hold more than 440 people Image: Courtesy of Drozdov&Partners

VB: In your opinion who is the leading architect in Ukraine today?

OD: I would rather name some of our most influential architects. And I would stress that their influence comes more not from what they built but rather from what they preach. For that reason, I would name Viktor Zotov, an important figure on the architectural stage; he is the founder of ZOTOV&CO in Kyiv and of an institution called CANactions, a popular educational platform, festival, and publishing company. I would also name Slava Balbek and his Balbek Burau in Kyiv as one of the influential architects with an emphasis on creating contemporary interiors. Then there is an influential architect and journalist Julian Chaplinsky with his popular Chaplinsky Blog. The contemporary architecture here is still being formed. Our architects are ready to work with the people to create not just elegant buildings but buildings that can fulfil the needs of our society in the making. What is great about our architecture is that it is being formed right now. And we also need to rethink our heritage, which is rich, and inspirational, and if we do it critically, a lot can be learned from it.

What do you think?

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