Ukraine has a rich legacy of modernist architecture. Yet the majority of its UNESCO-designated sites are centuries-old churches. Architect and author Ievgeniia Gubkina is fighting to change this, working tirelessly to highlight the cultural significance of Ukraine’s undervalued Soviet-era buildings. The activist talks about the challenges of conservation, and the pop-science behind her latest project Ukrainian Constructivism.

“Over the years, I’ve tried everything”, says Ievgeniia over Zoom from her apartment in Kharkiv: “A German ‘advisor’ told me to go to the city council and use the power of the people, it doesn’t work because of our legislation. I went to the locals, it doesn’t work because locals don’t make decisions. So now this is my last attempt.”

This ‘last attempt’ takes the form of Ukrainian Constructivism, an interdisciplinary project that combines the mediums of prose, dance, and music to reflect on the country’s constructivist legacy.

Emerging during the interwar period, constructivism is broadly characterised by its embrace of industrial materials and rejection of classical ornamentation. Structures were designed with communist ideals in mind, yet they varied widely in form and modality, marking a radical era of pluralism and creative freedom.

Such buildings were constructed during Lenin’s New Economic Policy, and it is because of its experimental, decentralised economics that many were planned through regional grassroots cooperatives, as opposed to the top-down Stalinist neoclassicism later imposed by Moscow.

The opening of the constructivist Derzhprom building in 1928, Kharkiv. Source: WikiCommons
Palace of Culture for Railway Workers, Kharkiv. Source:

Today Ukraine is still home to many important constructivist works. However, the historical and cultural discourse surrounding the movement remains largely dominated by the Russian avant-garde. Ievgeniia is hoping to change this, highlighting it as a unique element of Ukraine’s national identity.

The end goal of Ukrainian Constructivism is to get at least one building on the UNESCO World Heritage List. One of Ievgeniia’s approaches has been to leverage the influence of famous participants such as Ukrainian pop star ONUKA. Danish choreographer Sebastian Kloborg and collage artist Sergei Sviatchenko are also among those involved.

“For me as a scholar it is like some challenge or experiment,” Ievgeniia says. “How can we talk about a scientific topic in an artistic way? How can we talk about it in the context of pop culture? It’s important to talk about difficult issues more simply, and not to keep everything within academic circles.”

Her renowned collaborators have what Ievgeniia refers to as “peoples’ capital”. “Being an academic you have some capital in terms of expertise, she says. “But the thing is, those in power say we don’t need this expertise.”

Campaigning for reform

Due to legislative changes, architectural experts have long been cut out of the conversation on Ukraine’s heritage buildings. In 2011, the Law on the Regulation of Urban Development (No. 3038-VI) was adopted, triggering a wave of reforms that crippled the protection procedure.

Ievgeniia explains: “During the Yanukovich regime, the decision-making procedure in the field of architecture and urban planning changed. Urban planning councils were eliminated from the city council, and with it the requirement to get permission from this expert committee. The heritage protection department was also moved from the central government’s Ministry of Culture, to under the control of the local authorities. This means that the municipality or city hall can easily remove buildings from the preservation list, and sell and permit construction on plots of land without involving any experts.”

While removing buildings from the register has become easier, it has been made even more difficult to apply for listed status. Such applications require a hefty amount of paperwork that typically takes years to compile, and this can all be erased in one day by the city council.
Visiting experts often struggle to comprehend the scale of the problem. “European advisors and politicians don’t quite understand these loopholes and offer cosmic advice,” says Ivgeniia.

Through Ukrainian Constructivism she hopes to raise concerns and encourage strict legislative reform, piquing the attention of top ministers to change the upper level of the decision-making process.

Soviet Doctor's Housing Cooperative, built in 1930, Kyiv. Photo by Olena Saponova.

Developers as a second power

Legislation concerning Ukrainian heritage has already become the subject of international dialogue. The decommunisation law that banned communist symbols, such as the hammer and sickle, ignited numerous debates over its ethics.

In this context, the law more directly concerns monumental art. Rather than facing hurdles over symbolic significance, preservationists of Soviet-era architecture must contend with something else – developers who wish to build on the land upon which these buildings stand.

It is not unusual for careers in politics and real estate to intersect. One developer, known as the “Grey Cardinal” of Kyiv, was accused of being at the helm of the metropolitan’s City Hall. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Odessa has been charged with illegally acquiring plots of land following the dense construction of high-rises that turned its suburb Arcadia, once known for its Soviet sanatoriums, into a concrete jungle with sparse infrastructure.

“We have huge problems in terms of developers in Ukraine,” says Ievgeniia. “They are like the second power, they can do whatever they want. In all municipalities, they are the true client in charge, not the people.”

Derzhprom in the late 1920s, photo taken Robert Byron in Kharkov. Source: WikiCommons

When contemporary social issues and heritage intersect

Despite the barriers inflicted by what can essentially be described as political corruption, Ievgeniia is determined to take a community-centric approach. This is something that can be traced back to when she was studying architecture in her hometown Kharkiv, the constructivist capital of Ukraine.

Many of the buildings featured in Ukrainian Constructivism are from there, including the city’s landmark building the Derzhprom, often referred to as ‘Europe’s first skyscraper’, and the lesser-known ‘KhTZ district’, (formerly known as New Kharkiv). The district was built for Kharkiv Tractor Plant workers and designed with the help of Dutch Bauhaus architect Lotte Stam-Beese. Ievgeniia is from this area originally, and wrote about the industrial neighbourhood extensively during her postgraduate studies.

“In those times, it was known as a ‘bad’ area,” she says. “My teachers were suggesting that I choose something else as a topic – that it was too industrial, too tough, and that the factory was nearly bankrupt. They said why choose that topic when this place has no future.”

This trajectory struck her as something that was vital to her approach for years to come.“If there is no future, I thought that I should understand why that is. It was more about the people and not the architecture. I was really shocked that architects and politicians would exclude people from the picture and say they have no future.”

Residential block in KhTZ district, Kharkiv. Photo by Olena Saponova.

In the wake of the Euromaidan demonstrations, Ievgeniia set up the Urban Forms Center, with the aim of balancing the dialogue surrounding historical conservation with contemporary social issues.

Among the centre’s initiatives was Modernistki, which explored the history of women in architecture while also hosting workshops to support young women in the field. Another was Bauhaus Zaporizhzhia, an international forum on the preservation of socialist heritage in the southeastern Ukrainian city. During the conference, locals were invited to lectures, which had simultaneous translations so people from the city could join the conversation.

“What became clear was that when people from Europe talked about heritage preservation, like authentic windows or whatever, some woman from the audience could just say ‘Give me the floor, you talk about windows, but in my flat, we have no toilet, let’s talk about toilets’. This means there is a huge gap, because she’s there with no toilet and yet we are here with such privilege covering a topic like authentic windows.”

Grappling with these contradictions, Ievgeniia decided to always try to show the flipside to socialist projects. “It’s great to talk about this utopian side, but they also come with other issues”, she says.

“For city councils, it’s much more interesting for them to work on tourist waves than to make toilets. That’s why I show the beauty of those buildings, but also what ugly problems they have, and what can be fixed. If we don’t talk about the other side of heritage – about difficult and uncomfortable heritage, it will never be solved.”

Uncomfortable heritage

Tackling the ‘difficult’ side of heritage is central to Ukrainian Constructivism. The project has a ‘discussions’ segment on its website, where there are podcasts and talks about a range of topics from Soviet orientalism, to the ethics of turning women’s history into a cultural brand. This experimental range of formats is part of the project’s first phase. Next year, with continued support from the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, there will be a more traditional academic exhibition that chronologically lays out the materials needed to fend for heritage status.

“We need at least one UNESCO-listed building from the 20th century, because right now most of them are churches,” says Ievgeniia “I think that is a very dramatic situation. Ukraine isn’t represented just by religion or the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s quite strange that we are losing all modernity.”

Between getting politicians, artists, and most importantly locals on board, Ievgeniia hopes to build mass appeal for the conservation of modern Ukrainian architecture outside of university campuses. She quit teaching, tired of taking part in what she calls a “broken” system. Outside the realm of any institution, she is somewhat of a partisan.

Perhaps this is why some academics are more inclined to be critical of her work. Her book with architect Alexei Bykov documenting modernist, brutalist, and post-modernist buildings in Ukraine received some pushback. “They said that it was too simplistic, that there should be some detailed discussions about whether buildings should be this or that or post-post or non-post,” says Ievgeniia: “Another thing was about whether we can call something from the Brezhnev era Brutalism, since they say that Brutalism is progressive, yet the Brezhnev period was regressive.” Essentially, the academics wanted an academic, if not moral, debate.

But she says that architecture should not be reduced to such binary categories: “Architecture and heritage is not about ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys,” she says. “If you only choose examples of architecture that are ‘good’ and just the beautiful ideas inside that project, how can you understand reality, how can you understand the past?”