In the immediate wake, or indeed in the midst of unthinkable destruction — the war in Ukraine crept quietly past the 600-day mark several weeks ago — the prospect of rebuilding, of recovery and of facing the future might seem impossible to imagine. Yet architects and designers featured in Before the Future, the brave and dual installations at the Pavilion of Ukraine, at this Venice Biennale this year attempt just this. On the subject of how to find opportunities in the interregnum moment, KoozArch speaks to its curators and participants.
This interview is part of KoozArch's focus dedicated to Biennale Architettura 2023 - 18th International Architecture Exhibition The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko and organised by La Biennale di Venezia. The International Exhibition is open in Venice from May 20 to November 26.
Before the Future, Pavilion of Ukraine, 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future. Photo Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.
KOOZ This year represents the first participation by Ukraine at the Venice Biennale in ten years, and it follows the outbreak of war in Ukraine in spring 2022. Titled Before the Future, what does it mean for you and as a country to be present in the heart of this event?
BORYS FILONENKO The war continues. And war radically changes the perception of space, as well as changes personal strategies: what you can and what you should do? Such questions arise much more radically and require quick solutions.
"War radically changes the perception of space, as well as changes personal strategies: what you can and what you should do?"
- Borys Filonenko, curator of Before the Future.
Last year, in myriad public conversations and discussions in Europe, I have repeatedly heard that the last significant paradigm shift was the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia's full-scale invasion into Ukraine in such optics is not perceived globally, but locally, and therefore does not affect external consciousness too much. At the same time, if we try to describe these shifts through spatial dimensions, then the following picture emerges: during the pandemic, the roof or terrace was considered a safe, well-ventilated place where you can be alone or in intimate company, whereas in times of war, the safe place is in the basement, as deep as possible, and there are usually many people there. There is a great desire to remain on the roof, but now is the time to understand the systems of hiding places, fortifications and shelters. The presence of Ukraine at this year's architectural exhibition is an opportunity to speak within the framework of this newly revealed reality, about the future, which is being reimagined through current practices.
"The situation of life during the apocalypse (to use Latour's vocabulary) in practice opens up a certain future-oriented perspective."
- Borys Filonenko, curator of Before the Future.
2022 became the year of a kind of rethinking, of the very possibility of talking about and planning for the future. Often, the past becomes a reservoir of meaning and revisions, and the future is darkened by catastrophes. However, the situation of life during the apocalypse (to use Latour's vocabulary) in practice opens up a certain future-oriented perspective. In Ukraine, we talk about life after the war ("after the victory") and this is a new concept arising from collective and shared practices right now, before the future.
"Being present at Venice is one more step in the creation of a dialogue and closer relations with the global architectural community. Right now it is important to share stories from the inside, to be heard."
- Oleksii Petrov, curator of Before the Future.
OLEKSII PETROV Being present at Venice is one more step in the creation of a dialogue and closer relations with the global architectural community. Right now it is important to share stories from the inside, to be heard. Events are unfolding very rapidly in Ukraine, but we’ve tried to capture the moment and reveal it from different angles. By choosing five themes to be consistently presented in both locations of the Biennale — at the Arsenale and the Giardini — and through the polyphony of opinions and visions presented, we would try to reflect the challenges that we face from the beginning of the full scale invasion.
KOOZ You have mentioned that Ukraine presents a unique situation whereby, whilst on the one hand, solidarity and self-organised initiatives have powerfully manifested themselves since the spring of 2022. On the other, common spaces for self-representation, negotiation, interaction, and exchange of opinions have still not been fully formed, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. How does your Biennale pavilion, as a truly collective and multidisciplinary endeavour, sit in between this condition?
IRYNA MIROSHNYKOVA The opening of the national pavilion locations in May was just the beginning of intensive work on and through the programme, which has entailed hundreds of hours of discussions and meetings. Until now, the number of involved experts is well over thirty. This is a multilayered extensive network of interactions that result not only in physical exhibitions in Arsenal or Giardini but also in interdisciplinary research and artistic projects. There were important issues articulated, new collaborations were outlined, and fresh players appeared on the local scene. The programme is an impulse that will drive future cooperation.
KOOZ The project is fundamentally a collective endeavour, engaging more than 30 practitioners in conversations with each other and the Biennale public. It proposes to draw our attention not simply to the future, but also to the conditions of the past and present that provide the safety necessary for the construction of the future. What does reconstruction mean to you? To what extent is this as much a psychological and intangible endeavour as a physical one?
IRYNA MIROSHNYKOVA The anticipation of a quick end to the war is being replaced by a growing acceptance that it may last for years. The notion of this is quite heavy.
Reconstruction is more of a state than a process that will begin after the victory. It is what we are already doing now and must continue to do for as long as it takes. It is to rebuild destroyed houses, knowing that they can be ruined, to find ourselves and others again and again.
"Reconstruction is more of a state than a process that will begin after the victory. It is what we are already doing now and must continue to do for as long as it takes."
- Iryna Miroshnykova, curator of Before the Future.
BORYS FILONENKO The role of architects in reconstruction and in delineating what the reconstruction could become is very important, but it is also uncertain. Architects don't have enough power and influence compared to local political figures and developers. Reconstruction is also a risk of colonial starry interventions in the spirit of Norman Foster in Kharkiv or local decisions in the interests of groups of ruling elites. In such a system, inclusiveness is not a value and the city limits its inhabitants more than encourages life. On the other hand, at the level of self-organisation and for many institutions, reconstruction has already begun, and is not postponed for tomorrow. From updated shelters to new educational programs, small and large volunteer systems, new institutions and meeting places are part of life during war. The future is a matter of its performance, both individual and collective — even in apocalyptic times, which are prematurely interpreted as completion.
KOOZ To the participants of the 5 statements, what does reconstruction mean to you? To what extent is reconstruction as much a psychological and intangible endeavour as a physical one?
TEAM In order to understand what reconstruction means for us, we need to define the situation we are in now and what we expect in the future. Currently, the country is at war, in the process of deconstruction, and we will actively move into a state of reconstruction afterward. Deconstruction did not begin on February 24, 2022, or in the spring of 2014. This process started in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the destruction of imperial narratives and economic relations and, for many people, a crisis of self-identity. So now we are in the active phase of destroying what remains in the wreckage of this empire in ourselves and, unfortunately, the physical environment that was created before and after the collapse of the empire.
The war and deconstruction made us different, and much of what we considered important has lost its meaning while new demands have emerged. Therefore, reconstruction is not a restoration of the old, but rather the creation of something different. For the country, it means building a strong, secure, and inclusive state; for society, it means rooting freedom in all its senses. The meaning of reconstruction is not a movement back to the past, but rather an uphill journey to something unknown.
Who are we? Where are we? What should we do? These are the questions without which it is impossible to start reconstruction. Our installation at the Biennale aimed to ask these questions and get answers in order to further integrate our and visitors' experience and understand how to live with it.
What Can Not Be Lost
OLEKSANDR BURLAKA In fact, it is a difficult psychological and immaterial effort for me now to think about an answer to an abstract question about restoration or reconstruction. Such questions require analysis, understanding of the context, consideration and planning, and a comfortable meta-position. As the war in Ukraine continues, there is no clear positive plan to be sure in and for making plans. Therefore, I am focused on specific current affairs and solving the needs of family and friends.
"Reconstruction implies new plans for the future. Previous plans for the future were taken away by the enemy. Maybe in a year, our plans from today will not be relevant, but it is impossible to exist without them."
- Yarema Malashchuk, project "What Can Not Be Lost"
YAREMA MALASHCHUK Reconstruction implies new plans for the future. Previous plans for the future were taken away by the enemy.Maybe in a year, our plans from today will not be relevant, but it is impossible to exist without them.
The Beauty of Care
ANNA DOBROVA During our research for "The Beauty of Care", we discovered how widespread the co-creation of spaces really is — which not only leads to the creation of spaces of care, but also results in the exchange of experiences. This in turn promotes empathy and acceptance of different views and experiences, which makes people feel supported and relieved in dangerous situations. Therefore, we believe that the process of reconstruction should indeed be seen as a multidimensional effort. It's not just about rebuilding physical infrastructure but also about rebuilding lives, communities, and a sense of security. New agents of change may include not only architects and engineers but also psychologists, social workers, community leaders, and policymakers, to address the complex and interconnected challenges of post-conflict reconstruction.
"It's not just about rebuilding physical infrastructure but also about rebuilding lives, communities, and a sense of security."
- Anna Dobrova, project "The Beauty of Care"
ELENA ORAP Reconstruction is firstly an act of imagination, a recognition of the fact that life goes on even in the most difficult conditions, that the ability and capacity to create, innovate, and adapt continues during ongoing periods of war. But what unites our stories is love — for the people, for the places in which we physically found ourselves, buildings, plants, for shared dinners with warm food, this kind of "here and now". That which we manage to call “home” in the face of destruction and adversity. It's an affirmation of resilience of the human spirit and its ability to find moments of unity in the beauty of care.
"Reconstruction is firstly an act of imagination, a recognition of the fact that life goes on even in the most difficult conditions, that the ability and capacity to create, innovate, and adapt continues during ongoing periods of war."
- Elena Orap, project "The Beauty of Care"
DASHA PODOLTSEVA For me, reconstruction is not just the physical reproduction of the destroyed — it is more about the process of recovery after trauma. If you look at it through such a prism, things can never be the same, even if the form is identical. A big question arises in the very principle — restoration or rethinking? During the past year, my friend has been rebuilding her destroyed house. She changed her mind about seven variations of the plan; the last plan emerged in twenty minutes and finally satisfied everyone. The new plan meets their current needs, but it is different from what it was. (Of course, we’re not talking about listed buildings here).
NINA DYRENKO Our statement at Biennale is a search for an answer to your question about reconstruction. It is given not from the position of a human, but rather of biomes — the resources of which will be actively used during reconstruction.
Scientists have warned that the period of rebuilding may become more destructive for nature than the war itself: due to the colossal need for construction materials such as wood, sand, clay, water, and rubble. The state should take this into account and build its future policy accordingly. If this work is done correctly, the future for us and our forests, steppes, and water bodies will look better than it did before the war.
"Scientists have warned that the period of rebuilding may become more destructive for nature than the war itself: due to the colossal need for construction materials such as wood, sand, clay, water, and rubble."
- Nina Dryenko, project "30%"
VADYM SIDASH Behind a quality reconstruction there is not only a change in the "facade", i.e. the wrapper, but also deep work on yourself — on the “structure” and “foundation”. These works are not so obvious; they require a complex and long-term work on oneself.
NATALIA MYSAK The reconstruction of Ukraine is a term that, to me, primarily signifies a paradigmatic transformation of architecture, of processes related to the production and (re)use of spaces and resources, alongside more inclusive dialogues and decision-making processes concerning urban development. Some emerging architectural and urban planning approaches are rooted in social responsibility and have the potential to bridge the existing gap between 'user' and 'professional,' — promoting the “commoning” of architecture as both a process and knowledge, and turning it from a commodity to the common good. It is important to nurture these tendencies, as in this context, reconstruction can also serve as a tool for preserving and empowering communities, including the most vulnerable ones.
"The self-organised groups that have emerged over the past years and their contributions to the resuscitation of life are a testament to Ukrainian strength, manifesting through horizontal DIY power."
- Kosmina BogDana, project "March On"
KOSMINA BOGDANA Reconstruction is a cycle we are all in.Rebirth from ruins is a state that has been present throughout my own life and practice. Historical periods from the beginning of Ukraine's independence — through three revolutions to the present war — have been and are full of turbulent events, with successive waves of material and moral reconstruction.
I feel that only the scale and our methods of reaction and cooperation change over time. The self-organised groups that have emerged over the past years and their contributions to the resuscitation of life are a testament to Ukrainian strength, manifesting through horizontal DIY power. The dreams I have about reconstruction in Ukraine are related to the radical de-corruption of municipalities, which will free us from stalled development. I believe that this liberation will finally allow for quality urban infrastructure, for public spaces dedicated to freedom and equality, and life to reset in a co-creative, transparent manner.
BORYS MEDVEDIK (C.P.A.) At a certain point, I wondered how my info-bubble became occupied with brands and words featuring the prefix Re-: ReStart Ukraine, RE:Ukraine, U-Re-Herit, Re:ban and so on. As if to conjure inspiration, they seem to suggest that over the smoking ruins, we’ll have a chance to start building a new environment, replete with cutting-edge approaches and all the tricks from those who went before us. There’s even a “Ukrainian Upcyclers Metacommunity” on Instagram.
As an example of what I would describe as a ‘rational utopia’, I would cite the artist Svitlanka Konoplyova, who once said “I want to live in a world where there`s no trash or garbage at all.” I view this re- hype as the symptom of rational utopias in action.
Borys Filonenko is an independent curator, art critic, and editor-in-chief of IST Publishing (Kharkiv). He was a co-curator of the Pavilion of Ukraine at the 59th International Art Exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia (2022), the Second National Biennial of Young Art (Kharkiv, 2019), and the exhibitions Aeneas Passes On. Artists of the Present Face to Face with the Past (Kharkiv, 2019) and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Kyiv, Lviv, 2016). He was a curator at Come In Gallery in Kharkiv (2015–18) and tutor and curator in the Humanities Department at the Kharkiv School of Architecture (2017–2021).
Iryna Miroshnykova is an architect and urban development researcher. Currently working on her PhD thesis exploring the socio-economic and planning features of Ukrainian monofunctional cities. She is a partner at ФОРМА, one of Kyiv’s leading architectural offices whose open-minded work is focused on spatial development strategies, masterplanning, renovation programs, as well as interface, installation, and exhibition design. Further to this, Iryna is a co-founder of the Pavilion of Culture, a cross-disciplinary institution, where she curates architectural research.
Oleksii Petrov is an architect, and founder of architectural office ФОРМА, one of Kyiv’s leading whose open-minded work is focused on spatial development strategies, masterplanning, renovation programs, as well as interface, installation, exhibition design. Oleksii is a co-founder of the Pavilion of Culture, a cross-disciplinary institution, where he curates architectural research.
Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.