The state Administration building of Kharkiv, © Photo: Svitlana Smolenska, 2022
Triennial of Modernism 2022
Special-Focus – Modernism in Ukraine
Exhibition Series – MODERN ROOTS AND HERITAGE OF KHARKIV AND LVIV
«Svoboda (Freedom) Square Ensemble in Kharkiv»
13 Nov, 20:00 – Opening of the exhibition (parallel to the Opening of the exhibition Modernism in Ukraine – Chapter #3)
14 to 24 Nov 2022 – exhibition
Partner / Author: Svitlana Smolenska (associated researcher at the Kharkiv School of Architecture, the Technical University of Berlin and the OWL University of Applied Sciences)
The fourth part of the exhibition deals with the ensemble of Svoboda Square – formerly Dzerzhinsky Square – in Kharkiv. The square was created in the early 1920s as a new administrative center for Kharkiv, the capital of Ukraine at that time. The exhibition chapter features research by Svitlana Smolenska, professor of architecture and urban planning, using historical illustrations as well as recent photographs.
Photographs of the exhibition in BHROX bauhaus reuse, © Photo: Michael Setzpfandt, 2022
Derzhprom, Kharkiv, © Photo: Svitlana Smolenska 2022
The building of the Central Committee Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, © Photo: Svitlana Smolenska 2022
The «Soviet avant-garde» is often called «Russian» because literature described and popularized mainly the heritage sites of the Russian centres. In fact, Ukraine was one of the most important experimental sites of modern architecture, where many outstanding avant-garde projects were implemented, unique in the scale of new construction and the greatness of ideas.
After the first World War political revolutionary passions were seething in Ukraine, which led to the formation of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic with Kharkiv as its capital in March 1919. In 1922 it became part of the USSR as an independent republic. Ukraine was part of Russia before, and western Ukraine belonged to Poland until 1939 and partly to Romania and Czechoslovakia until 1940.
The newly born republic was in ruins at that time. But it had a huge potential: the availability of labour and natural resources, transport capabilities, a good geographical location, and most importantly, hopes for a revolutionary transformation of society, gaining national independence.
It seems incredible that Modernism in the USSR and Ukraine lasted a very short period – less than a decade. That is why its achievements are so impressive. Its time frame falls into the mid-1920s and early 1930s. On the one hand, it was limited by the wars and devastation in the beginning of the century, and on the other hand, by the political shift: in the early 1930s, the authorities forcibly changed the style of architecture to pompous neoclassical (socialist realism) and began to persecute modernism and its supporters.
Probably Kharkiv was a unique city in the USSR with such brightly pronounced avant-garde architecture. Scales and rates of its growth affected contemporaries more than the achievements of Moscow and Leningrad.
A grandiose modern administrative ensemble of Dzerzhinsky Square (today’s Svoboda/Freedom Square) was created in those years. This is one of the largest city-centre squares in Europe with its 11.9 ha in size, 750 m in length, with the diameter of the circular part 350 m, and the width of the rectangular part between 96 m and 125 m.
The ensemble had a complex history and several stages during its development. How was it created? In what condition was it during the days of the war, when Kharkiv remained under daily shelling, hostilities continued and people died? This exhibition aims to provide answers to some of these questions.
There are still problems associated with the attitude to the heritage of the Soviet period. Years of neglect of the 20th century heritage continue to affect the mentality of the population and government officials even today, 30 years after Ukrainian independence.
War intensifies our sense of loss of what we had before but did not appreciate enough. The unique Kharkiv ensemble and other outstanding modern objects of the south-east of Ukraine – which is currently in the middle of the war – are in danger. I really hope that this situation will change the attitude of the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian society and the European community towards the modern heritage in Ukraine. It needs to be restored and preserved. Before the threat of loss, we all must realize its value as a pan-European heritage, as a part of world culture, and as important to Ukrainian identity.
Svitlana Smolenska (associated researcher at the Kharkiv School of Architecture, the Technical University of Berlin and the OWL University of Applied Sciences)