The Art Gallery Barannik of Zaporizhia plans to open Ukraine’s first Constructivist architecture museum at the beginning of the summer. It will showcase the city’s various examples of Constructivism – an artistic and architectural philosophy of the early twentieth century – and offer lectures and city tours. It will also include an “artist residency,” a living space for scholars who wish to contribute to the monumental project.
Since its inception in 2006, the gallery has hosted or organized over 400 projects that bridge societal and artistic concerns. Yuri Barannik, the founder, wanted to provide a space for local artists to display their work. It is the first and most active contemporary art gallery in Zaporizhia. For the past ten years, the gallery has exhibited the city’s Constructivist history. The city now holds an annual “Week of Constructivism,” a series of exhibits, lectures, and workshops dedicated exclusively to the topic. In 2016, the gallery partnered with USAID to organize “Historical Locations,” a festival that highlighted four points of interest across the city. Stationed at a different location each day, the festival examined the city’s past from new, exciting perspectives.
The “Circle House,” one of the four selected sites, represented Zaporizhia’s remarkable architectural history. Forming a massive shape in the letter “C,” allegedly to stand for Josef Stalin, the building is close to oppressive, engulfing those who approach it. Tucked within its curvatures is a small green space, which transformed into the festival’s main stage. The open-air exhibits bewildered its unassuming residents at first. “People came out of their front doors, confused.” accounts Natasha Lobach, the gallery’s Art Manager. “They had no idea what was going on, or that their home was part of a worldwide movement.”
In 1928, an international team of engineers and architects came to Zaporizhia, then a provincial and mostly rural town, to build a “Sotsgorod,” or “Socialist City.” The purpose behind the Sotsgorod was as ideological as it was pragmatic. A manifestation of Marxist ideology, Sotsgorod meant to creat a ‘new city’ for a ‘new people.’ Just as importantly, however, was its role in Lenin’s first Five-Year plan that emphasized nationwide industrialization. Built in proximity to raw materials, residents of Sotsgorod worked at the factories that, in turn, powered the vast Soviet territory.
“Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,” Lenin famously declared – the same words inscribed on Zaporizhia’s former statute to the Soviet leader. This was no coincidence: Zaporizhia is the region with highest per capita electricity output in Ukraine thanks to the massive hydroelectric station, DniproHES.
“DniproHES was the pride of the newly formed USSR,” describes Lobach. Completed in 1932, the hydroelectric station was the largest of its time. The dam, along with the newly built steel factory, Zaporizhstal, became the focal points for the Socialist city “Big Zaporozhye.” Only the residential area between the two industrial points remained unfinished. However, the authoritarian wave of the 1930’s thwarted the city’s construction. Constructivism, along with other experimental forms of expression, was outlawed and its architects persecuted. Only a single neighborhood, the Sixth District, was completed.
The head architect, Viktor Vesnin, was a pioneer of Constructivism. Vesnin wholly believed in the Soviet mission and devoted his career to its realization by way of architecture. Upon visiting the Sixth District, the strong connection between style and ideology become apparent: external railings connect residential balconies to form a communal space; extensive use of windows minimize privacy and opportunity for covert behavior; lines and color are minimalistic. “Constructivism wanted to give to its people,” emphasizes Laboch. Above all else is the ethos of functionalism; decor is the enemy.
Zaporizhia’s architecture is what Barannik proudly refers to as “pure Constructivism.” Though its philosophy spread westward and inspired names like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, the architect Vesnin’s DniproHES remains one of the finest examples of the revolutionary style. “You can find DniproHES in every textbook on modern architecture,” adds Evgenia Gubkina, co-founder of the Urban Form Center and longtime consultant for Art Gallery Barannik. According to Lobach, the city’s architecture is capable of the same cult status as its Bauhaus counterparts in Germany given similarities between the two movements: advocacy for art as a practice for social purposes; the sweeping use of geometrical figures; shared building materials such as concrete, glass, and steel. The main obstacle, however, is the poor conditions that follow scant governmental support and public awareness.
“The protection of architecture is a big problem in Ukraine,” states Gubkina. “There is virtually nothing keeping these buildings safe.” The Ukrainian government has a list of historically significant sites under its protection. The list, however, does not specify how to proceed if these buildings come under threat. This is concerning because poor maintenance renders Ukraine’s architecture some of the most endangered in Europe. Perhaps even worse is the exclusion of many sites from the list. For example, DniproHES itself is not mentioned and thus not protected. The result is that the company that owns the dam exercises complete control over its fate. “We discuss these buildings in international conferences, lectures, write papers on them, and they don’t even hold official status.” asserts Gubkina. She believes the dam merits recognition not only from the Ukrainian government but also UNESCO.
Institutions like the Urban Forms Center and Art Gallery Barannik advocate for the preservation of Constructivist architecture because it creates connections within and beyond Ukraine’s borders. “Constructivism is both unique and universal,” expresses Gubkina. The style is one of few not imported from Europe: Zaporizhia, Dnipro, and Kharkiv boast entire blocks of Constructivist buildings, often designed by local architects. Just as important, however, was the movement’s ability to resonate across a continent, uniting different peoples and nations amidst turbulent times.
Through the new museum, Art Gallery Barannik hopes to raise awareness about the city’s history–to audiences both domestic and foreign–and attract tourism that will, in turn, fund restoration efforts. “We want Zaporizhia’s residents to be proud,” Barannik concluded. “To know that they belonged to something big.”
Nicole Steinberg is a 2016-2017 Fulbright Fellow in Ukraine.