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To House Refugees, Lviv Wants to Make Beautiful Buildings That Last

LVIV, Ukraine — To stand in the cobblestone square that is this city’s historic marketplace is to be surrounded by the influences captured in brick, stone and plaster of cultures intersecting and of empires rising and falling.

The layout of the streets and squares in Lviv’s city center is much as it would have been in medieval times, helping it to earn a designation as a Unesco world heritage site. It is through the city’s architecture, though, that Eastern Europe rubs shoulders with Italian and German heritage, giving Lviv its distinctive visual identity.

Amid war with Russia, the city’s challenge is to integrate tens of thousands of residents displaced from fighting in eastern Ukraine without sacrificing Lviv’s aesthetics or derailing its efforts to become a sustainable, livable European city.

The displaced have been housed in schools and sports arenas turned into shelters, first in open rooms with mattresses on the floor and then separated by Japanese-style wooden partitions developed during the Fukushima earthquake. Recently, hundreds of families have moved into container housing set up in parks and empty lots.

But with permanent housing costing the same as container housing — the equivalent of about $70 per square foot — Anton Kolomeytsev, the city’s chief architect, said Lviv would turn to apartment construction, building low-rise buildings in multiuse areas that combined residential and commercial units with green space and recreational facilities.

“When we build a building, we have to think it’s built for not months, not years, but for dozens of years, for centuries,” said the 35-year-old Kolomeytsev, who studied and worked in Vienna, but says his work is shaped by growing up in Lviv. “We are in a very rich cultural environment.”

He said the city would build apartment blocks of five to seven stories for displaced people that would combine beauty with utility while retaining the compact nature of this city of 800,000 people.

Lviv is the furthest city Ukrainian evacuees can escape the battlefields in the country’s east and still be in their home country. Several hundred thousand Ukrainians have passed through Lviv, many crossing into Poland about 40 miles away. But city officials expect about 50,000 of those displaced to remain.

“Now we understand that we are the city which guarantees the possibility for people from other cities and other regions to stay in Ukraine,” Kolomeytsev said.

The most vulnerable, including those wounded in the war, would be able to make minimum monthly payments and own their apartments after 20 years.

The city is also addressing much more basic concerns. New building codes require each new structure to have a bomb shelter and each apartment a safety room with reinforced concrete walls and safeguards against chemical attack.

On a recent afternoon on the edge of town, down a winding lane lined with walnut and cherry trees, a small group of construction workers drove iron stakes into the ground of a wire-enclosed field.

An image of the completed structures shows white metal-clad buildings so delicate they appear to almost float on the fields of grass. The vertical lines of the siding flow into peaked roofs above large rectangular windows, while the asymmetrical entranceway contains floor-to-ceiling windows flooding the interior with natural light.

Scheduled to open in two months, it will accommodate 120 people — initially, pregnant women and their children.

The new construction is part of planning by Lviv’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, who said he envisioned a new, more resilient Ukraine after this war and is revamping his city’s infrastructure to prepare for an almost constant state of conflict.

“We must be ready for the next Russian invasion,” he said. “We need to spend a lot of time and effort in improving the country.”

After he was first elected in 2006, Sadovyi banned cars from the historic city center’s cobblestone squares and streets, turning them into pedestrian walkways lined with sidewalk restaurants and cafes. Before the Russian invasion, Lviv hosted more than 100 festivals a year, including a major international jazz festival.

Lviv, known as Ukraine’s cultural capital, has had several names as it changed hands over the centuries. Through the years, the city came under Polish, Austrian, German and Soviet control, before Ukraine regained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The city commemorated the 776th anniversary of its founding this month. Festivities this year were canceled and instead of city residents and foreign tourists being entertained by street performers, it was mostly displaced Ukrainians strolling through the central market square and sitting in sidewalk cafes.

The buildings in the historic city center include cathedrals, castles and buildings brimming with Renaissance and Baroque details. Even the more modest buildings have distinctive flourishes, and some are simply stand-in-the-street-and-stare astonishing, like the House of Scientists, a neo-Baroque extravaganza with a huge wooden entryway flanked by twin Atlases holding up the balcony.

Even outside the historic old city, hundreds of simple apartment buildings have entrances where statues of Greek gods loiter and balconies graced by wrought iron bent into art nouveau curves.

For new construction for those displaced by war, Kolomeytsev is envisioning something much less adorned, but no less graceful.

The low-rise apartment buildings would be modeled after an existing apartment complex with interconnected multilevel buildings with courtyards and cobblestone-patterned pedestrian walkways intersecting raised lawns. The airy apartments feature balconies and sweeping windows.

“We know how to build and we can build,” he said, although adding that funding would need to be secured.

In parts of Lviv with a less attractive architectural legacy, like the outlying neighborhoods dotted with drab gray high-rises from the Soviet era, Kolomeytsev said the city had also tried to embrace at least part of that heritage. He said in some cases they have replaced hulking factories next to residential buildings with parks while in others they have undertaken renovations retaining the best features of a building.

The city recently held a competition to renovate an aging Soviet-era landmark, the Premier Hotel Dnister, where one of its most famous guests, Hillary Clinton, stayed in 1997.

The winning design preserves the imposing Soviet architecture but lightens it with narrower vertical elements and more open space around the building.

“Their main idea was to preserve the architecture as much as possible,” Kolomeytsev said.

Back in his office, filled with light flowing through huge windows overlooking the square, he flipped through models of projects approved but not yet built — one of them a modern development around the Art Nouveau railway station.

“Of course now everything is on hold,” he said. “But after the return of normality, let’s say, we will resume these projects.”

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