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Rebuilding Kharkiv after the war: A chance to modernize

Stefan Dege
January 31, 2023

Inspired by Sir Norman Foster's plans, Kharkiv architect Dmitry Zhuikov wants to help reconstruct a Ukrainian city destroyed by war.

A pile of rubble behind a swing set with a teddy bear seated on one of the swings.
Architects see the tragic destruction of Kharkiv as a chance to create a more sustainable city when it is rebuiltImage: RICARDO MORAES/REUTERS

Dmitry Zhuikov's voice trembles when he talks about the war in his native Ukraine.

The 39-year-old architect recalls growing up in Kharkiv, remembers the laughter of friends and schoolmates, the places they hung out as teenagers, the park bench where he kissed a girl for the first time. His memories are vivid.

Until the Russian invasion, the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border, was the second-largest city in the country, home to about 1.5 million people.

A man looks at a crater at a production site after a recent attack in the city of Kharkiv.
A Russian attack on a Kharkiv production site in November left behind this craterImage: Yevhen Titov/AFP

Kharkiv, a 'symbol of the suffering of the people'

But Kharkiv became one of Russia's first targets when it invaded Ukraine last February, and the destruction is widespread.

During her visit to the city in early January, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called Kharkiv a "symbol of the absolute insanity of the Russian war of aggression and the suffering of the people."

Speaking amid bombed-out houses, Baerbock said Kharkiv was also a symbol of Ukrainian courage in the face of Russian aggression.

Annalena Baerbock and Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba amid destroyed buildings in Kharkiv.
Annalena Baerbock (left) and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba visited Kharkiv in early JanuaryImage: Xander Heinl/photothek/picture alliance/dpa

Russian troops besieged the city for months, bombarding and shelling it with artillery fire. Then Russian soldiers entered, and hundreds of civilians were killed.

But the Ukrainian military managed to liberate the city in the fall of 2022.

It was a major defeat for the Russians, Zhuikov told DW, adding that while artillery fire can no longer reach the city, Moscow's strategic bombers and medium-range missiles are still a threat.

Broken windows, collapsed roofs, burned-out houses

Many people have been forced to leave Kharkiv. Zhuikov said what remains is a city in ruins, with badly damaged buildings throughout, particularly in the northeastern outskirts where the Russians sought to advance.

"Entire suburbs were completely shot up," he said. The city center, including the Kharkiv regional administration building, city hall and the university, were also severely damaged.

Kharkiv, a burnt-out car in front of a shelled building
This destroyed building once housed state regional administration officesImage: Pavel Dorogoi

By July, Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov had listed about 3,500 damaged residential buildings, some 500 of which were beyond repair.

"At least 150,000 people have lost the roofs over their heads," said Zhuikov.

Landmark art nouveau buildings were hit, as was a brand-new shopping mall in the city center, a swimming pool, a huge power plant and the university sports complex and stadium where Zhuikov used to play soccer as a young boy.

Concern for family and friends

A headshot of Dmitry Zhuikov, wearing a golden shirt, with short black hair and a beard
Architect Dmitry Zhuikov was born and raised in KharkivImage: privat

As the son of an architect Zhuikov, born in Kharkiv in 1983, has followed in his mother's footsteps. He studied construction and architecture at the National Technical University and worked as an architect. He then met his wife, an architect from Mariupol. In 2012, the two moved to Dessau, Germany. where they completed their master's degrees.

The couple, who now have two children, stayed in Germany. Zhuikov works for an architectural firm in Munich, though he still feels close to his native Ukraine.

"Even though my family is safe here, many of my acquaintances, friends and relatives remain in eastern Ukraine," he said. "I suffer with them."

Norman Foster's masterplan

In December, British star architect Norman Foster drew the world's attention to Kharkiv when he presented Mayor Terekhov with a master plan to redevelop the city.

His plan is based on five pilot projects, including a cultural heritage project to create a new architectural landmark in the city center, and a river project to transform a 6-kilometer green strip between the Kharkiv and Nemyshlya rivers for pedestrians and cyclists.

Foster, who developed the master plan with a team of Ukrainian architects, plans to turn a coal power plant into a clean energy and food center as part of the industry project.

A pilot science project aims to attract technology companies, research firms and startups to the eastern Ukrainian city.

Foster's housing project is focused on modernizing existing buildings and making them more energy-efficient.

Norman Foster, in the middle on the right, with other people at a table
UK star architect Norman Foster (middle right) presented local authorities with a master plan for the reconstruction of KharkivImage: Norman Foster Foundation

Zhuikov would love to be part of the rebuilding of Kharkiv, and sees the city's reconstruction as an opportunity to develop a new energy-saving concept. Many buildings were barely insulated before the war, he points out. "And it can get really cold in Kharkiv," he added. He also knows that proper planning is needed to achieve this goal.

During the war, he said, many people have became more closely networked. They have learned to help each other, and have become more proactive and committed to their concerns. Zhuikov is convinced that Kharkiv will benefit from this, "because citizen participation is important for reconstruction."

First, however, peace must be restored.

Many buildings are still undergoing emergency makeshift repairs and infrastructure — like heating, electricity and water networks — is being fixed. "We Ukrainians are good at improvising," said Zhuikov.

Aid, like the support pledged by Germany's foreign minister in January, is money well-spent, he added. "For Ukraine, the war is a tragedy, but with great opportunities," said Zhuikov. "I hope they will be used."

This article was originally written in German.