1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Ukraine: How architect Norman Foster aims to rebuild Kharkiv

Stefan Dege
December 23, 2022

British architect Norman Foster is proposing ambitious plans for the reconstruction of Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv.

A burning building with firefighters in front of it
Kharkiv has been badly damaged by Russia's attacks on the city Image: Kostiantyn Liberov/AP/picture alliance

The British star architect Norman Foster caused a stir in April when he offered his services for the reconstruction of Kharkiv pro bono, entirely for free. Since then, Sir Norman has been in regular contact with Kharkiv's mayor Ihor Terekhov via video link.

Kharkiv, known for its Art Nouveau architecture, was taken over by Russian forces in April. Before the invasion, 1,5 million people lived there, a mere 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border.

Kharkiv is also the hometown of author Serhij Zhadan, this year's winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

Norman Foster is one of the stars of his profession. In 1999, he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is considered an "Oscar of architecture." The 180-meter skyscraper "The Gherkin," which spirals into the London sky like a twisted spindle, the futuristic Millennium Bridge over the Thames, Apple Park in Cupertino, California, and the glass dome of the Reichstag in Berlin are just some of the projects the architect has realized throughout his career.

Foster and the World Cup in Qatar

The prize-winning architect lately drew criticism because his office has also accepted spectacular commissions for authoritarian regimes. Foster + Partners designed a huge transparent tent in Kazakhstan's capital Astana, an airport in Beijing, and the World Cup final stadium in Qatar, countries with a questionable record on human rights.

Benedikt Hotze, spokesman for the Association of German Architects, does not disapprove of Norman Forster's initiative in proposing a reconstruction plan for Kharkiv. However, such behavior is rather unusual in the industry, Hotze tells DW: "That's not really how it normally works."

Kharkiv's mayor Terekhov, who also heads the Forum of Ukrainian Mayors, has been in constant contact with Foster since April, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported. However, some in Kharkiv have not been thrilled with the rather intransparent process. The reconstruction plan has not been presented to the Ukrainian public, architectural historian Ievgeniya Gubkina told Swiss newspaper NZZ. Any discussion about it is taking place behind closed doors, which is "completely inappropriate," Gubkina said.

A group of people sitting around a table
British star architect Sir Norman (r.) has ambitious plans to rebuild KharkivImage: Norman Foster Foundation

A building like the Berlin Reichstag?

One prominent detail, for example, concerns the House of Regional Administration, which was badly damaged by a missile strike on March 1, 2022. The constructivist building from the 1920s, rebuilt after World War II in the Stalinist candy-striper style, bears "many historical layers," Ukrainian urban researcher Iryna Sklokina told the German daily taz.

That is why its future is the subject of controversial debate. Demolition is an option, so is the reconstruction of the version from Stalin's time, leaving the traces of the rocket impacts visible. Foster, on the other hand, wants to preserve only the historic facade and entirely rebuild the interior. He took a similar approach to the Reichstag in Berlin, a very popular building which houses the German Bundestag.

Earlier in December, Foster traveled to Eastern Ukraine. A report of his meeting with Kharkiv's mayor Ihor Terekhov has been published on the website of the Norman Foster Foundation, which is based in Spain.

Debris from destroyed buildings in Kharkiv
Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, was badly hit by the Russian forcesImage: Yevhen Titov/AFP

The report emphasizes that the public has been included in the design process, for example through the use of questionnaires, to which there were 16,000 responses. There have also been around 100 meetings and work sessions with the Kharkiv Group of Architects, bringing together 10 local architects, urban planners and historians.

Five projects for reconstruction

Five pilot projects have been identified for reconstruction. The "Heritage Project" would create a new architectural landmark in the city center. The "River Project" will transform a six-kilometer strip between the Kharkiv and Nemyshlya rivers into an ecological link for pedestrians and cyclists.

The "Industry Project" will transform a coal-fired power plant into a center for clean energy and food while the "Housing Project" aims to modernize existing buildings to make them safer and more energy efficient. And finally, a pilot "Science" project will be designed to attract technology companies, research companies and start-ups.

German architects have also been considering how to help with the reconstruction of Ukrainian cities and towns. First talks have taken place, says Markus Lehrmann, Managing Director of the Chamber of Architects of North Rhine-Westphalia, who also reports "bilateral contacts" between individual architects.

But first peace must return. Currently, Ukraine needs first aid in restoring infrastructure, district heating, electricity and water networks. "At the moment, people have other things to worry about," Lehrmann said.

This article was originally published in German.

Picking up the pieces after Russian occupation