Ukraine: Norman Foster, ‘colonisation’ and rebuilding Kharkiv

Kharkiv, Ukraine, in happier times. Photo by Anna Hunko on Unsplash

In my recent openDemocracy piece on decolonising the bookshelf, I paraphrased Jane Austen’s famous first line from ‘Pride and Prejudice’: “it is a truth universally acknowledged that decolonisation is devilishly difficult and wildly contested.”

That’s dreadfully, starkly true. Consider this.

Ukraine needs to be rebuilt by architects that understand the local context, the political situation, the cultural background. — Iryna Matsevko

When celebrity architect Norman Foster published a manifesto outlining his plans to create a “city of the future” in Kharkiv, Ukraine, he received unexpected pushback. His ideas were seen as neo-imperialist, a way for the Anglo-Saxon to take over and keep control.

Ukrainian architect Oleg Drozdov, who co-founded the Kharkiv School of Architecture in 2017 took exception in forceful terms. He sharply criticized Mr Foster’s decision to appoint himself to oversee reconstruction and said it was an example of “intellectual colonization.”

Iryna Matsevko, deputy chancellor of the institution, the first private architectural school in Ukraine, concurred. She said that Ukraine needed to be rebuilt by architects that “understand the local context, the political situation, the cultural background.”

So far, so good.

But then Mr Drozdov expanded further on the notion of colonisation. He seemed particularly concerned by Ukrainians’ apparent vulnerability. In an interview with ‘Architecture Today’, he described the help that’s being offered to displaced Ukrainian architecture students by firms across Europe as a “new professional colonisation”.

This is what he said: “For us, for our mission, it’s super important to be able to corral architectural knowledge and power. Because at the moment many of our professionals are spread throughout Europe. Offices and institutions are offering positions to Ukrainian students. But it’s our goal to consolidate this professional power in Ukraine. If we don’t do that, I think we will face some kind of new professional colonisation. Ukraine will be left without its professional power. In the very near future we will need a lot of engineers and architects.”

Next, we’ll parse what he said and what it might mean.

Also read:

No, decolonising your bookshelf doesn’t mean getting rid of Jane Austen

Colonisation and decolonisation in the context of Kharkiv’s architects

Originally published at https://www.rashmee.com on June 7, 2022.

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Rashmee Roshan Lall

Rashmee Roshan Lall

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PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Writer. My novel 'Pomegranate Peace' is about my year in Afghanistan. I teach journalism at university