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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Donetsk: Cultural Framework

Lithuanian architect Thomas S. Butkus on how the city should find a new identity
7 April, 2014 - 17:30
Photo by Maia SAIENKO, courtesy of “IZOLYATSIA. Platform for Cultural Initiatives”

DONETSK – Architect Thomas S. Butkus (Lithuania) wants to find the “Donetsk cultural framework.” This is the name of his joint project with the “IZOLYATSIA. Platform for Cultural Initiatives” Foundation. The artist will hold workshops for local residents and will shoot a video about the “miners’ capital.” Butkus told The Day why Donetsk dwellers need this.

What attracted you in Donetsk?

“I am interested in the functions of culture in a modern city. I wrote a monograph City as Event, in which I described the way objects, space, and phenomena merge in Vilnius and Klaipeda. I once saw an advertisement about a residence in Donetsk and decided to make a similar project here. I knew there were a lot of mines in Donetsk, and the first idea that came to my mind was to use these old mines and interpret them as empty spaces. This is important, because everything starts with emptiness, it would be a sort of “hole-graphy.” Now I plan to make a video about Donetsk, I will finish it some time in April.

“The main goal of the project ‘Donetsk: Cultural Framework’ is to spur the internal processes of the city for its dwellers to start caring about their culture themselves. Donetsk is well furnished with galleries, a stadium, a park, but is this enough? New people with new ideas appear all the time, and new institutions are required for people to be able to implement them.”

In the complex of cultural functions of modern cities, you distinguish objects, space, and phenomena – all the things that shape the unique image like, for example, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. What makes Donetsk unique?

“Donetsk residents have to find an answer to the question what is a phenomenon for them independently. All cities are the same, there are railway stations, city hall, squares, parks in each one of them. The most important is people, they are always different, they fill urban space and make it unique. Donetsk waste banks could become a base for non-conventional parks or environment-friendly buildings. If at least half of the local waste banks were covered with solar batteries, there would be no electricity problems here. The other thing is that coal would become unnecessary here (smiles).”

What are the city’s biggest problems?

“Firstly, polluted air and environment, secondly, non-functional structure of the city, a lot of territories here are not functioning. The reason is clear: it was an industrial site before, but the world is changing, and the structure should change as well: public transport, landscaping. A lot of things can be renewed with the help of youth. It should start with the simplest things: fixing a fence or cleaning up a yard. You can always complain about bad government, but it does not change a thing. You watch over your territory yourself, then others look at you and start copying what you do.”

There is huge Soviet legacy in some Ukrainian cities, and Donetsk in particular: numerous monuments to revolution activists, and corresponding street names. The question of what to do with all this is extremely urgent now.

“People have to decide this themselves. I studied this problem in Klaipeda, it was hard: you understand those for whom these monuments mean something, but we must look ahead. However, if these things have some cultural value, an exhibition can be made out of them. One Lithuanian businessman gathered monuments of Soviet era and exhibited them in a forest, this project is called Grutas Park. Tourists come there from abroad, it is like a national park. In general, Soviet government brought infrastructure, roads, kindergartens to some places, but in the most cases, it was one step ahead and three steps back.”

How should people organize to strengthen the “cultural framework”?

“If you want to build something, the most important thing is to avoid the accumulation of power in one hand. Polycentric structures are needed for the cultural framework, each district must activate its own potential. Post-Soviet space lacks small cultural community centers which would deal with social problems and work in specific fields.

“Everything starts with an initiative. There is some groundwork in Donetsk, for example, graffiti artists work here. There is a potential, it just needs to be organized. At the moment, the structure of the downtown is well-developed, and the industrial area is not attractive, the government has not been interested in it. In order to fix this, public and social projects must be developed among locals. Everyone must start with their own yard: look how much trash there is everywhere, but people just sit and do nothing. Once the state was thinking for everyone, and people got used to the idea that someone will take care of them. But this paradigm has vanished, your yard is trashed – you have to clean it up yourself. The community needs to be encouraged, for example, it must be shown during workshops how to fix fences, whitewash walls, get rid of rubbish. Donetsk has cultural heritage. Now a ‘cultural framework’ must be built for the city to receive a new identity.”