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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

The symbols we choose

Is the Holodomor Memorial a new experiment on the historical image of Ukraine’s capital?
2 September, 2008 - 00:00

The tragedy of the Holodomor has been the subject of long-standing and broad discussions in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government declared 2008 the Holodomor Victims’ Remembrance Year. Clearly, every tragedy that has befallen humankind needs to be understood by succeeding generations. That is why people construct memorial complexes and establish research centers and museums. These institutions should not only host exhibits that attest to horrific times; the buildings themselves need to make a fitting aesthetic impression on visitors with their unique imagery and spatial and structural organization.

This article is not about establishing new aspects of historical truth. Rather, it deals with a project that was scheduled to be completed this fall, but for various reasons is being delayed. The December 2002 order of the President of Ukraine and two of his edicts issued in Novembers 2005 and October 2006 envisaged the construction in Kyiv of a memorial complex to commemorate the victims of the Holodomor. The first stage of the project requires financing to the tune of at least 80 million hryvnias.

At this juncture, it would not be remiss to look at a couple of examples of recently inaugurated memorials dedicated to horrific events that took place during the 20th century: Peter Eisenman’s Berlin Holocaust Memorial and Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin.

The Holocaust Memorial in downtown Berlin, near the Brandenburg Gate, occupies over two hectares of land. After 17 years of debates it was finally opened on May 10, 2005. The architectural design was selected from more than 500 proposals submitted from all over the world. The final design is an almost square 150 x 150-meter area divided into 2,711 gray concrete parallelepipeds of different heights without inscriptions; a proposal to inscribe the names of the six million victims was turned down. Between these concrete blocks in the shape of a square net are aisles for visitors. The ground slopes from the edges towards the center, while the blocks rise in height so that visitors no longer see a way out-they are disoriented by the uniform slabs of concrete.

During the construction it was revealed that the supplier of the anti-vandal coating also produced Zyklon B, a gas used by the Nazis for the gas chambers, and company’s services were rejected. The location of the memorial itself has a dark past: the Nazi propaganda department headed by Goebbels was located here in 1937, and Hitler’s bunker, where he shot himself, was nearby.

The proposal to build an underground information center under the memorial was also rejected. The monument was criticized by those who believed it should also be dedicated to other victims of the Nazis. Some critics said that this kind of minimalism could not adequately convey all the horror of the Holocaust.

“I don’t want people to leave this place with a clean conscience,” said architect Peter Eisenman. At the opening ceremony he declared: “We have not solved all the problems — architecture is not a panacea against evil. We know that not everyone who is present here will be pleased, but this was not our goal.” Every day the memorial receives over 2,000 visitors.

The Germans and the Dutch have different approaches to building Holocaust museums. In Germany they erect gigantic structures made of concrete and steel in order to convey the idea of countless victims and to impress visitors. Dutch architects prefer glossy marble and glass surfaces in contrast to the smooth gray concrete used by the Germans.

Twelve years after the first competition the Jewish Museum was opened in Berlin.

Daniel Libeskind’s design for the museum was effective, and the facade made of nothing but steel was well received by the public. The museum does not have any right angles. In order to view the exhibition, visitors have to walk back and forth along the hallway several times, which leaves them with the impression of confusion and psychological and physical fatigue.

For two years the museum did not host any exhibits, but every year its attractive structure was a drawing card for 350,000 tourists who visited its empty rooms. The internal structure of the museum, according to many critics, is not suited to traditional exhibitions: it disorients visitors. This is more of an architectural memorial than a museum. The museum has several small, closed inner courts lit only from above. In one of them, called Fallen Leaves, iron masks of agony lie scattered on the floor. When visitors step on them, a terrible noise of rusty iron is created, which evokes associations with the cries of victims.

The unique forms of these two constructions, the materials with which they were constructed, and the absence of pomp all contribute to the symbolic expression of tragedy by capturing eternal unrest and the feeling of hopelessness. These visual symbols are examples of ultramodern architecture based on 3D computer design. Each visitor can clearly identify the era in which these two museums were built. Two extremely difficult tasks were solved here: an innovative approach to design and the discovery of a clear and understandable image of the tragedy. This was achieved through regularly-held international competitions and the systematic processing of the results by architects, artists, museum curators, and other professionals.

Meanwhile, what is happening in Ukraine? The memorial was scheduled to open in 2003, the 70th anniversary of the Holodomor. The Verkhovna Rada ruled that it should be located in the Pechersk district near the Arsenalna metro station, and next to a building housing the commandant’s office. Unfortunately, the competition did not produce any results. Instead, an infamous high-rise was erected on that site.

The next all-Ukrainian open competition for the design of the State Historical Memorial Complex dedicated to the victims of the Holodomor, political repressions, and forced deportations was announced in 2003. The future memorial was moved to one bank of the Dnipro River, between the monument to the founders of Kyiv and Paton Bridge. No winners were announced. The best designers were invited to take part in the next round of the competition, but the location shifted once again-this time to the park near St. Nicholas’s Golden-Domed Cathedral, on Volodymyr Hill, close to the monument to St. Volodymyr. In early 2005 two brothers, Roman and Dmytro Seliuk, were declared the winners of the competition, and the main financial rewards plus bonuses were awarded.

However, articles criticizing the monument’s impact on the Kyiv landscape sparked a furor, this being one of the reasons why the monument was never built. In the spring of 2006 a new competition was launched (http:// uazakon.com/document/ fpart20/idx20320.html) and the monument’s projected location was moved-again. This time, the Memorial of Sorrow was slated to rise on the slopes of the Dnipro River near Slava Park and Kalynovy Hai, the latter of which was opened by President Yushchenko.

Fourteen teams participated in the new competition. Their designs were displayed at the Artists’ Union of Ukraine and are posted on the private Web site http://www.archunion.com. ua/golodomor-06-001.shtml.

After the lengthy rigmarole to choose the best design, the winner was finally announced. This was the team headed by People’s Artist of Ukraine Anatolii Haidamaka, who is known for his design of Kalynovy Hai near the Dnipro River and the Holodomor Memorial in the village of Khoruzhivka. The award-winning design was divided into two structures: a memorial and a museum.

According to the latest information, an international competition has been announced for the design of the Holodomor mu­seum, and the results will be announced on Nov. 25, the same day that the first stage of the construction will be launched and the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor will be marked. However, this writer has failed to find any information on the Holodomor Mu­seum in Ukraine on leading foreign sites that disseminate in­formation on architectural events worldwide. Information on the conditions and terms of this competition is not accessible in Ukraine either.

The first stage of the construction will comprise the above-ground building of the memorial, the entrance square with a memorial block, a sculpture featuring several angels, the main alley, a square with the wheels of history, a sculpture of a girl clutching some ears of grain, the underground Hall of Memory with additional rooms, and a parking lot for 35 cars carved out of the park’s sidewalk along Ivan Mazepa Street, across from the entrance to the memorial. For a number of organizational reasons, the construction was significantly delayed and is now proceeding in the all-hands-on-deck fashion at the site located between the 12th-century Savior’s Church in Berest and the Unknown Soldier Memorial, next to a bastion of a citadel that is part of a 13th-century Kyivan fortress.

The site undoubtedly has exceptional municipal, historical, architectural, archeological, and landscape-recreational value. The uniquely beautiful Slava Park, designed by the architect Avraam Miletsky in the 1970s, attracts thousands of Kyivites and guests of Ukraine’s capital every day. Official delegations come here to lay flowers on special days, and newlyweds come here to be photographed.

Although the Holodomor Memorial was evaluated by specialists on many occasions, some fundamental decisions with regard to the project raise doubts-in particular, its location in Kyiv. Even now the pile-driving machines are projecting upward on the construction site located in the protected area of the park, an outstanding specimen of landscape architecture. They are 31 meters high, about as high as the memorial itself, and they partially block the best view of the Kyivan Cave Monastery.

Leased by the Kyiv City Council to the developer in 2007, this land is a complete cityscape ensemble. It can be seen from numerous public places, squares, and promenades on both banks of the Dnipro. According to UNESCO’s recommendations on the comprehensive preservation of historical monuments (the Kyivan Cave Monastery is a UNESCO world heritage site) this land was classified as a buffer zone of the architectural preserve. Placing a new structure in this area requires an extremely well thought-out decision with respect to preserving the visual characteristics of the existing cityscape ensemble.

It is also known that the initial version of the memorial, which was declared the winner, was changed in the past two years. The current version still has its sculptural character, but is now clearly identified with a church candle, which looks like an excessively literal image of memory and sorrow. If we consider its colossal size (30 meters is more than enough for a candle), we may well ask: will this building dovetail with the existing ensemble where the scale of images and proportions of the buildings are vastly different?

There is no exact information on access ways for transport and pedestrians. During visits of high-ranking officials Mazepa Street will be blocked off, but it is not clear how the underground structures will be made accessible. The Mystetsky Arsenal, a cultural, artistic, and museum complex, is rising up next to the future Holodomor Memorial. Its museum alone may require 750 parking spaces, as well as room for buses and TV broadcast vans. The Mystetsky Arsenal will also feature a 1,700-seat concert hall, a museum of contemporary art, a three-cinema movie theater, a restoration center, a delivery center, art studios, an administration building, and a 270-room hotel complete with luxury suites. Altogether this will require over 1,000 parking spaces.

The design for the Holodomor Memorial was executed by Proektni Systemy, Ltd., a company indirectly linked to Andrii Myrhorodsky, a member of the governors’ board of the XXI Stolittia Company (http:// www.archunion.com.ua/arch/a-0267.html). On its official Web site (http://21.com.ua/index.php?lang_id=3&content_id=623&product_id=24) and in the Euro-2012 city preparation program the company has announced that in 2008 it will launch the construction of the Posolsky dvir hotel and cultural complex, with 300 rooms on the site of the famous Lavra gallery, near the Kyivan Cave Monastery, the Savior’s Church in Berest (where ancient frescoes are being destroyed) and 100 meters away from the future Holodomor memorial.

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Therefore, privately owned development companies are building not only the Holodomor Memorial but also public, cultural, research, commercial, and residential buildings spread over 160,000 square meters (all part of the complex Mystetsky Arsenal), as well as hotels, residential buildings, and office buildings in the buffer zone around a UNESCO world heritage monument. One is naturally led to wonder: when will a comprehensive program for developing the entire territory of the buffer zone be developed and approved at the state level?

It is not clear how the future Holodomor Memorial will function in its location next to a wall of the Kyiv Fortress citadel, given such high construction density and numerous unresolved problems related to traffic routes and engineering infrastructure. The vague, illusory, and subjective criteria that are being used to evaluate the impact on the surrounding landscape and historical monuments (and these are known only to the initiated) leave a lot of room for abuse.

Despite the prolonged twists and turns of the process of selecting the location for the Holodomor Museum and deciding on its outward appearance and symbolic character, a transparent and consistent discussion about this memorial has yet to take place. It appears that the tradition of dedicating newly erected monuments to landmark anniversaries has stood in the way of careful decision-making.

What is happening now on the hills of Kyiv — the rushed nature of the construction — will aggravate the problem of preserving the city’s architectural heritage and its inimitable landscapes. Under these circumstances, rather than generating awareness of our people’s tragedy, the Holodomor Memorial will spark misgivings concerning the need to preserve centuries-old historical ensembles and distrust of the Ukrainian and international legislation that is supposed to protect them.