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Reimagining Mariupol  A Ukrainian design team develops a new vision for reviving the seaside city Russia destroyed 

Source: Meduza

Ukraine’s southern city of Mariupol has been under Russian occupation for the past 16 months. During that time, the Moscow-installed authorities have been cleaning up the wreckage from Russia’s brutal 2022 siege, which lasted more than 80 days and reduced much of the port city to rubble. With hundreds of bombed-out buildings undergoing demolition, unrecovered bodies and evidence of war crimes are being hauled away along with the debris. Reconstruction efforts, happening under Moscow’s master plan, seem primarily aimed at erasing the traces of war and the city’s Ukrainian identity rather than accommodating the population’s needs. All the while, however, a team of Ukrainian architects and designers have been creating an alternative vision for post-war Mariupol, driven by their faith that Ukraine will one day liberate the city. Journalist and architecture critic Asya Zolnikova tells their story.

Meduza first published a version of this article in Russian in August 2023. The following translation, which has been abridged for length and clarity, appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza in English covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

As Russian forces lay siege to Mariupol in the spring of 2022, Sergii Rodionov began developing a plan to revive the city. 

The 34-year-old, who was born in Mariupol, had years of experience working as a graphic designer and art director on projects aimed at improving his hometown. In particular, he oversaw the development of a new transport scheme and created a new visual identity for the city that was in place from 2016 until the 2022 Russian invasion.

Having worked in Moscow and New York throughout the 2010s, Rodionov moved to Kyiv in 2020. But he didn’t experience the full-scale war in Ukraine. When Russian troops rolled across the Ukrainian border on February 24, 2022, Rodionov was in Rotterdam, where he had arrived just weeks before to study at the Independent School for the City

Rodionov recalls that he couldn’t concentrate on anything after February 24: “I was just lying face down.” And while he was initially urged to develop a project dedicated to Rotterdam itself, he decided instead to focus his studies on Mariupol, “to avoid going crazy.” It was already clear to the designer that his hometown would have to be rebuilt.

A view of Mariupol during the Russian siege. May 10, 2022.
AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Rodionov’s mother was still in Mariupol at that time, and he had no contact with her for more than a month. He finally managed to bring her to the Netherlands in late April 2022. By then, the designer had finished his project — a “visual manifesto” titled Re: Mariupol that focused on the city's development after its eventual liberation.

The project didn’t go into great detail, but it created a buzz on social media. Eventually, the mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boichenko, who was elected in 2015 and forced to flee the city during the 2022 invasion, contacted Rodionov with an offer to expand the project with a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 

As a result, four other Ukrainian architects joined the Re: Mariupol project: Yana Buchatska, co-founder of the Kyiv-based architectural firm Sets Studio, Anna Kamyshan, co-founder of Mriia (a think tank dedicated to the future of Ukraine), and the co-founders of the Berlin-based e+A Studio, Pavel Zabotin and Viktor Kopeikin (who was born in Mariupol). 

Lessons from Rotterdam

Between February and May 2023, the Re:Mariupol manifesto grew into a 116-page book. On June 28, Rodionov presented the project at the Lviv Urban Forum as part of Mariupol.Reborn, a broader strategy for rebuilding Mariupol that’s part of an initiative by Ukraine’s wealthiest billionaire, Rinat Akhmetov. (Akhmetov has allocated $1.5 million to the project so far.)

Working with sources and conducting research took several months, Rodionov says. The Re:Mariupol team spoke with Ukrainian and foreign experts in geography, history, economics, and ecology and also considered the results of surveys Mariupol.Reborn conducted among residents who had fled the city during the war.

Rodionov’s studies in Rotterdam also played an important role. As the designer has emphasized repeatedly, the Dutch city is similar to his hometown in many ways. Both are large industrial centers with seaports — and both were razed to the ground. Nazi Germany’s Air Force bombed Rotterdam in 1940, destroying 2.6 square kilometers (one square mile) of the city center and nearly 25,000 homes. After the war, the city was radically reconstructed, and with this came mistakes worth considering when rebuilding Mariupol. 

Rotterdam Old Harbor
Thierry Monasse / Getty Images

According to the Mariupol.Reborn plan, the Ukrainian city will be revived with financial support from Akhmetov and money from USAID, the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The specific amount of funding has not been publicly disclosed, but Mayor Boichenko said in an interview with The Guardian that the sponsors have “a genuine vision to build a new city on the ashes of the old.” According to his estimates, it will take $14.5 billion over 15 years to rebuild Mariupol.

At present, Mariupol remains under Russian occupation. But the Re: Mariupol team doesn’t entertain the idea of Ukraine failing to liberate the city. “We’re proceeding from our love for the city, our belief in de-occupation, and the [project] brief we received from the city administration,” Rodionov says. 

Though he’s unsure whether it will be possible to implement all of Re: Mariupol’s vision, Rodionov believes that it’s important to develop a plan as soon as possible, so as not to waste time and also “to give people hope.”

Polish architectural researcher Kuba Snopek, the former undergraduate program director at the Kharkiv School of Architecture, welcomes this approach. “[Mariupol’s] future is absolutely unknown. But now is the time to start imagining it!” he wrote in a Telegram post about Re: Mariupol back in June. “Let’s take Poland as an example: Warsaw was completely destroyed during World War II. Reconstruction formally started in January 1945, but the discussion about how to rebuild was underway while the city was still being destroyed. Architects dreamed of a new Warsaw for years, and as soon as the war ended, they knew exactly what to do.”

A military base and a clean Azov Sea

According to the architects’ vision, post-occupation Mariupol will have a population of 600,000 by 2040. That’s almost 100,000 more than before the war. The project explicitly aims to attract newcomers to the city; A “big construction project” will require the participation of specialists from many countries, Rodionov explains. 

At the same time, Rodionov says he has no illusions about the return of Mariupol residents: some of his relatives and acquaintances don’t want to go back, especially older people (including his own mother). A third of the city’s pre-war residents simply do not have homes to return to: Fighting during the siege of Mariupol destroyed roughly 45 percent of the city’s buildings — and 90 percent of the damaged structures were residential. 

The plan also includes an international military base. The distance from the city to the Russian border is only 40 kilometers (about 25 miles), so it needs a “security hub,” Re: Mariupol architect Anna Kamyshan explained during a presentation at the Lviv Urban Forum. The military will determine the location and size of this facility, Rodionov says. 

Kamyshan’s presentation emphasized another particularity of the new Mariupol: Post-war, the city is “going to become a dead-end in terms of logistics.” In the past, Mariupol was oriented towards the economy of the USSR (and, before that, of the Russian Empire), with roads and railways that connected it to Moscow. “If Ukraine successfully integrates into the E.U. and NATO,” Kamyshan pointed out, the city will be on the periphery of the European Economic Area. Therefore, the city will need new infrastructure, renewable energy sources, and domestic production. 

The project also aims to tackle one of Mariupol’s biggest and most enduring problems: the environmental situation. Industrial waste from the city’s many factories has been leaking into the air, soil, and water for decades. Re: Mariupol proposes solving this problem immediately by removing pollutants from the Azov Sea and other water systems, building a factory for environmentally-friendly building materials, creating parks, and generally planting more greenery. 

Elizaveta Becker / Ullstein bild / Getty Images

Streets will also be redesigned according to the “15-minute city” concept, allowing residents to reach most necessities and services within a quarter of an hour. Theoretically, this scheme will reduce the need to use transport, resulting in less energy consumption and emissions.

Turning to the water

Re: Mariupol envisions building Mariupol’s post-liberation identity around science, education, and tourism. The heavy industry for which the city was historically so well-known was completely destroyed during the early months of the war, and Mariupol will struggle to attract new investors. Production is slated to resume only at the Illich Steel and Iron Works, which Rinat Akhmetov himself owns. 

The architects propose turning the grounds of other damaged factories, including the Azovstal steelworks, into landscape parks, cultural centers, and museums. The former Mariupol railway station, meanwhile, would house Mosaic Campus — “a think tank for the revival of Mariupol” named in honor of the Metallurgists mosaic. (Located in the railway station’s lounge, this modernist mosaic by Mariupol artists Lel Kuzminkov and Valentyn Konstantinov was significantly damaged by shelling in 2022.)

A center for sailing and rowing sports, as well as a promenade, will be built in the coastal zone. Currently, all transportation routes in the city lead to industrial areas, not to the sea. Rodionov wants to change this, arguing that the city “must turn back to the water” after two centuries of industrialization. This transformation would require new pedestrian routes and public transportation, as well as the construction of a new railway station, a shipping canal, and a ring road around Mariupol. The project also envisions a new international ferry terminal, 100 kilometers (62 miles) of bike paths, and several high-speed tram lines. 

In addition, Re: Mariupol covers plans to build new neighborhoods and restore historic buildings. This includes the restoration of the entire city center and its 19th century buildings, which were all but leveled. The original street grid will be preserved, but it will be densified with new housing. Traces of bullets and shells will be left on some facades, as was previously done in cities like Warsaw and Sarajevo

Some of the ruins will be preserved, as well. For example, the burnt gable and the remains of the auditorium of the bombed-out Drama Theater will serve as eternal evidence of Russia’s war crimes. Inside, there will be a memorial center dedicated to the hundreds of people killed when Russia bombed the theater on March 16, 2022. A new amphitheater will be built in front of the destroyed building, and a metal-and-glass shell in the shape of the former building will cover the ruins themselves. The city's main theater venue will be relocated. 

The Azovstal steelworks will also be turned into a memorial center, complete with a large sculpture of a soldier with his arms outstretched — referencing a famous photo from the Azovstal siege.

The architecture outside of the steel mill will preserve Mariupol’s industrial spirit, incorporating concrete, oxidized metal, brick facades, and other “brutalist” and “industrial” textures. Other local materials are also expected to be used: ceramic tiles, earthen walls, mosaics, and terrazzo.

‘The anchor that pulls us back’

Rodionov describes his vision for post-war Mariupol as “quite modernist.” There’s a lot of fundamentally new, often glass architecture — like that built in Rotterdam after the end of World War II, “when people thought that the worst was over and the world was heading towards an era of prosperity and the triumph of humanism.” 

The plans show, for example, a main railway station made of glass located on “city island,” a peninsula at the mouth of the Kalmius River (the city’s railway station is currently located on the central beach). This is the geographical center of the city, but before the war, its territory was empty save for boat garages and railway tracks. The new station is designed in the form of a giant Cyrillic letter “П” — a nod to both the image of a triumphal arch and the Ukrainian word “перемога” (peremoha), which means “victory.”

It’s very important “that the history of the city isn’t limited to the current war and several preceding centuries, when Mariupol was part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union,” Rodionov underscores. 

Mayor Boichenko has expressed similar views. “We have asked Mariupol residents [around the country] what we need to remove from the city and what to leave,” he told The Guardian back in June. “That’s when the idea came up that we should remove everything Soviet from the city. This is the anchor that pulls us back, and Putin is clinging to it.”

At the same time, Re: Mariupol doesn’t address the question of what to do with the buildings that the Russian-occupation authorities built since the city was captured in May 2022. “This is an open question, we will return to it at later stages. But in any case, it will have to be decided collectively,” says Rodionov. 

Indeed, while Ukrainian architects and designers have been developing a vision for a post-liberation city, Kremlin-appointed authorities in Mariupol have been erasing both traces of the war and Ukrainian cultural heritage on a massive scale. 

According to Russia’s Master Plan for the Development of Mariupol through 2035, the occupation authorities are expected to build housing for hundreds of thousands of residents. Some of these buildings have already gone up, in the form of faceless, poorly-built, prefabricated high-rises.

Apartment buildings in Mariupol’s new Nevsky micro-district

At the same time, the occupation authorities are demolishing damaged buildings by the hundreds, claiming that they cannot be restored (according to Boichenko, they plan to destroy approximately 1,000 structures in total). However, Ukrainian officials surmise that the real reason for the demolitions is to cover up evidence of war crimes. Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to Mariupol’s mayor, has repeatedly claimed that many of the city’s destroyed high-rise buildings contained 50 to 100 bodies each. 

The occupation authorities demolished the remnants of the Mariupol Drama Theater in late 2022. All that remains is a portico with a pediment and sculptures of grain farmers and part of the amphitheater, basement ceilings, and the foundations. Many of the bodies of those killed in the theater bombing were allegedly left inside. “All the people are still under the rubble, because the rubble is still there — no one dug them up,” Oksana Syomina, a Mariupol resident who survived the bombing, told the Associated Press. “This is one big mass grave.”

Occupation officials claim they plan to turn the theater into “the most modern venue in the Donetsk People’s Republic” (Russia’s official term for the occupied territories in Ukraine’s Donetsk region). Earlier, the ruins were hidden behind fabric-covered scaffolding emblazoned with the portraits of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and poet Alexander Pushkin.

The wreckage of the Mariupol Drama Theater. May 14, 2023.

The occupation authorities have also restored the Soviet-era names of certain squares and streets (renaming Peace Avenue and Freedom Square after Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, for example), painted over the well-known Milana mural, and dismantled a monument to the victims of political repressions and the Holodomor (a Soviet-engineered famine that killed millions in Ukraine). Occupying forces also burned and looted the library of Mariupol’s St. Petro Mohyla Cathedral, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church known for its decorative Petrykivka paintings

Re:Mariupol’s vision for the city is diametrically opposed to the Russian occupation authorities’ destructive approach to reconstruction. According to Rodionov, this dissent has been crucial for his team. “It was important for us to make this project as a contrasting response to the master plan Russia created last summer,” Rodionov explains. “To highlight our values, our differences, and to show that for us Mariupol isn’t concrete boxes, but people and their stories.”

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Story by Asya Zolnikova for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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