For Slava Balbek, the founder and CEO of Kyiv-based Balbek Bureau, there are two distinct chapters in his architecture firm’s history. “We are divided into before and after February 24th,” he says, a reference to the date earlier this year when Russia invaded his nation. “Before, we were like an ordinary architectural bureau — we had done 13 years of work on restaurants, commercial projects and residences, and we had about 75 employees.”
And after? How does the design studio behind Kyiv’s central food market and other vibrant gathering spots respond when the city has suddenly transformed into a battlefield?
“We took some time to regroup — just to understand what was really happening,” says Balbek. “We usually have weekly meetings on Mondays at 10 o’clock, and on the 25th, we just sent a message to everyone instead: Please, take care of yourself, and take as long as you need to get to a safe place.”
Within a few weeks of the war’s onset, Balbek mobilized a team to lead a food drive program, Kyiv Volunteer, that has since worked with local restaurants to serve hundreds of thousands of meals to defense forces and local citizens.
Two more pro bono initiatives followed: Re:Ukraine Monuments, a concept for protecting local monuments while preserving some sense of their aesthetic beauty and historical importance (157 culturally significant sites, including 16 monuments, have been damaged so far, according to UNESCO), and Re:Ukraine, a system for developing refugee housing that holds human dignity and local architectural vernacular in equal regard at a time when an estimated 12 million Ukrainians have fled their homes.
When we spoke to Balbek for this story in early June, Kyiv had been relatively stable for many months, while other areas of Ukraine bore the brunt of Russia’s brutal attacks. But in the days after we spoke, a Kyiv apartment tower was hit with an air strike that killed one civilian and injured many more; the next day, a five-hour drive away in Kremenchuk, another air strike on a shopping mall took at least 20 more lives.
In the midst of all this devastation, Balbek Bureau is proving the power of design to inspire hope and deliver meaningful support. It may be a firm whose portfolio is divided into work done before the arrival of wartime and work done after it, but its core principles have remained the same: It is steadfastly committed to making Ukrainian cities livable and inspiring — even when outside forces are hell-bent on destroying them.
How did your firm cope with the arrival of the war?
- Slava Balbek
It was step by step. Some of our project managers joined the defense forces. The rest of our team split into three parts. A third of them just froze, unable to continue working — it’s hard to be creative when you have this terrible background. Another third slowly continued our usual work on a few big international projects, like an office in China. And the final third began to work on our wartime projects: our food drive and, later, our refugee housing program.
We continued to pay a full salary to anyone working on those and to anyone who went into the military forces. We paid others based on their hours, and reduced pay to 30 per cent for those who could not work. We didn’t fire anyone. We try to stay together as a team.
What was your own experience like during those first few months?
In Kyiv, the first month was really terrible. Nobody knew what was going on, and there were constant street fights. I actually forgot that I’m an architect. I was trying to balance working as the leader for the Bureau with just helping to meet people’s basic needs: carrying heavy things or driving them wherever they needed to go.
Once they kicked the Russian troops out of the Kyiv region, it was much easier, or at least, it has been for a few months. The war is still happening all over Ukraine, but for now, it is more in the eastern and southern parts.
How did your food drive, Kyiv Volunteer, begin?
It was pretty organic. We prepared meals with leftover food in our fridges and delivered them to the military forces. Soon, we had organized a group with local restaurants — at most, it was 26 restaurants and three bakeries — and were preparing more than 10,000 meals daily.
We switched from serving the military and territory defense to serving civilians, because the markets and stores were closed. Now, we have moved from serving Kyiv to expanding into the different villages across Ukraine, and instead of hot meals, it’s food packages. It has become a huge hub with 500 volunteers.
Where is your team based now?
Living situations change every week. Some people, like me, are back in Kyiv, but others moved elsewhere — we have employees working in five or six different cities around Europe. Having been through COVID, it was easier to set up remote work.
More of the firm is now trying to get back to — I won’t say “normal life,” but to another life. We have almost 20 projects on the go. Not only were we actually able to continue to work, but we needed to for our livelihood. Our international clients would say, “Sorry, but we see what’s going on there. How can you Zoom, how can you email?” We’d tell them, “We don’t have any choice. We need to stay focused on something.”
What does life in Kyiv look and feel like right now?
It’s been cleaned up a lot, but you do see the destruction: the burnt walls and windows and holes in the buildings. In some cases, people have closed them up with fabric or plywood to protect them from the weather. And for many months after I got back to the city, we had curfews and roadblocks with armed forces checking your passport.
By June, though, the restaurants were full, the shops were open and people were smiling again. Of course, that’s just Kyiv. If you go to Kharkiv, they never stopped bombing that city. And even in Kyiv, you still see covered monuments.
How did you develop your concept for protecting those monuments?
Early on, the city covered many of them with sandbags. In an emergency, you’re just moving fast, and we’re thankful for that. But the Kyiv City State Administration asked us to propose another solution for the remaining ones. We spent about five days analyzing what had been done throughout history to meet our goals: structural reinforcement, but also aesthetic appeal.
Structurally, we developed a protective box with a double wall that has sandbags in between the two layers to better take the power of a hit. It’s built out of modules that can be scaled up as needed, with a crossbar scaffolding frame and a facade covered in fire-retardant Bakelite plywood. Aesthetically, we have a graphic representing the monument inside and a text with information about its installation and history.
What is lost when a statue is hidden by sandbags — or worse, destroyed?
It shuts off the visual profile of the city. The monument needs protection, but it should be organic — something that you can see from a coffee shop across the street and that looks like it still fills that spot and matches that area. That’s why we specified the colour tone of the enclosures to be grey or olive, to tie into the surrounding environment.
You installed your design over a statue of Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky as a pilot project at the end of May. How has it been received?
We worked with Wonder Workshop and a Ukrainian grocer, Silpo, that provided materials left over from a Christmas market. Nikkipop, a local graffiti artist, painted the monument’s outline.
People have thanked us. If you’re used to passing by something on the way to work and then suddenly it’s covered in sandbags, it’s a problem. We should have the monuments protected — especially as a reminder of everyone serving in the military forces and keeping us safe — but it is important that the temporary aesthetic still makes for a livable environment.
When did you start your design concept for a refugee housing facility?
On March 10th. As my wife and I headed into Western Ukraine, finding accommodations became a huge problem. Anyone with a flat was asking for the highest rent. That’s the problem a refugee faces, and I came to understand temporary housing would be one of the first priorities for destroyed cities.
We started our design by taking some principles from similar projects across Europe. After 10 days, we released our basic idea, which we have continued to work on. Soon, we had requests to set up master plans for this housing in about 10 different cities. And for now, we’re working with three of them.
What defines your approach?
Comfort. Even if this is just going to be a temporary home, the main requirement is that it supports human dignity. So we’ve doubled up the number of restrooms and showers that this type of facility might usually have and added storage, laundry and common rooms.
The apartments are still small, but the overall housing gives you ways to form new connections, which makes recovery easier. Otherwise, if you lose your home and get transferred to some cold shipping container, you’ll continue to be in stress.
How do you see this concept being adapted to different locations?
So many different Ukrainian villages need a path forward, and we want to preserve some of their architectural identity. Week by week, we have been taking short trips all across the country — to the safe parts, at least — to develop a design code that can adapt to each village, whether it’s by adopting similar framing or a familiar colour palette or matching the typical roof inclination.
We’re thinking of ways to install this in a big wave. When you’re speaking about covering the whole country, it’s a system, not just a project. We’re currently fundraising to build a pilot project where we would act as the developer and test out different approaches. It will house 15 families, and we want to gather their feedback about what kind of life it’s allowing for.
What role does the rest of the world have to play in supporting Ukraine?
The main thing that we need is military support and funds to recover the economy. Right now, the whole world is helping Ukraine, and it’s really what’s allowing us to survive. Of course, the Ukrainian forces and citizens are demonstrating amazing bravery, especially when you’re looking at people who have just been handed arms off of trucks and set themselves up as territorial defense. But without the support of the world, I can’t imagine where we’d be.
What is your reaction to global firms weighing in on rebuilding Ukraine?
It’s too early to discuss rebuilding in any real sense, because the war continues. The biggest part of Ukraine is still under attack, so you don’t know the full scope of the task. That will come when this ends. But for now, we are doing emergency sprints to clear the streets and build temporary houses.
Ukraine won’t be the same after this, and the world won’t either. It’s a world war, but at a different scale — Ukraine is the epicentre, but the whole world is participating. It will all change, and how it will change, we will see. I don’t think we’ll understand the full impact for another 10 years.
How Kyiv’s Balbek Bureau is designing solutions to support its fellow Ukrainians — and protect its country’s cultural heritage.