Built towards the end of 18th-century, this former military arsenal close to the shores of the Dnieper river once housed weapons, ammunition and other battlements before it eventually fell into disarray in the decades that followed. Now, behind its sombre, pale brick facade in central Kyiv sits a much different addition to the Ukrainian capital: the expansive new Kyiv Food Market.
“Once a cold and empty space,” explains local studio balbek bureau, who lead the redesign of the existing armoury into the 2,000-square-metre culinary complex, “it has now become a point of attraction where people get together, giving the place a new social meaning.”
Designer Slava Balbek (who fronts his eponymous studio) was tapped by local restauranteurs Alex Cooper (founder of a similar concept in Odessa) and Mikhail Beilin (founder of the local chain La Familia) in 2018 to helm the project that would see “the best Kyiv restaurants under one roof.”
But, renovating such a historic property doesn’t come without its challenges. In addition to replacing the windows on the facade, extensive cleaning, rectifying a shoddy renovation and refinishing as well as reinstalling the lathing of the roof, a significant amount of telecommunications and electrical infrastructure had to not only be added but also concealed below a new self-levelling concrete floor. While much of the light trickling into the ten-metre high atrium comes from an existing clerestory, the trusses supporting the ceiling, too, needed updating (and a crisp coat of white paint).
At the heart of the now refurbished two-story complex is a 300-seat atrium, enclosed by vendors lining the perimeter of the space. On each side, a single 27-metre-long tiled counter unifies the stalls, with similarly clad partitions dividing the respective vendors into three-metre-wide segments. Between, Balbek and his team placed seven sprawling communal solid ash tables framed by a cluster of eight smaller arrangement. Four matte, dark marble bar tops with cold-rolled steel bases and metal seating around further evoke the site’s industrial past.
“The design concept is based on the idea of creating new social ties through food,” says Balbek, adding that the desire was to generate “a place where people could get to know [one another] effortlessly while eating.”
Capping off the ground floor, a grand semi-circular bar with a rich viridian marble top and custom bronze fixtures elevates the market with a distinct refined attitude. A floor-to-ceiling shelving unit behind displays a vast collection of libations while dividing the main hall from the service spaces beyond. “It is the first thing that catches the eyes of the market visitors,” he says.
The towering built-in continues above to frame the linear bar on the second floor — terminating in a graceful arch that references the geometry of the existing windows. This mezzanine level runs along the roofline of the vendors on the ground floor, conveniently concealing their auxiliary spaces while dotted with similar furnishings as the central atrium to “encourage communication and create a greater flow.”
Defining the second level is a custom chandelier of sinuous acrylic diffusers produced by architectural lighting firm Expolight, which creates a dynamic canopy accenting the gastronomies below and casting robust shadows on the muted wood floor.
Along the walls, corrugated metal panels form a dado juxtaposed against the existing brick, which has been treated with a special finish developed in consultation with conservation specialist to reproduce the tone of the original material. A small private dining space and show kitchen are also tucked along the open seating area.
Finally, elevated three steps above the mezzanine level, balbek bureau wrapped four high-end food counters in brilliant Carrara marble, providing visitors with the perfect vantage of the food hall as well as the surrounding neighbourhood while casually sipping a glass of bubbly. A custom stone floor reminiscent of cobble stones further grounds the space in the rich history of the site.
Together, the design of the Kyiv Food Market is a testament to the cultural dimensions of food, resisting the expediency of pop-up hospitality in favour of a format that “makes you appreciate the permanence of an anchor,” Balbek says, adding their intention to create an environment that felt as if had been a part of the neighbourhood for years. “The food hall is full of tastes, smells, meetings, emotions,” he concludes. “[It’s a] celebration of life.”
Though the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has emptied the once-bustling culinary hub, Balbek is optimistic about the future of such communal spaces as well as the strategies required to adapt these environments for maximum visitor safety. “The first thing we see important for the quick relaunch of such spaces is the design of outdoor or rooftop terraces for moving guests from indoors to outdoors,” he says. “Of course, we also need to rethink the maximum capacity in enclosed areas, equip contactless ordering and plan staff transit to overlap less with guests. Among other actions, we see the huge importance to focus on indoor air quality.” Until then, Kyiv Food Market remains as much a feast for the eyes as the stomach.
In Ukraine, local studio balbek bureau converts a historic brick armoury into the tailored, 300-seat Kyiv Food Market.