Since February 24th, the world has watched in horror as Ukraine has suffered tragic loss and massive destruction. Russia’s invasion has left many lives unrecognizable — and that impact has been felt throughout the architecture and design community. Some of the country’s most established architecture firms have shifted their studios from designing restaurants and offices to envisioning refugee housing (more on that in AZURE’s upcoming Sept/Oct issue).
Meanwhile, many independent practitioners are striving to keep their families safe while putting their skill sets to use in unexpected ways — for instance, by evaluating the risk that a home’s basement might pose in the event of structural collapse.
When Russia invaded, Ukrainian designer Oleg Bilenchuk was at the beginning of a promising design career after graduating from the Architectural Association in London in 2013. But when war arrived, he grabbed his winter parka and took shelter in his mother’s basement — gaining an entirely new perspective on residential design in the process.
Now back in Kyiv, Bilenchuk is trying to return to some semblance of normalcy while exploring potential employment opportunities. After reaching out to Davidson Rafailidis cofounder Stephanie Davidson — who previously knew Bilenchuk via his Instagram account, @___infrastructure — the two connected for a Zoom call on July 29th. Their conversation about design, family and wartime is below.
Stephanie Davidson: How are you doing today?
- Oleg Bilenchuk
Actually, great. I went to the countryside for a couple of days, because it’s been quite uncomfortable here in Kyiv with the sirens. There was a moment a month ago when it was probably one or two sirens a day, but last week they were much more frequent. So we decided that we’d rather get out of the city — to not be woken up in the middle of the night in panic, and to keep our kid safer.
Whenever I come back to town, I use the embassy in front of our house — the Canadian embassy, actually — as a safety indicator. If I see the flag there, it calms me down. I know that if the embassy is working, everything seems to be alright at the moment.
There was a siren this morning and a few blasts in the country, but none in Kyiv. This is how we live now: from siren to siren. And in between them, we can plan and discuss things. When the siren goes on, we’re like “How can we plan ahead?” But in general, things are getting better. People are coming back to town to return to their lives as much as they can. It’s the same for us — we’re adjusting to this new reality that we’ve woken up to a few months ago.
How old is your child?
She turned six in July. She’s so little, yet surprisingly, she actually realizes what’s going on and has a very adult attitude towards the war.
Before the war, you were working as an independent designer. What types of projects had you been working on?
Mainly projects with private clients, through friends and acquaintances. It was a very intuitive, word-of-mouth enterprise. I had not really been pursuing a studio agenda. I did have these bullet points in my notebook: to gather everything that I’ve done, assemble a proper portfolio and build a website. But so far I have had to postpone that due to the war.
In February, everything changed for you and your country so abruptly and violently. In your message to me, you described having an “avalanche of thoughts.” What are some of your thoughts now?
Right now, there’s always this recurring dilemma of what’s going to happen next. Obviously, things are not totally under your control, because you depend on external factors like news and what other people say.
In terms of work, I’m also affected by the physical presence of clients in Kyiv. From what I know now, some of them came back, but others didn’t. And even those who came back with whom we had started projects before the war are not planning to carry them on in the near future — either for financial or safety reasons.
I remember one meeting with a client to discuss his house right before the 24th of February. The project was at a very early stage and I was mentioning the possibility of a basement. My attitude was that it was expensive and unnecessary within the framework of that commission. And the client agreed — like, “Basement – why do I need that? It’s totally redundant.” But now, you know, this idea changed in a few days. We spent one week in the basement of my mom’s house and suddenly I thought how rapidly intentions can change with the issues of war and safety.
The dilemma is simply whether to stay here and try to adjust to this new reality, or to find ways to open new doors for my wife and kid elsewhere, because men are not allowed to leave the country. We decided not to split up the family — to be together, as unsafe as it may be and as crazy as it may seem to some. From the very beginning, our parents were insisting that my wife and daughter should evacuate to a different country. But in the end, we decided to stay here and maybe try to plan, in the meantime in between sirens, and to hope that the war will end soon and bring possible futures for us here or elsewhere — I don’t know.
This is pretty much the composition of my “avalanche of thoughts” — it’s really the existential thoughts of how to survive and what to do next. It’s very difficult to focus on something concrete. So you’re bouncing back and forth between different ideas and as soon as you feel danger, when the sirens are on, you start from scratch, basically. You start re-evaluating all of those questions that you were just asking yourself a few hours ago.
There’s maybe no better word than “avalanche” because of that aspect of danger, and the lack of control that you mentioned, which relates to the power and weight of an avalanche.
Right. Also, when you have a kid, you’re always so sensitive to the idea that something bad might happen to your child, and you have this constant responsibility that doesn’t really allow you to relax. So you’re always in tension, even before war, but now there’s an additional layer of physical danger, so it’s like double tension. Happily, our kid is fine — I’m sure she has an avalanche of thoughts too, but childish thoughts, not panic attacks like her parents.
You mentioned re-evaluating basements. There’s a sense of foreboding talking about houses, given your life the past few months. How has the way that you understand architecture changed?
After we escaped our flat in Kyiv and went to my mom’s house just outside the city, we would go down to the basement whenever the air raid sirens came on. But according to some people, that’s actually the wrong thing to do — whether it is safe to be in the basement when a missile hits really depends on the structure of the house and what it is built from. If it’s not a vaulted basement or a bunker — if it’s a shallow basement — you might find yourself buried under rubble, or a fire might start up above and trap you down there.
But even knowing that, we would still go down there because intuitively, we thought it would be the safest place. It’s quiet in the basement, which is good for children to not hear all the gun and tank fires and blasts.
I asked my mom if she had plans of the house, to understand the actual structure and really evaluate if it is safe to be in that specific basement. She had a few structural engineering drawings of where load bearing walls and columns are. We thought about what might happen — how the house could collapse, how the basement might be affected, and if we could escape.
As we thought through that, we made some upgrades to the basement and brought down fire extinguishers. And I put hats inside of some pots from the kitchen that I lined with a kind of soft styrofoam material – that way, the kids could wear them in case something fell from the ceiling.
I wanted to take pictures of how the basement was being gradually upgraded, because I thought it would be interesting to see them in retrospect, once we had peace of mind — to look at that arrangement of mattresses and fire extinguishers and pots lined with hats. But I just couldn’t do it. The only picture I took was of the pots lined with hats.
I think my attitude towards architecture has definitely shifted. At this moment, there needs to be a safe place — somewhere in the house offering the feeling of safety and security. None of us expected war to come and that the basement would be our saviour and at the same time our worst nightmare. The house has become the shell for survival, and we definitely didn’t use it the way we used to.
I guess that the question is also a bit unfair because so little time has elapsed since February. Maybe we can talk again in a year and you might have a new outlook. It’s probably evolving, I imagine, how you see space and architecture.
I think so. The city has definitely gone through a lot of changes. Even looking at all the monuments and how people were protecting them with sandbags. Governments are questioning certain paradigms of housing, especially plattenbau houses that were built during the Soviet era. Those were the least safe structures.
And yeah, I think in general in a year or two, housing, the principles of structure and the principles of settlement will definitely change. It’s just difficult to understand the extent of those changes and how it will all unfold into a specific form. But as you’re saying, it’s too early to make final judgements and re-adjust the way we look at architecture and the way it is programmed for many people as a safe place to be.
You mentioned wanting to take photos but not being able to, which is so understandable. There’s a big lapse on your Instagram account, which is how I know you originally. I’m an admirer of the accidental sculptures you post — the compositional harmonies that just happen sometimes with arrangements of things and space that just make sense. It seems like maybe you’re starting to take those photos again?
Slowly, yes. But every time, there is again this emotional filter that kind of stops me from doing it the way that I did it before. Because I always think now, “Should there really be an extra meaning to them? Is it even relevant now to do it?” But the answer to this question, from time to time, is actually yes. Those things are there and relevant at any time, although war adds a different layer to it.
I want to embed that in a certain way but I’m not sure how yet, so my frequency of posts went down because of that. But I’m slowly getting my head around it. Hopefully I will find a way of unblocking this filter or psychological wall so I can take photos and feel curious again about things that I find interesting around me.
One photo that you posted is a kind of elegy in the form of a chair. Your parka is wrapped around your office chair, and you’ve captioned it “the office chair frame that no longer has an office.” You describe a tiny bit that the parka was your most precious object when you had to flee the bombings in Kyiv. Your relationship to things must be forever altered, I imagine.
It’s true. We didn’t have much time — any time, really — to think about what to take with us. We grabbed what we could, packed as quickly as possible and just left.
Because it was winter, I had my parka with me, and it became very important when we were on the road. We escaped Kyiv to my mom’s house in the countryside and spent a week there, but then realized that it was completely unsafe and decided to go west. This was the moment that those wardrobe objects became essential, because we didn’t always have an opportunity to spend the night in a warm bed. We had the dog with us, and not many hotels or motels would accept the dog — the only thing they would offer us would be a laundry room or a cold technical room within the motel. One night we had to sleep in a two-storey shed with no central heating, so the coat was a life saver.
I would take the coat and put it on the floor so that the dog could sleep on it as well. I would never think that something as banal as a winter jacket would be so important, as strange as that might sound. It’s weird — you don’t really think about the aspect of survival when choosing a jacket. You think about jackets from the point of view of: Do I look good in this? Is it warm enough? Do I like the colour? Do I like the zips and details and fabric? But those things were quite irrelevant in that moment. The most important thing was actually its composition — that it had a warm insulation layer inside, and that was it.
What do you think or dream of now in the time, as you say, “between the sirens”?
Our one and only dream now is for all of this to end, to reach a point of — as our president says — “victory”. But it’s very difficult, from my point of view, to give a definition of “victory.” It’s a difficult subject to discuss — victory, war, who won, who lost. If “victory” means that people in Ukraine would feel safe and free again, I would wish for that.
But at the same time, we are seriously concerned about the fact that Russia has put its nuclear force on high alert. This has become a recurring subject: will they actually use it? But despite the fragility of the situation I am thinking of people who are coming back home and carrying on with their lives and we are also trying to do the same. So I don’t know.
It’s very hard to say, without being political, what I wish for in terms of a point that our country can reach in this situation. I would love to entrust this to our army and the president and in fact all of the definitions of victory are in our national anthem, I suppose. But from a personal point of view, we are grateful that we are alive. As banal as it might sound, that’s the ultimate: to stay alive, to live our lives, keeping it optimistic as much as we can. I think this is the agenda for these days.
Oleg Bilenchuk is a Ukrainian designer and architect. Since graduating from the Architectural Association in London, he lives and works in Kyiv, Ukraine. @___infrastructure
Designer Stephanie Davidson connects with Kyiv-based practitioner Oleg Bilenchuk to hear how he’s coping with life during wartime.