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Re-thinking Post-disaster Areas: The Future Scenarios
for Chornobyl

The workshop "Happy, Healthy Chornobyl" was held in Kyiv from July 21-28. During the week participants accompanied by local and international experts studied the new ways of thinking about nature, new models of cultural representation, and new concepts of learning on the case of Chornobyl.

It was led by Peter Veenstra from LOLA Landscape Architects, Jason Hilgefort from Land+Civilization Compositions, and Julian Andres Restrepo Molina from Taller who have been active for many years on joint projects, taking part in many international competitions, receiving awards and honors all over the world. CANactions had a talk with curators during the visit to Ukraine about the workshop in Kyiv, problems and perspectives of Chornobyl, as well as the mission and role of an architect.
Peter Veenstra and Julian Restrepo at the presentation of the results of the workshop in Kyiv
CANactions: Please accept our sincere congratulations on your recent winning the competition, which took place in Guang Ming, Shenzhen, China. This is not the first time you work together. What is the key to successful collaboration? Who plays what role?

Jason Hilgefort — Between the three of us and our offices we represent different parts: I am an urban designer, Peter is a landscape architect, Julian is an architect. We are sharing common interests in how we think about the design in many ways with different ideas. Ultimately, we are good friends who can share ideas openly and mix the creative process very well.

Julian Restrepo — We all have to be able to communicate while work because we live on three different continents. Therefore, it is important to have a common methodology, certain principles and fundamentals that are always there to know what to do in every situation that comes.

Peter Veenstra — We are working together for 5 years now. Communication and understanding each other is the key for a good collaboration.
Peter, Julian and Jason discuss current projects
What is your basic approach when you start a new project?

Peter — We all have a form of adventurism and are interested in discovering and exploring new territories and places. The curiosity and the Dutch approach of being very clear in choosing the concept and translating it into the form are something that finds us together. I think those two things could be named a creative process.

How would you define your mission as an architect today?

Peter — I do not believe in one mission for all architects. On the one hand, there are ambitions of designers to do interesting projects and get beautiful things built. There are also many discussions about the importance of architects and how can we be relevant with projects and things we are doing improving and contributing the world.

Jason — For me, the traditional idea of Architecture is very formal. The form is still needed - you always want to create something perfect because beauty makes people love things and space you make. But systems behind it like infrastructure, environment, politics or economics become more and more important for an architect. If you drive many projects ignoring these factors, you are missing the opportunity to bring something bigger to the project.

"Happy healthy Chornobyl" is less about utopia but more about the possibility.
"Happy Healthy Chornobyl" workshop. The title sounds provocative and utopian. What is it about?

Julian — I think we need more utopias. I seriously do. We have become too pragmatic. The utopias in the past are the things that have driven the development, the science, and created the architectural-conceptual discourse. Nowadays in countries especially like Ukraine or Colombia, there are all the time complains: "No! This is impossible. No! It wouldn't happen". Everybody thinks he/she is special and it is impossible to do anything in own country. It is sad to see it each time in younger people, who should be idealists in nature.

Jason — Ukraine is well known throughout the world by the history of Chornobyl. Discovering it has a huge potential. At the global scale, it is not just about Ukraine or even about the region. Chornobyl is one of the biggest examples in the history of man of the mistakes we made. Therefore, it can be the point of learning, but it is also the way to show: "Yes we can do faults, but we can work to overcome them". It can be a model for other places to learn of how to recover from mistakes we made.
Do you believe that Chornobyl's "lost landscape" could be found again? How could these huge territories be used and renovated in the future?

Peter — The visit to the site changed our first image of its potential and threats. One of the most important things we realized while we were at that area is that tourism is booming now. From 500 to 1500 tours for the last year. It turns almost into a stupid attraction including that circus with dressing up, mugs glowing in the dark and all that kind of merchandise. The story of Chornobyl is maybe one of the most important narratives of recent civilization. There is a very big disbalance between this importance and the banality of visiting the site. This growing popularity of the tourism is one of the biggest threats for Chornobyl now. Therefore, we want to find more meaningful ways of making the site accessible with new developments turning the area into the generic place not just randomly colonizing it.

Now designers are more and more engaged with war problems. Whenever there is a catastrophe in a news there is always a stream of designers there, it is like a business opportunity for them. However, there are the whole world of silent disasters either are forgotten both are taking place so slowly that it is too difficult to perceive it as a problem but that also could have the same design attention.
Julian shows Peter his photos from the trip to the site
What and whose actions are important in identifying such disasters and eliminating its consequences? What is the role of designers, architects, planners in these processes?

Peter — The most focus we are trying to map is a disaster economy when everyone is involved in helping process and solves the problem. If we learn how to do that it would be the biggest potential way of improving things. I can see the analogy to war operations like military interventions at the Middle East, where it is not about dropping bombs, then it is about building schools and teaching local authorities how to organize themselves etc.

Jason — It is the part of the process I mentioned before about the role of designers in understanding the systems behind. The ones who study Chernobyl and those who have power and influence in every layer - international organizations, local organizations - are the part of hope at least to make the situation more understandable for other people. They don't know who is responsible or who to talk to. The problem is that there are too many actors in this space.

Peter — This is great that there are individuals with big energy and with very different ideas that could eventually change that space.

Jason — Chornobyl is a magnet for people who are interested in such sites as we are.
Sharing information about where the things are coming from and launching the conversation between people about the problems is the important part of the role of designers.
Jason Hilgefort is inspired by changes in Kyiv
Do you plan any further steps and researches of these issues?

Peter — There will be a book with all the information that we gathered. If you do not know too much of the site, you would have all the full impression with the details of this area.

Jason — It is not just the workshop, it is the part of a big project on Chornobyl, the first step to show what we are doing.

You have been to Kyiv before. Could you say how has the city and its people changed over these years?

Julian — I see the things happen. Maybe not as so far as you would like but I also understand that changes start from the small things. I see many new developments in the city and it gives me a good feeling that things keep getting better.

Jason — When I came here for the first time before the Revolution it was like: "It is impossible, we can't do this". And when I came for the last year there was a shift in the youth: "No, we can influence and make things. Maybe we cannot change everything but somehow it is possible to improve our cities and country into the better place". This time I really see the physical difference in the city, how it works, and a lot of enthusiasm and celebrating things about Ukraine. In a very simple way like in restaurants now: there is Ukrainian beer, Ukrainian cheese, Ukrainian food. People take native recipes and update them. It is very simple and silly food example, but I know that it is going through everything and young people say: "Hey! I'm proud to be Ukrainian and I can take action and do something that is true in my roots but still something fresh and something new". For me, it is a complete change that is extremely important and exciting.
Text: Olena Vozniak
Photos: Margo Didichenko
Presentation of the results of the workshop "Happy, Healthy Chornobyl"