Communicating with Landmarks: How Architecture Can Amplify International Support and Solidarity with Ukrainians | News

Coverage of Vladimir Putin’s violence The invasion of Ukraine has flooded news and social media since Thursday, February 24. Over the past few days, anti-war protesters around the world have taken to city streets to show their support for Ukraine and its people.

Cities around the world echoed feelings of solidarity and peace by illuminating public buildings and monuments in Ukraine’s national colors of blue and yellow. Yet, as many groups and organizations continue to send relief and aid, have we forgotten how architecture can be used to send messages of social and political expression? After all, architecture is political.

Building of the European Union Delegation to the United States located in Washington, DC. Image reproduced with the kind permission of @EUintheUS via Twitter.

Take the recent writing of Los Angeles Times columnist Carolina Miranda. Released Monday evening, Miranda’s insightful take on President Zelensky’s use of “architectural backdrops” shows the importance of how historic buildings, like Kyiv’s Gorodetsky House (aka House of Chimeras), are used and why it is important. Moreover, it illustrates how Zelensky’s social media posts to Ukrainians and the world do more than communicate words of resilience and fight.

She delves into the Gorodetsky House, its architect Vladislav Gorodetsky and the cultural relevance of the building’s history. “In Zelensky’s hands,” writes Miranda, “this seething building became a symbol of seething defiance, a fitting backdrop to an ideal of leadership embodied by Zelensky.”

Still image of President Volodymyr Zelensky standing in front of Kyiv’s Gorodetsky House, aka House of Chimeras, as he sends a video message addressing the people of Ukraine via social media.

After reading her article last night, I was drawn to the symbolic parallels of cities using their regional landmarks to express visual gestures of solidarity. In times of crisis, the built environment can have polarizing effects on people. Streets, landmarks and public monuments can represent battlegrounds of war and destruction as well as spaces of hope and resilience. As President Zelensky fights tirelessly for his people and the Ukrainian nation, his course of action during his tenure as President clearly shows that he understands the importance of sending messages of political courage and preserving cultural heritage. As Miranda writes, “By using the building as a symbolic backdrop, Zelensky also seemed to point to the cultural heritage that is at stake.”

In times of crisis, the built environment can have polarizing effects on people. Streets, landmarks and public monuments can represent battlegrounds of war and destruction as well as spaces of hope and resilience.

As the world watches, images of illuminated buildings in cities around the world can be found on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. World leaders, local news stations, journalists and ordinary civilians continue to share their support and solidarity by documenting the spaces around them as blue and yellow lights illuminate the night. Yet, as we see countries expressing their solidarity and hopes for peace with Ukraine, some are questioning these visual gestures of solidarity. The past two years alone have sparked powerful movements and acts of alliance. However, it is hard not to notice the recurring “social media cynics” pointing out these forms of support as performative and hollow.

Pictured is a Los Angeles City Hall lit up with an air raid siren installed on the streets of Los Angeles during the Cold War, according to urban planning writer and editor Alissa Walker. Image © Alissa Walker via Twitter @awalkerinLA.

While it’s true that world leaders and government allies can always do more, these visual representations of support are just one of the many ways the rest of the world can symbolically support Ukraine. Recurring political unrest and persistent social injustice are by-products of the societal climate in which we live today. In turn, many people have become increasingly cynical and jaded. However, it should be kept in mind how these supportive visual representations can be used as a catalyst to communicate social and political expression.

Many Ukrainians who live outside their home country can take comfort in knowing that their current place of residence concerns them. Let nations outside of Ukraine be aware of Putin’s dictatorship and speak out against his actions and his senseless invasion of the country.

Image reproduced with the kind permission of @iingwen via Twitter.
Calgary tower in Alberta, CA. Image reproduced with the kind permission of @LaTourCalgary via Twitter.

As nations continue to send messages of hope, security and anti-war cries, Ukraine’s built environment and landscapes are suffering from Putin’s attacks. As a result, historic buildings that constitute Ukraine’s past and present are under threat. On February 25, 2022, the World Monument Fund shared a statement on the ongoing war in Ukraine and how Putin’s attacks have left the nation and its architectural heritage in disrepair.

In a public statement to the community, the WMF shared: “The World Monuments Fund (WMF) expresses its deep concern at the escalating conflict in Ukraine. We urge that every precaution be taken to protect lives and avoid irreparable damage to the cultural heritage of the region. Our experience of post-crisis recovery around the world continues to reveal the lasting consequences of destruction on communities.”

Zhovkva Synagogue (2014). Image © Bo&Ko via Flickr.

Concerned about historic buildings and cultural monuments in Kyiv, the WMF has expressed concern for important cultural structures like the Zhovkva Synagogue. The organization explains that the synagogue is “one of eight sites where WMF has worked in the past in Ukraine. Built in the 1690s for a rapidly growing Jewish community, this site was included in the World Monuments Watch 2000 for ensure that the synagogue, its history, and its community will be remembered as an important part of the community’s heritage. It is just one of many cultural heritage places across Ukraine currently under threat by the rapidly expanding crisis. WMF calls for respect for the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.”

Rally for peace in Ukraine in front of the White House in Washington, DC. Image © Mike Maquire (2022) via Flickr.

It’s true, these illuminated buildings and monuments will not solve Ukraine’s fight for peace and independence against Russia. However, the gestures of unity are a reminder that the rest of the world has not completely turned a blind eye. Let communities and municipal leaders recognize Ukraine’s oppression and Putin’s tyranny. While President Zelensky’s use of historic buildings has a different weight and value, cities and their use of landmarks have merit. This architecture continues to be used as a backdrop for political upheaval. Monuments and historic buildings can serve as cultural platforms and spaces for civic engagement.

As Ukraine continues to face attacks from Putin’s forces, cities around the world have used the act of lighting their landmarks to extend their support. Social media allowed messages of hope and awareness to travel beyond city borders. At the same time, it is important to remain vigilant and aware of misleading social shares and fake posts claiming to be relevant to the invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the images of solidarity turn out to be symbolic reminders that we must not lose our sight of humanity. That individuals who do not occupy positions of power can still participate in the denunciation of oppression and injustice. These illuminated structures are intended for the Ukrainian people. They are intended for the Ukrainian community who live in your cities and neighborhoods, far from their country of origin and their families. These visual acts of solidarity and protest are intended for them.

So, for those looking for ways to help on an individual level, here is a list of resources where you can donate and provide support remotely. Do you have a photo of your city showing solidarity with Ukraine? Share them in the comments section below.

Stay tuned for Archinect’s continuing coverage of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine and its effects on the built and cultural environment.

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