The story of Ukrainian architecture aligns with the history of Ukraine itself – full of persecutions, repressions, and oppressive imperial influence. But at the same time, it’s beautiful, illuminating, and filled with talents that have been preserving the cultural identity embodied in houses, churches, castles and whole cities.
Ukrainian architecture goes back to ancient times when the Greeks built their colonies in what is now called the Crimean peninsula. You can still find the majestic ruins of ancient masonry architecture on the Black sea coast that used to be the polis (city-state) of Ancient Greece.
Chersonesus, built in the 5th century BC, is one of the most remarkable places to explore the ancient history of architecture in Ukraine. It is set on the north shore of the Black sea on the outskirts of Sevastopol. The Ancient City of Tauric Chersonese and its Chora has been a UNESCO-protected heritage site since 2013 – a year before Crimea was temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation.
Authentic Ukrainian architecture was shaped during Kyivan Rus’ times. Many of those medieval Ukrainian buildings have been preserved till nowadays.
Ukraine is a country with a noble tradition of sacral architecture. The oldest church, which has survived only in its foundation, is the Tithe, built by Volodymyr the Great around 988-996 – right after the Christianization of Kyivan Rus’ started.
Byzantine-style buildings with an authentic Ukrainian approach to construction and ornamentation started to appear under the influence of Christianity. The best example is St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv (XI century), which has survived to our time but has undergone significant Baroque reconstruction. It is another example of UNESCO-protected heritage in Ukraine.
Ukrainians incarnated their heroic spirit in their defensive architecture. After the Tatar-Mongol invasion, people strengthened the cities of Kyivan Rus’ by fortresses with towers, fortified monasteries and castles. Many of them survived till modern times and now compete to be the most beloved and visited sites by tourists and admirers of architecture.
Besides the defensive role, these buildings illustrate the original Ukrainian style like a decorative ornament in the form of Ukrainian sheets or embroideries lined with red brick.
Ukrainian Gothics and Renaissance
The western part of Ukraine was the least affected by the Tatar-Mongol invasion. Cities and trade grew, attracting many foreigners to Ukraine, who brought new stylistic approaches to architecture.
Among the religious buildings, Catholic churches predominated. The Latin Cathedral in Lviv played an essential role in forming the new style and remains an architectural monument of national importance. Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Hungary influenced the construction of many gothic buildings.
Lviv is also the most vivid representation of the Renaissance. In one of the central squares of the city, the Renaissance ensemble of houses is almost completely preserved and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The unique aesthetic concept and combination of different architectural styles make Lviv one of the most visited cities in Ukraine.
Ukrainian or “Сossack” Baroque
Beginning in the second half of the 17th century, Baroque began to permeate Old Ukrainian culture. But under the influence of local masters, it acquired its flourishing and flair. Its emergence in Ukraine is associated with the era of liberation wars, the national upsurge among the Cossacks and the awakening of national consciousness in general.
One of the first examples of the new Ukrainian style was the Church of St. Elijah in Subotiv, which Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky ordered to build in 1653.
The architecture of the Ukrainian Baroque reflects festivity, a sense of peace of mind, along with dynamics, expression, contrast and triumph. New artistic preferences were most pronounced in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and Kyiv buildings, which had a decisive influence on the entire Ukrainian architecture in the 18th century.
Classicism, Romantism and Eclecticism
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Ukrainian people in the Russian Empire were undergoing some of the cruelest days in their history. As a result of tsarist policy, Ukraine was gradually stripped of its autonomy. The autonomous military, Hetmanate government, and entire administrative systems were abolished. This national and cultural oppression was reflected in Ukrainian artistic life.
In the early 1800s, authorities in St. Petersburg developed and distributed the albums with approved facades which resulted in lower quality of architecture. At the same time, there was the possibility of creating separate valuable buildings for individual projects, which a special commission considered. That’s when the private palaces and homesteads started to appear more and became one of the most prominent heritage of the Classicism and Romantism times.
In 1800, the Russian authorities issued an order that forbade the construction of Ukrainian-type churches. Instead, from the middle of the 19 century, churches in the pseudo-Byzantine and seemingly “Moscow” style appeared. But Ukrainian art still did not fade away, it adapted template projects and gave a number of new original works.
In the second half of the 19th century, the stylistic unity of classicism was destroyed. The difficult epoch of the establishment of capitalism was also reflected in architecture: new materials and new customers appeared. There is a direction called “eclecticism” (mixing).
In the architecture of the 19th century in Ukraine, you can find a mix of different styles: neo-gothic, renaissance, Romanesque, neo-baroque in Odesa National Opera and historicist architecture in Chernivtsi University. The latter is a UNESCO-protected site.
Ukrainian Architectural Modern
At the beginning of the 20 century, the revival of the Ukrainian architectural style spread among Ukrainians. The modern architectural movement came about as a response to industrialization and urbanization and scientific and technological progress. It also existed as an answer to the problems of discrimination, social inequality, and segregation.
One of the most central concepts, Ukrainian architectural modern (UAM), was based on a new national identity. Ukrainian Art and Architecture Department at Kharkiv University emerged and aimed at “spreading the Ukrainian style” and Ukrainian art in general and “preserving other monuments of Ukraine and reviving Ukrainian architecture.”
Vasyl Krychevskyi, Ivan Levynskyi, Serhii Tymoshenko, Konstiantyn Zhukov, Dmytro Diachenko, and Viktor Trotsenko were among the Ukrainian architects who sought to find original architectural solutions by returning to traditional folk forms.
Over the years of UAM development, more than 500 facilities in this style have been built. UAM’s legacy is incomplete. Much was destroyed during World War I, the war with Bolshevik Russia and Poland, and World War II. Soviet authorities didn’t bother to preserve UAM facilities and either destroyed them or provided improper restoration. For decades, the artificial oblivion of the work and fate of these architects was unknown.
Slovo Building is one of the buildings with a fascinating and tragic story, built between modern and constructivism. In 2022, it was damaged by the Russian Federation during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, along with hundreds of other buildings in Kharkiv.
Constructivism and Reconstruction After WWII
In the USSR, constructivism emerged immediately after the October Revolution as one of the directions of the new, avant-garde, proletarian art. The idea of a new direction was to abandon “art for art’s sake” and subordinate it to production.
Proponents of constructivism put forward tasks of “constructing” environments, sought to understand opportunities of new technologies and aesthetic qualities of materials such as metal, wood, and glass. Kyiv and Kharkiv became the centers of Ukrainian constructivism. Many of the buildings are preserved or returned to their original form after Ukraine gained independence.
The pompous and repressive Stalinist regime supplanted the avant-garde inspired by revolution. The architects of constructivism, favored before by the Soviet regime, found themselves turned into enemies of the state. Calls for an end to “simplistic schematism” and for “joyful” socialist architecture appeared in the newspapers. The regime accused the constructivists of being bourgeois agents that have nothing to do with the cheerful worldview of the working class. Thus, the “revolutionary style” of constructivism was repressed.
In 1946, the Soviet Union’s chaotic post-war reconstruction strategies started. Housing construction was not centralized, which led to a great deal of dissonance in the actions of many departmental developers. In rebuilding the central areas of cities, there was a marked change in their exterior, the loss of original historical appearance. The Stalinist empire or Stalinist baroque prevailed in city centers. The template approach to architecture led to an absence of national elements in architecture.
However, even during those repressive times, there was an illuminating event – the reconstruction of Khreshchatyk, the main street of Kyiv, started. The leading architect of the city, Anatolii Dobrovolsky, led the process and considered Kyiv’s ancient construction traditions in his work.
The Ukrainian architecture of modern times is becoming more global, more pluralistic in a creative direction. At the same time, many architects are exploring new trends, seeking new goals and solutions to architectural problems. In Ukraine, the work of several generations of architects reflects the progressive ideas of postmodernism and high-tech as a reflection of globalization.