An Architect’s Dream of Rebuilding a Battered City in Ukraine

In February of 2022, when Kharkiv was under constant bombardment, Maxim Rozenfeld, a forty-six-year-old architect who goes by Max, was reading “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a chronicle of the months that its author, Viktor Frankl, spent in a Nazi concentration camp. In one passage, Frankl describes a spike in deaths at the camp during the week between Christmas, in 1944, and New Year’s Day. The chief doctor of the camp attributed the deaths not to living or labor conditions, which hadn’t worsened, but to the demise of hope: the men who died had somehow been convinced that they would be free by Christmas. Max’s two younger children, who were seventeen and eleven, had fled to Germany with their mother; Max’s girlfriend had made it out of the country as well. He was staying with his parents, who are in their seventies. Waiting for the war to end, he concluded, could be deadly, as could believing that it would be endless. Frankl’s point was that physical and spiritual survival depended on finding meaning even under the most trying circumstances. Max urgently needed to be needed.

He is trained as an artist and a historian of architecture. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on high-tech style, focussing on the British architect Norman Foster. A dozen years ago, he started leading walking tours of Kharkiv, which were spectacularly popular: his record was three hundred and forty-five people on a single tour. The tours made Max a household name in Kharkiv. He made multi-episode series on various aspects of the city’s history, first for YouTube, then for television. But none of this was of use now. Max was not a skilled organizer. He was not particularly physically fit. He couldn’t drive a car. He felt he had little to offer the city’s many volunteer efforts.

Then, in April, Norman Foster addressed a meeting of mayors from around the world who convened in Geneva. He stressed the role of architects in rejuvenating cities after a war, particularly in designing master plans, such as the one devised for the city of London while the Second World War was still raging. Later that month, Kharkiv’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov, announced that Foster and his nonprofit, the Norman Foster Foundation, had agreed to work on such a plan in collaboration with the city. Max, who had never imagined he’d hear the words “Kharkiv” and “Foster” in the same sentence, was asked to join Foster’s working group. He was one of only two architects selected who were still physically in Kharkiv—the only people in a position to “show” Kharkiv to Foster.

At weekly Zoom meetings, the group, which included members from the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Europe and the global engineering and design firm Arup, discussed Kharkiv’s landscape, history, and character, the extent of the damage that Russian attacks had done to the city, the city’s economy, ecology, and transportation infrastructure, and how all of those things should be restored or improved in a postwar future. Max had built a business on knowing Kharkiv better than anyone else did, but now he felt like he was getting to know the city all over again.

Before the war, Max thought of himself as pragmatic and responsible, a good father and a better-than-average breadwinner. War, he told me, turned out to be a chance to dream. “You can forget what the city budget is or how dumb or bureaucratized city authorities are,” he said. “You can just set your imagination free.” He remembered reading that Frankl dreamed of standing at a podium at a university in Vienna and delivering a lecture called “Psychology of the Concentration Camp.” Sometimes Max imagined himself in a tuxedo, giving a presentation at the Royal Institute of British Architects. This February, Max appeared at a press conference where Foster (joining remotely) and Terekhov shared an update on the city’s new master plan. As is the fashion among Ukrainian men in wartime, though, Max wore a plain black sweater.

A week or so later, Max took me on a tour of Northern Saltivka, the area most systematically and severely damaged by Russian bombing. A large neighborhood of Soviet-era apartment blocks, Saltivka forms the northeastern edge of the city, a nine- to sixteen-story-tall obstacle in the path of Russian troops. The whims of planners placed the buildings at the edge of the city in a zigzag pattern that echoed the shape of a fortress wall. Not far from the edge stood a sixteen-story building that had been split open by an aerial bomb. It had already become a landmark. Nearby, an intact china cabinet with orange-and-white polka-dot cups stood on the third floor, exposed, after the apartment’s façade had been blown off. Other buildings are not famous. They resemble one another: some have one floor missing, some have a column—nine floors—of apartments missing while the rest of the block appears intact, and inhabited.

We entered a building that had been burned entirely, top to bottom, but its concrete structure remained. As we went from floor to floor, Max pointed out that every apartment had been furnished almost identically: a couch in the same corner—you could tell where it stood by the remaining spring coils—a china cabinet where only stacks of plates remained. Porcelain, it turns out, doesn’t burn, lose color, or break in such a fire. Everyone’s good china looked exactly the same. Once a family treasure, it was now left behind by those who’d combed the ruins for valuables.

One of Kharkiv’s heavily bombed buildings.

Many of the inhabitable apartments appear lived-in, as do some of the uninhabitable ones. Some people live without running water, some without working elevators, a few without heat or light. In a heated tent set up by emergency services last November, four people were keeping warm. A woman named Svitlana told me that she lived alone in her building, which had been mostly destroyed. There was no heat, so she spent most of her time in the tent, which was heated by a wood-burning stove. A movie was playing on a large television. It was “T-34,” a 2018 Russian propaganda film about the Second World War. “I don’t mind,” Svitlana said. “Even though they did this to us.”

Max and his colleagues proposed a concept to Foster, an invented identity for Kharkiv: the frontier city. Back in the seventeenth century, this was an outpost of the Russian tsardom and also a place where people fled from the Cossack-Polish war. In the nineteenth century, one of the first universities in the empire opened here. In the twentieth century, it was a creative hub for art, literature, early modernist architecture, and science. “It is a place for dreamers and inventors,” Max told me, referencing Frederick Jackson Turner’s idea about the frontier as a “field of opportunity.” At the February press conference to discuss the master plan, Foster used the word “fortress.” The vision that he outlined was grand. It included restoring the largely bombed-out building of the regional administration as a functional monument, the way Foster did with the former Reichstag building in Berlin by capping it with a giant glass dome. More ambitiously, it included a “science neighborhood” in the vicinity of the partially destroyed but still operational Barabashovo market. Max hopes that, in the city of the future, this space would be filled with housing and academic campuses and labs affiliated with universities like Harvard and M.I.T. Still, it was striking that both of them seemed to draw on settler-colonialist theory and military imagery to imagine what Kharkiv might be like after a colonial war.

Max also envisions in Kharkiv a “monument to life.” It would involve creating a green wall on that bombed-out sixteen-story building in Saltivka and planting trees in cavities formed by missiles. Kharkiv, the city, can become a symbol of survival. “Kharkiv is unlike Bucha or Irpin,” the Kyiv suburbs that were occupied by Russians for more than a month, “or even Mariupol, where things are much worse,” Max said. Mariupol was nearly wiped off the face of the earth before Russian troops succeeded in occupying it, in May of last year. Kharkiv was never occupied, but it has been under sustained attack since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. “This has gone on for a year here,” Max said. And yet the city has restored life. Max likes noticing what he calls “signs of normality.” One of them is a woman who sells flowers on a corner near his house. Once, a rocket landed close to that corner. She was back a few hours later, selling flowers.

Max at home in Kharkiv. In the first months of the war, he calmed himself by drawing his city.

Max is still living with his parents. He claims to love it. “It’s such a thrill, to allow yourself to live with your parents at the age of forty-seven,” he said. “I used to be a breadwinner, a stressed-out father.” Now his father does the shopping and the cooking, and his kids are safely in Germany. He and his daughter Sonya talk for long stretches every day. His son, Senya, is tougher. “All we say is, ‘I love you so much,’ ‘I love you so much too,’ but we don’t have much to discuss with each other. We’d rather hug. Let’s change the subject, or I’ll get weepy.” (His older daughter, Iryna Lapina, had briefly left Kharkiv last spring but later returned.) Max’s girlfriend is in Germany, too. He is mindful of how different their experiences of war have been and how hard it will be to reunite. At the same time, he feels a kind of freedom. “Everything used to have material consequences,” Max said. “I’d lead a tour, win acclaim, make money, and it would leave me wanting even more acclaim and money. Now I can dream. It’s a great adventure.”

On my last night in Kharkiv, I stopped by to see Max again. He asked if I thought that he should try to draw media attention to Foster’s plan for Kharkiv. Otherwise, he feared, it might remain just talk—a dream. For the dream to become reality, the war would have to end. There is no telling when that might happen. ♦

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