Odessa’s Sustainable Design, Speaking a Different Language

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The point of this trip is to set the stage for a Study Abroad course in Eastern Europe focusing on a new and broadened concept of universal sustainability.  I tell my students they are recipients of the pioneering tenets of a New Renaissance, a new awakening, the beginning of a new era.  Some call it the New Millennium, some think we’ve finally, finally landed on Shangri La and have found the answers.  I like to remember a fishing pole hat I had as a kid, with a toy fish on the end just out of reach.  The faster you chased the target the more it eluded.  We are the first generation to consider sustainability with an eye towards the future, in the present, tempered by the past.  Green Building, Zero Net Energy, Environmentalism, Sustainable Urbanism, Sustainable Economic Planning, Social Equity, Eco City Development, Eco Urban Design, all in caps, are 3rd Millennial concepts.  We are at the very beginning.   I believe future generations will look back on this period and call us the pioneers of a new beginning a Renaissance. 

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The lessons learned in Eastern Europe with their past, present and future, point the way to a new beginning, a new understanding of “What’s next?”  These are societies steeped in history and traditions, architectural precedents and cultural morays, social structures and political upheaval.  The cities, towns and villages of the X Soviet Union have had time pass them by.  The political storms of the 20th Century, and there were plenty, came and went like the wind.  The remaining built environment’s resiliency creates a new sense of sustainability into the 21st Century that’s missing in the developed world.  We must expand our concepts as part of the mantra of “globalization” or become obsolete.

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Odessa as a show piece to the brave new world of the Soviet State, surprisingly elucidates concepts to be applied in today’s cities all over the world.  Everybody walks and takes the transit.  Everyone meets face to face all day and night long.  Every evening, all evening the entire downtown is packed with pedestrians, walking, talking, eating, along promenades, in parks and cafes, around fountains and gazebos.  The innumerable squares and alcoves, not as pretty as those in Prague and Krakow, remain full of people eating, drinking, talking and yes smoking until the middle of the night.  These all serve to create a sustainable city within a new definition amongst the contradictions and non sequiturs and rubble…“putting butts in the seats”.

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Churches and cathedrals abound on every corner, with open doors and an ethereal respite from the din of the city.  Old architectural styles in original condition, yes you could call “busted up”, create a mish mash of separate and well developed styles one on top of the other.  Time and culture remain the main form givers to the place.  Squares, facades, entries, walls, windows, steps, fountains, walkways work with proportions, light, views and eddies, to create private and public spaces with opportunities for sustainable architectural and urban design.  Everything lasting through the centuries, creating an eclectic urban festival for people with the old embracing the new, creating the rough edges of opportunity.  It is this “Resiliency” that we must understand and emulate in the Developed World. 

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In Odessa you’ll see crumbling facades, broken pediments, smashed buildings in ruins, broken and busted sidewalks, streets, walks, stairs, abandoned buildings, broken windows, fallen in roofs, unkempt parks, weeds, crumbling fountains, rubble for sidewalks and promenades, all a function of the political and economic upheaval of the tough, tough, tough 20th Century.  There’s been no money to gussy it up and make it pretty like Prague or Krakow.  On one hand you see it as “busted up” and dirty and broken.

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You’ll also see vibrant markets that go on block after block after block, outdoor shopping malls stuffed with open cafes filled with umbrellas, tables and people.  You’ll see parks full of people every hour of every day and jammed to overflowing at 10 pm every night.  You’ll find opera house parks and fountains and plazas and rose gardens and church cloisters filled with kids playing, teens skateboarding, families strolling, oomph bands oomphing, dancers swirling, people selling and watching and talking and laughing.  You’d think it was a carnival, but it’s every day and every night!  It’s a scene out of the play book of what’s best in sustainable city design and what we designers hope to design.

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All the while, there are no Zero Energy Buildings, no recycling or water restrictions, no car pooling and not a single Prius in sight!  There are no electric cars, solar panels, high efficiency envelopes, solar hot water heaters, super efficient building envelopes.  No low e windows, green materials, building integrated photovoltaics or LEED buildings anywhere!  There are no empty brand spankin’ new plazas or umbrella tables or benches.   Their sustainable society speaks an entirely different language than ours.  We are speaking English and they are speaking Russian with mutually un-understandable alphabets!   They don’t have the slightest concept of our sense of sustainability and we have no concept of theirs.  Both models fulfill different niches in architectural and city development.  We must learn to speak a more universal language for sustainability to be sustainable.  

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2 thoughts on “Odessa’s Sustainable Design, Speaking a Different Language

  1. I would trade a messy organic sustainability any day over planned, top-down orthodoxy and checklist methodologies. That the pedestrian spaces and community connections that endured and flourished in the decades of Soviet planning exposes the deeper desires of urbanites that cannot be regulated, codified and profited from. True sustainability that support our basic needs like you see in Eastern Europe should be the goal, and measured in terms of happiness, not how many bike racks are in front of a gleaming office building or how many solar panels are on the roof.

    Glad to see you feeling better…been wondering.

  2. It’s really heart breaking to the Odessa being in the current state, it looks like it has a great potential Architecturally, but like you said, the people is there, doing what a sustainable city should be doing. So I’m sure it’s just the matter of time, until it will be as good as Prague or Krakow if not better.

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