Kherson the Black Seaport…An Allegory for the Soviet State

Kherson, the ancient feudal capital along the Black Sea coast is another UN World Heritage Site.  The city, one of the smallest I’ve visited remains all Ukrainian.  The sea offers the only and best outside contact, with many large ships docking and unloading here supplying the rest of the Ukraine.  The mariners are required to speak multiple languages so the only English speakers come from the sea.  Indeed, this is one place I get lots of stares despite my trying to fit with the locals.  Maybe I can’t always hide my fairly large camera!  They don’t get many visitors here.  The black Sea coast remains one of the best ocean accesses for not only shipping but of course the Russian Navy, still permanently docked in the Crimea just to the south.  This may be the most original and untouched place I will see on this trip.  With only mariners as the outside influence, the place has existed for some 800 years in an isolated part of the central Ukrainian coastline.


So again, the oracle for folks like me, Wikipedia on “Kherson for Dummies”!  Can’t get much more succinct than that!
“Until 1774, the region belonged to the Crimean Khanate. Kherson was founded in 1778 by Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, on the orders of Catherine the Great. The city was built under the supervision of General Ivan Gannibal on the site of a small fortress called Aleksanderschanz. The name Kherson is a contraction of Chersonesos, an ancient Greek colony founded approximately 2500 years ago in the southwestern part of Crimea. One of the first buildings in the Kherson Fort was the Church of St. Catherine where Potemkin was eventually buried. The last tarpan was caught near Kherson in 1866.”


To say the place is “busted up” is to maybe miss the point of coming here.  There is plenty of that, with post Soviet fall out from years of military style construction overlaid on the ancient town of course combined with years of neglect.  Here you see original structures, unadorned with Soviet or 20th century appointments.  Here you see pure stylistic architecture from any of the dozen or so artistic eras that moved through this part of the world.  It’s where you see the unadulterated Soviet style superimposed over the ancient town’s layout of the Baroque and Renaissance.

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Moreover, the history of the place includes the cradling of 4 different ethnicities, with contiguous and adjacent Jewish, Polish, Russian and Greek neighborhoods.  There are renovated synagogues, Catholic churches, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox houses of worship, all surrounded by the busted up urban fabric so prevalent in this part of the world.  My personal favorite was the Kherson Grand Hotel certainly from Soviet times, dating from the 1960’s.  It had porthole windows, aluminum panels, concrete, porches, an elaborate patio “system” made of intersecting water pools, little water falls, a Sputnik Satellite ball in the middle of the pools, bridges, canopies, decks, alcoves made of concrete, and concrete patio surfaces.  A pure example of the 1960’s style that I grew up with except everything, I mean everything was busted up, broken, green with mold and falling apart.  The water was choked with bright green algae and Sputnik was defiled with colonies of pigeons permanently perched on top!  Needless to say ol’ Sputnik was white as the ghost!




I spent an entire day walking around the port, which included a river walk, statues, fisherman, bridal parties, boat rides, receptions, kids with balloons, boys diving off the piers, vendors selling brats, a tiny Russian Orthodox chapel, park benches, small curio shops, sidewalk cafes with umbrella seating areas.  Only 200 yard away loomed huge dock cranes 20 stories high, concrete and timber stevedore docks, international ships and dark brown water stripped with bright green algae.  Walk up apartments sat in the shadows of the seaport’s mechanized monsters performing a constant surreal Tai Chi dance.  Soviet military style trucks lined up alongside neighborhoods next to the piers with dirt roads, hulking metal buildings and neighborhood kids playing in among the rubble with wagons and soccer balls.  It was a surreal sight.


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I was befriended by a very nice guy Max, or Maximi in Ukrainian.  I had my map plastered against a glass wall in the shopping district trying to read the thing.  He walked up and immediately spoke English, “Do you need any help?”…I guess I don’t blend in as much as I thought!  A shock, the first real English I’d heard since I arrived in the town.  He was a professor at the university, specializing in history, ethnicity and cultural developments in the Ukraine, traveling extensively throughout Europe.  He also taught a course on Jewish ethnicity and the Holocaust, so we had a very good chat about social responsibility and collective consciousness.  He spent over an hour and a half with me, showing me the old central part of Kherson, the old historic center on the hillside above the sea, where the 4 contiguous neighborhoods were located.  At the end, we said our goodbyes knowing we’d never see each other again.  He was a real breath of fresh air in an otherwise rather inhospitable place.  He’s reading this blog so thank you Max!


People work with what they’ve got, they are resilient.  Over their history, this has remained a seaport.  As time went on, and especially under the USSR, industry thrived.  That’s one of the main messages here.  The Iron Curtain prevented the rest of the world from seeing the actual workings inside the Soviet State.  They “industrialized” everything.  Industry, manufacturing, energy, infrastructure, agriculture, town planning, urban design, housing, economy, were all built in a post war industrial scale.  Over the top!  So swimming and getting married under the shadows of those hulking Transformer looking monsters is just the way it is.  In our psyches and our living environment we adapt.  Our cities and towns transform with time and use to become more resilient.

Architecture is here to bridge that gap between functionality, aesthetics and our social lives.  In this sense history has taught us that architects are social scientists, artists, planners, engineers, historians, all in one.  We not only illustrate the power of a time in the icons of politics and religious, but also create the functional structures, buildings, and places in which to live.  Art, form, style, aesthetics come into the picture in the form of enhancing the experience, our human desire to enjoy things of beauty.  Art for art’s sake?  Ah yes, I remember that!  How does that balance with the necessities of working, living, shopping, resting, enjoying a meal, a park or a vista?  No where that I’ve ever seen is this dichotomy more fully illustrated than in the X-Soviet Union.  Nowhere!  Nowhere else was there such a clearly defined agenda in design aesthetics.  Nowhere else was there an equaled nationalistic drive to produce and manufacture and compete on the world stage.  Two opposing “prime directives” of urban design of function and beauty clashed together within the cities of the USSR in old Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus.  So back to my original question…is this sustainable design?


The build environment here is certainly not sustainable by our metrics…nor is it always beautiful.  Is sustainable design beautiful design?  Is beauty one of the markers of sustainability?  Our narrow view of sustainability may be what ultimately makes it an outdated construct.  One that in itself is unsustainable, or certainly not universal.  It would seem that a concept such as sustainability would be sufficiently inclusive so as to not narrowly define an American view of what works to support the environment, economy and social fabric.

Our view of architectural sustainability through the filter of the Triple Bottom Line focuses mostly on energy.  Saving energy therefore justifies saving money.  I was shocked when I polled my classes several years ago, asking if sustainability is a social responsibility or simply about money.  95% said it was all about money, both on the investment side and the savings side.  We speak of “cost payback” and “net present value” of expensive strategies to save energy.  LEED is our main metric.  Most of you not in the building business have never heard of the Leaders in Energy and Environmental Design or the LEED Rating System according to specific benchmarks of Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum LEED ratings.  The “points” do include some issues of the site, urban design, water, materials, but almost half of the points relate to energy and connected issues.  Our rapidly anachronistic view of what is sustainable design will soon render it useless in a broader globalized view.

A resilient model of developing cities and places for people certainly rests on the ideas of the integration of industry, commerce, agriculture and living.  It supports the longevity of development into a continuum that stands the tests of time.  That it promotes and supports the needs and aesthetics of any people no matter the culture.  This is part of the new genera of city planning called Eco-City design.  We in the USA scoff at Le Corbuseae’s high rise stuff so readily adopted by the Soviets, where high rises surrounded by grassy fields are supposedly filled with playing children, surrounded by transportation systems, surrounded by industry.  Corbu’s High Rise Housing  It’s all very orderly, maybe in a Rube Goldberg sort of way, where the city is a machine.  In Eastern Europe, people swim, get married and stay in grand hotels right next to the industrial working piers because that’s where they live and work and recreate.


Untouched places like Kherson along the Black Sea coast teach us these lessons.  Is this resilient city a working and vibrant labyrinth of culture, living, activities, working and recreating?  Does the city support the ideals of good urban design of “putting butts in the seats” with people on the streets, sidewalks and cafes all day every day?  Is it an interesting place to live and shop and recreate and visit?  Is it a beautiful city such as Prague or Krakow and so does that make it less sustainable?  I predict we are closing the book on the “sustainable” chapter of city, urban design and architectural development.  We must look for new concepts that work on a global and broader scale, supporting a more universal view of what sustains cities, people and lives over the long haul.  Resiliency, that which stands the tests of time may be the next new frontier in cities, and one most easily seen in places such as Lviv and Kherson in the old Soviet Union.

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One thought on “Kherson the Black Seaport…An Allegory for the Soviet State

  1. It’s enjoyable to be able to follow your adventures, the photos a bonus. Also, we’re all wondering: you described having aliens in your digestive tract, just before boarding a long bus ride. You were at the gates of hell, and then………..what? You never finished the narrative. We can’t stand the suspense! Hopefully, you have pics of that also. Let us know.

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