Odessa, Learning from the Past to Find a New Future

Odessa, this southern seaport was the beach playground for the Soviet mucky mucks throughout the 20th Century.  You know, the ones with ribbons on their jackets!  Yes, yes…and the huge Soviet hats with the red ribbon.  They built huge 1950’s and 1960’s style compounds right down to the Black Sea with no public access for anyone but themselves.


Odessa was founded in the late 17th Century by Catherine the Great.  You know, the one with all sorts of rumors attached to her legacy!  Yes and a lust for…noooo…a lust for territory.  The access to the sea was of great value in the late 1600’s.  The Ottoman Empire dominated the place right up to the 1st quarter of the 16th Century when it was defeated in the Russo-Turkish War of 1792 perpetrated by…you guessed it…Catherine the Great!

She founded the City with all her power, allies and generals in tow right before her death at the stroke of the 19th Century.  Odessa thrived under the rule of Catherine’s Generals well into the 19th century and became the fourth largest city of Imperial Russia, after Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Warsaw.  Those benefactors included the now famous General Potemkin as in the Stairs.  You know, the Potemkin Stairs where as you look down you see only landings and when you look up you see only stairs, exactly 200 of them.  Wow, who knew learning history could be so much fun!  Just imagine how popular you’ll be at parties?


During Soviet times, Odessa was the most important port of trade in the Soviet Union and sported the Soviet Navy.  The architecture maintains a decidedly Mediterranean rather than a Russian style, influenced by a 19th Century Russian aristocratic taste for all things French and Italian. Everything from caviar to coffee to arranged marriages to architecture was brought in from the stylish west.  As a result many of the original and untouched buildings remain a showcase of adjacent yet pure Baroque, Renaissance, Neo Classical and Art Nouveau all on the same street!  How do I know all this stuff?  HA, the secret of once again…no not the oracle but “Free Walking Tours of Odessa”!  Such a deal!


The place remains the playground of the Russian speaking areas of Europe, with many tourists from Moscow, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Poland and Denver!  Well, exactly one non Russian speaking tourist from Denver!  You learn to point and grunt when ordering food and drinks.  There are almost no westerners here in these parts.  Certainly only a very little amount of English.  I’ve become an instant celebrity, with English speaking Ukrainians and Russians being shoved to the front of a surrounding horde to squawk out the usual questions.  “Where from you?”  “Why you come Odessa?”  “Colorado!  Oh! The Avalanche!” Then a translation to the crowd, a pause and then 20 thumbs up.  You quickly realize the “A” is a capital letter remembering hockey and Russia, and the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and USA’s Miracle Team!  They love all things hockey and so I feel at home for a nano-second.

Beaches stuffed with bodies of all shapes and conditions surround the Black Sea coast with most of the heavy shipping is confined to one area near the city center.  Again a strange mix of heavy hulking industry intermixed with recreation, beaches, parks, statues, swing sets, promenades and ancient forts.  Most of the beaches remain in the outlying areas though the HUGE soccer stadium park I walked through had an inner city beach right next to the stevedore docks and that same green algae choked water.  Much like Kherson adaptability and aesthetics clash throughout old Russia and today’s Ukraine.

The Soviet system imprinted the theme of industry first over this historic city’s architecture, with their “comrades” supporting the machine.  It eventually became an aesthetic more accurately dubbed “military grade industrialism”, with both the ideal and theme defining everything. It reminds me of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from the 1930’s.  This went on all the way up until the USSR died a terrible death in 1991, falling victim to not a military coup de tat, but to a grinding process of universal disintegration accelerated by economic and social woes.  Yes sustainability in any form was not in the USSR’s business plan.  The worker’s revolution from 1917 almost immediately derailed in 1922 when the Communist Party consolidated power with Stalin at the helm.  As they say…”the rest is history”.   Stalin strummed on the heart strings of the worker comrades from the Bolshevik Revolution with diatribes like “Our fields are devastated, factories are shut down, economic resources are depleted…” as reported by Time Magazine in that same year.  The Soviet Union slowly turned the bright new ship of the worker’s revolution into the hulking authoritarian scow we know today.  Again, the same question as always, what’s this got to do with architecture? 


Everything!  The city fabric remaining at every corner today shows the legacy of the hard lessons of this social and political experiment.  The concepts of resilient sustainability must be included to support a broad base of social, economic, environmental, cultural, historical, humanistic development through time.  At its inception, sustainability fit a broad set of concepts into some nice neat silos.  It represented baby steps into a broadening of economic, environmental and social challenges in all walks of life.  My favorite question…”are these both necessary and sufficient” to define what is sustainable.

We always exist within some new movement which remains unnamed until later.  We only get to learn the lessons and name the movement after it’s over.  So it is today.  We’ve labeled the previous 10 years with the generic term “sustainability”.  We increasingly are learning lessons of successes and failures of that movement.  So what’s next?  Can resiliency capture a broader set of approaches to be more universally applied?  What lessons does the architecture of Odessa or Kherson or Lviv or Krakow or Dresden or Prague teach us for the future of the planet?  That’s what we’re talking about, right?  Answering the questions… “What have we learned from the past?” and… ”Where do we go from here?”


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