Two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the architect tells INTERNI about the situation from the front, his commitment to the displaced and the reconstruction projects

Exactly two years have passed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, 2022. Forty-eight months of war, more than 10,000 Ukrainian civilians killed, over 18,500 wounded (data UN).

The Ukrainian architect Slava Balbek, at the helm of the studio Balbek Bureau, tells INTERNI about the situation from the front, his civil and military commitment and the initiatives to welcome displaced people and rebuild the country: RE:Ukraine Housing System, the modular housing system for refugees, RE:Ukraine Community Hub, the social support center to help people heal and reintegrate, and RE:Ukraine Villages, the intuitive and online tool easy to use to allow Ukrainians to rebuild their homes according to the region's design code.

In these two years, thousands of homes and symbolic buildings have been destroyed.

“By razing our villages to the ground,” says the architect, “Russia is targeting our sense of home, our collective memory. Preserving these traditions is the way to safeguard our history and identity."

Exactly two years have passed since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territories. How is the situation now? And what are her feelings?

Slava Balbek: “In the last two years there has not been a day without civilian victims. Russia continues to target residential buildings, hospitals and nurseries. The war still rages, but we remain confident and focused because Ukrainians have no choice but to fight back.

My strategy for coping with this situation is to accept the worst case scenario and do my best to turn it into the best. This is exactly why, in the fall of 2022, I decided to join the volunteer military unit. As a volunteer UAV operator, every month I spend at least a week on the front lines, switching between my civilian and military duties. I remain CEO and architect of Balbek Bureau, but protecting our country is now my top priority.”

In these two years, what has been the impact of the war on your life, your family and your team?

Slava Balbek: “Although I understand how absurd it may sound, I would say that we have mastered the balance between war, work and private life and we have adapted to living under constant threat. This is not good, and I fear that this stress resilience will have a backlash later, but for now adaptation is what allows us to move forward.

Three of our teammates continue to serve in the Armed Forces and four others are now involved in volunteering and military training.

Most of our collaborators have already returned home to Kyiv, Kharkiv and Dnipro, but some have decided to stay abroad a little longer. Our team is now spread across eight countries, from neighboring Poland to the United States.

On a lighter note, in 2023 we welcomed new specialists on board and even created two more departments: CSR and Technology. Our team continues to grow and foster new skills, regardless of the circumstances. We have also signed several foreign projects such as an office in Zurich and a wedding dress boutique in Warsaw, and completed some local projects, so from a work point of view our office is more or less back to full capacity."

In the interview he gave us two years ago (read the interview here), had stated: "According to the Kremlin, Russia aims to annihilate Ukrainian cultural assets and historical heritage to contradict the existence of Ukraine as a nation." Has Russia managed to achieve this goal?

Slava Balbek: “In February 2024, UNESCO verified damage to 342 cultural sites. In reality, the damage is even more significant because not all museums or churches have a special status of historical or artistic interest.

So yes, Russia is still committed to its mission to erase Ukrainian identity, but luckily plans to restore these assets are already in the works. We are very grateful, for example, to Italy for having allocated 500 thousand euros to restore the largest Orthodox cathedral in Odessa. Your country's support means a lot."

To preserve the memory and identity of your country, which risk being erased forever, you created the online tool RE:Ukraine Villages.

Slava Balbek: "Our team had this idea in 2022, when it witnessed the consequences of the Russian occupation. Knowing that the damaged buildings would probably be rebuilt in a modern and anonymous way,we feared that the Ukrainian village might lose for always its traditional image.

Our initial plan was to create a tool that would help people rebuild their homes according to the region's design code. In June 2022, we went on an expedition to the liberated areas of the Kyiv region to take photos, take measurements and talk to homeowners.

After further research, our bureau identified recurring visual and structural features and developed and transformed this data into a digital tool.

The tool generates the 3D model of a house and offers the user advice on how to design and build the house, with a PDF manual containing isometries, plans, drawings, scans of the facade, a technical description and indications on finishing materials.

We view RE:Ukraine Villages primarily as a visual guide and inspiration for preserving our cultural heritage. The tool is now available for four regions, but we are working on five more and our ambition is to cover the whole of Ukraine."

What is the architectural style of Ukrainian villages?

Slava Balbek: “Each region has its own visual character. In the Kyiv region, most houses are white and blue, with gable or gable roofs and glass verandas.

The villages of Chernihiv are known for their extravagant wooden decorations, which recall the motifs of local embroidery. The Sumy region surprises us with vibrant colors such as green and dark cherry and unique carvings."

Why is it important to preserve the architectural identity of villages?

Slava Balbek: “The vernacular architecture of Ukraine never ceases to amaze me. I hope your readers try our online tool RE:Ukraine Villages to explore the variety and the architectural uniqueness of our villages.

The appearance of Ukrainian villages has been shaped by thousands of personal and collective decisions. Each decorative element embodies the taste and soul of those who create it.

By razing our villages, Russia is targeting our sense of home, our collective memory. Preserving these traditions is the way to safeguard this memory."

Two years ago you designed RE:Ukraine, the modular urban system for refugees, now under construction.

Slava Balbek: “RE:Ukraine Housing System, the housing system developed by our team for internally displaced people, remains available for implementation. Any local authority or charitable foundation can contact us and use this design kit for their needs. For example, the first RE:Ukraine residential settlement is under construction on the outskirts of Lutsk, in western Ukraine.

RE:Ukraine Community Hub in Vorzel is a branch of this initiative: it is a social support center that we designed for the Bucha community to help people heal and reintegrate. The hub will have an administrative services center with a conference room and library, space for counseling on physical and mental rehabilitation and a residential section for people undergoing recovery programmes. We aim to complete the works at the end of 2024."

To complete RE:Ukraine Community Hub you are looking for investors. How can the international creative community help you?
“Two years into full-scale war, raising funds for non-profit humanitarian projects is increasingly difficult. Ukrainian businesses and charities choose to donate to the Armed Forces (which I fully support); international donors are less involved than at the beginning.

If you are a company or fund that would like to support the implementation of RE:Ukraine Community Hub, please contact us here or donate directly on our fund website charity.

The project has already been supported by Ikea in South Eastern Europe, so we are also open to product donations.”

Two years ago he told us: "I am confident that we will be able to rebuild our country, it will be a historic reconstruction that will inspire the world." What are your hopes now, and what message do you want to communicate to the international community?

Slava Balbek: “This hope remains firm, but now I see clearly that to get to the reconstruction phase we must first overcome the military one. And with military aid lagging behind and the world continuing to tolerate Russian atrocities, this is a real challenge.

My message to the international community is simple: the war is not over, so please don't turn your back on us. Continue to donate to verified charities and participate in demonstrations in support of Ukraine. It takes a country to resist such a great aggressor, and the more united we are, the faster Europe will free itself from this evil."