Kacper Kępiński talks to Anastasija Ponomariova

The CO-HATY project aims to provide housing for internally displaced persons who have been forced to flee their hometowns in eastern Ukraine due to the Russian invasion. It began with the adaptation of an abandoned student dormitory in Ivano-Frankivsk. The initiators were a group of employees of the Ivano-Frankivsk National Technical University of Oil and Gas, and activists from the Metalab, Urban Curators and Critical Myslennia initiatives. Coupled with architectural knowledge, previous experience in conducting grassroots projects and urban planning interventions influences the projects implemented by CO-HATY. What comes to the fore is the desire to create functional, beautiful, and safe spaces for the development of social bonds. From the very beginning, the adaptation process has assumed people’s participation in this community design and construction work.

CO-HATY is a project funded from many sources and run by many people from different organizations. How did you all meet? How did this initiative come about?

The core team was formed in the second half of March 2022. It was created by people from Ivano-Frankivsk and internally displaced persons who sought refuge in this city in the first weeks of the war. They gathered around a local group called Metalab. Since the beginning of the war, Metalab members have been actively involved in humanitarian aid and other activities; for instance, they designed and manufactured Czech hedgehogs. They helped find accommodation for me and many other people who, like me, had fled from various regions of Ukraine. They quickly realized that there would be shortage of space, and they saw how big that shortage was, so they started looking for a solution. My role in this process was to support their ideas and to emphasize that what counts is the help offered not only to one’s friends but also to strangers in dire circumstances – strangers who have come or are considering coming to Ivano-Frankivsk. CO-HATY was created as a result of the decision to solve this problem. It was empathy that helped us define the main assumptions of the initiative, and thanks to that empathy we began to act at the early stage of the Russian aggression before mainstream organizations addressed the shortage of accommodation in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.

Kacper Kępiński: What were the competencies of the people who were involved in the project at the very beginning? Were you invited because you are an architect? Or did the project ultimately take shape based on the backgrounds of the people who make up the team?

Anastasija Ponomariova: People are the priority – it is the team and the friendships we have made within it. In the environment we have created, bonds between group members are deeply valued. They add up to some kind of soft cooperation, something different than the models known from start-ups or business organizations. We have a healthy relationship based on mutual trust. Everyone feels that his or her voice will always be heard. We perform our tasks in a structure without the hierarchy typical of offices or enterprises that operate according to market principles. Our group is without doubt interdisciplinary as we have many members with various types of education and experience; having said that, the core team consists of people who were involved in architecture before the war. They have a bit more responsibility on their shoulders, and yet their current job is not strictly about design. They typically act as coordinators, strategists, curators of participatory projects, and they make the most important decisions. We like to plan and to arrange space, but the current situation does not allow us to limit ourselves to this type of task. You could say that we take on the role of a meta-architect: we design, but we also perform many other duties which are necessary for such a large-scale undertaking.

KK: So, you knew each other before you started working together?

AP: Yes. The people who manage projects or deal with fundraising in CO-HATY previously knew each other on a personal or professional level. I used to work with Metalab, so after escaping from Kiev I contacted this organization first. For me, Metalab was a professional gateway to life in Ivano-Frankivsk. Our close and distant friends and acquaintances are still joining the project; you could say that the core team of CO-HATY consists of people from the architectural milieu who were friends before February 2022. The Ukrainian community of architects and city planners is relatively small; therefore, pretty much everyone knew each other well. Gradually, people from outside our milieu found out about us. Either they liked the way we work, or they just wanted to do something useful. Many of them have skills that are highly valuable to our activities, and new competences are acquired and developed extremely quickly in times of war and intensified operations. The third group of people who make up CO-HATY are internally displaced persons. Previously, they did not know the activists of Metalab or Urban Creators, but they became involved in the project because they wanted to help others in a similar situation. There are about five such persons in CO-HATY. They are responsible for “soft” tasks, such as organizing the community and coordinating the work of volunteers.

KK: How many people work in CO-HATY in total? Has the composition of the group changed over time?

AP: There are about twenty of us, and the composition of the group (apart from the core team) obviously changes. The highest number of committed people joined at the beginning of last summer, when we were doing our pilot project. We experienced a real organizational leap then; indeed, it was a quite a challenge, managing such a large group of people. This was certainly not a good precedent as generally, in my opinion, organizations should not develop this way. The situation at that time forced us to grow rapidly from six to twenty people within a month.

KK: Did everyone realise what they were getting into? Did they live permanently in Ivano-Frankivsk, or did they move there specifically to work?

AP: I came to Ivano-Frankivsk without a plan. I just wanted to get out of Kiev. The CO-HATY initiative was created when internally displaced people, me included, contacted Metalab. We must have had a huge potential for self-organization as it is quite amazing that we managed to create this project so quickly.

KK: What impact did the dynamic situation on the front have on your plans and project implementation? What did you need to adjust or modify during the design or implementation phase?

AP: War affects every dimension of our lives. The market for construction materials has changed significantly, and CO-HATY has had to adapt to the new reality. Our cooperation with Windows (the BRDA Foundation) and with other organizations resulted from changes in the market and from the need to find new methods of obtaining building materials. Our work was perhaps most palpably re-defined by military mobilization, due to which CO-HATY lost many important members. Bohdan Wołynski, who had been involved in the project from the beginning, was drafted into the army less than a month after the start of our operation. Mobilization continues; in some places in Ukraine, representatives of the Armed Forces sometimes take people straight from construction sites. Therefore, it is difficult for us to manage work, especially men’s work. War also affects our emotions. Many of us have lost family members and friends, or their loved ones are in danger. We are trying to support each other. If we see that someone is in a bad mental condition, we divide their tasks between us. We experience many technical problems, such as power outages. Half a day without electricity can significantly delay construction works, and electricity usually stops flowing when we urgently need to make some repairs.

KK: I saw on Instagram that at the beginning you used your own photovoltaic installations for small projects. Are they still in use? Are you still experimenting with them? Or perhaps you’ve managed to apply them on a larger scale?

AP: We have tackled the topic of energy efficiency, albeit to a limited extent. You could say that we have taken the first step and tested the solutions for the abandoned buildings that we are renovating. We wanted to demonstrate that we were actively looking for alternative energy sources. We have a long way to go before we implement these solutions on a broader scale. We adapt old buildings, but the installations within them tend to be in very poor condition and usually need to be replaced. We want to use energy-saving solutions that would make the facilities independent of the power grid: heat pumps, solar panels, small wind farms, heat recovery. Unfortunately, these solutions are very expensive, and we cannot make the necessary changes while relying on small homemade devices alone. We use the panels that we have constructed as an addition to soft modernization activities; and because we make them ourselves, other people (for instance, the residents) can copy them. Without changing the entire installation system in the buildings, it will not be possible to introduce our environmentally friendly solutions.

KK: Do future residents work with you, or do they move into ready-made accommodation?

AP: We involve residents in our activities. At CO-HATY we rely on volunteer work, which allows us to reduce construction costs, but what matters most is solidarity activities and the opportunity to cooperate with people who share the same value system. This is truly helpful, especially when we are struggling with the reality of war and its consequences. Of course, the composition of the group of volunteers is always changing, but five people have been working with us from the beginning and we remain in frequent contact. They come to the openings of buildings, even those they have not worked on. Volunteers create an interesting community; in the CO-HATY environment you can gain practical knowledge, new skills, and experience.

KK: What is the scale of your project? How many buildings have you already adapted and made available, and how many do you still plan to transform?

We have completed four buildings, for a total of eight hundred residents. The largest of these facilities, located in Kamianets-Podilskyi, has a total area of over two thousand square meters.

KK: Have you been present in the life of the community since the building opened? Does the participatory work method impact the way that residents organize their lives?

AP: We have adopted community development as one of the main tenets of our project. After the renovation works are complete, we cannot leave the residents to their own devices because we know that no one else will teach them how to create a community; no one will support them in solving problems or show them how to alleviate the problems caused by the conflict. In each of the facilities that we put into use – whether community centres or residential buildings – we commit ourselves to organizing community life for at least three months. At least one person then serves as an on-site coordinator and helps introduce basic rules which make it easier for the residents to get to know each other, talk about additional, essential infrastructure, and get to know the city. If time allows, we try to show them how to become a community coordinator, or how to implement a small project in the common space surrounding the building. We consider this to be the necessary minimum for the integration of residents – for community building. CO-HATY’s mission is to create safe, self-sufficient communities that are able to independently solve their own problems, find jobs, and even look for better accommodation. We would like resident communities to develop their own customs and implement their own projects. It is also important to eliminate economic problems, which is why we want the rents to be as low as possible. So, we have this concept of an ideal self-sufficient community, but making this concept reality is totally beyond our capabilities or control.

KK: What is the role of institutions in this process? Are they involved in the construction work or in stimulating the lives of the residents, or do they stand aside? Have you filled the institutional gap with your actions?

AP: I admit that I haven’t visited the project in Ukraine for several months now, so I don’t know the current situation. I’ve noticed – and I know that the rest of the team share this view – that state institutions and local governments have a pretty archaic idea of humanitarian aid. They do not believe that a community of internally displaced persons can become self-sufficient; they see these people as fragile and weak, and they want to help them at a basic level, providing them with various types of products and medical assistance. True, all this is important, but what is much more important is the belief that these people can overcome the impasse and actively engage – acting on their own behalf and on behalf of others. This approach distinguishes CO-HATY from other projects. We try to involve the residents at various stages – from planning to community organization. We also talk to the creators of other initiatives and try to convince them to modify their plans by, for example, enriching their utility program with a canteen or a co-working space. Instead of giving people food, let us help them find jobs. Although this statement sounds like a cliché, it is sometimes difficult to actually implement it in a project.

KK: Do you think that Ukrainians have special predilections or competences that are helpful in this type of activity? Did Euromaidan or other experiences affect your ability to self-organize?

AP: You’ve raised a great research problem for anthropologists and sociologists. I formulated the thesis that for some reason in Ukraine we have developed a culture of building support networks. Perhaps it is that our local authorities are weak and have little agency; perhaps it is that they do not care. So, we have some kind of freedom, but many problems remain unsolved because no grassroots initiatives are addressing them. People need to organize and act. On the scale of the whole country and given the weight of the problems that we face in our cities, the community of urban activists is small, but it is also well networked and knowledgeable in the activities of individual organizations, so we know where to turn for help. Thanks to all these connections, we also know each other in personal capacity. In my opinion, the feeling that we cannot rely on local or state institutions strongly bonds us with our family, friends, and people in similar social groups. Perhaps civil society is active because no authorities are doing what they should be doing, and even when they try to do it, it comes out clumsy or inept.

KK: How has architectural practice changed? What attitudes do you observe in the architectural community? Do architects find ways to practice their profession in these conditions?

AP: I’ve noticed how easy it is for architects to take the initiative and take an active attitude. Currently, it is clearly visible who is involved, who takes on the role of the organizer, and who performs smaller tasks. Some of the architects decided that it would be best to wait the war out; for others, the limit of their engagement is taking part in a competition; but there is a certain group that have taken on a huge responsibility. Some architects went to the front, others changed the format of their operation to include humanitarian aid; they negotiate the necessary funds with municipalities, they organize partners and support. I am curious about how the architectural milieu in Ukraine has changed and I would like to explore this topic further.

KK: Is there room in your work for discussion about its purely architectural dimension? Are you discussing aesthetics and talking about the residents’ perceptions?

AP: In the present era, when we face difficulties with the availability of materials, the aesthetics of bricolage or collage has gained in value and importance. It is definitely easier for people who have designed in this spirit before. They are not waiting for the perfect material or the perfect solution to become available; instead, they just try to do the best they can in the current situation. Despite the problems and limited resources, they feel the need to take care of aesthetics. Certainly, this is not an easy task; admittedly, our re-adaptation has disfigured many objects. At CO-HATY, we implement cheap projects, but their beauty is of great importance to us. Aesthetics carries a strong message: see, people affected or threatened with exclusion deserve beauty; these cheap humanitarian facilities, social housing, can be beautiful. We need to stop thinking that volunteers build poor-quality structures whereas good architecture is created for rich and influential clients. You won’t find our designs on ArchDaily, but they are beautiful, and we manage to achieve this effect at a low cost. If we have a small budget and we follow the principle of using everything that is available and suitable for reuse, there is a high risk that the end result will not be particularly stunning. However, we can try to balance this approach: we can choose nice elements and give up those that spoil the aesthetics.  

KK: What are your plans? What are you working on currently?

AP: I have been focusing on research work. I want to analyse what the architectural and activist community can learn from the CO-HATY project, and how to disseminate our methods in the architectural trade. I would like to reduce the gap between conventional architecture and voluntary work. We are not volunteers. We have not a plan but a mission. We can pursue that mission in two ways: show that humanitarian projects can be beautiful (the architectural way), or show appreciation for the people involved in the process – to empower them. My mission is to help them take on the role of organizers, to make their endeavours appreciated; then, when the time of reconstruction comes, they will be in the vanguard. It goes without saying that these plans may change due to many factors.

We want to continue our operations. CO-HATY is planning to adapt further buildings, and Metalab provides funds for this purpose. The mission of renovating residential buildings for internally displaced persons has not lost its importance; therefore, Metalab also organizes and supports local workshops for that purpose. They want to allocate substantial resources for the development of infrastructure, for furnishing and equipping spaces that would allow craftsmen and people of other specializations to design and produce all kinds of objects – both for CO-HATY and for their own needs. This is a very important element of the future ecosystem of radically democratic and equitable design and architectural practices. We do not know what the future of intervention projects will look like, or what the architect’s role in creating and implementing intervention projects will be. I believe we need to focus on supporting grassroots practices so that they can compete on an equal footing with conventional projects.