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The puzzle of progress: hotel design in the Ukraine

The puzzle of progress: hotel design in the Ukraine

Last week, I traveled again to the Ukraine, visiting Kiev and Kharkov. It was only my second visit to the country and, just like the first time, it was very impressive. Seeing the city’s wide mix of influences also led me to reflect on the responsibility of hotel designers to balance the culture of a hotel’s location with the “progressiveness” that this culture desires. 


There are a lot of wealthy people in Kiev and Kharkov. There are many Mercedes, Porsches and Range Rovers on the streets and remarkable buildings continue to be erected downtown, as well as in outlying areas. It is likely there are a lot of poor people too, but as a ?tourist? spending my time in luxurious hotels and with wealthy investors, I couldn?t see them as there are no beggars on the streets.


The old buildings in the city centers are a proud representation of former times of luxury ? although now, of course, most of them urgently need to be refreshed. Many of the old structures look grey, plaster is falling from the fa?ades, plants are growing from roof gutters and cracks in the walls, and sometimes doors have been blocked closed. The air smells mouldy and sad.

However just around the corner, cheap metal constructions are cluttered with multi-hued, flashing LED-lights, clashing colors of mirrored glazing and aggressive advertising signs promising a (very cheap) Garden of Eden. Outside the city centers new shopping malls have been built, high-rise apartments rise form large housing blocks and the streets are lined with simple, square industrial buildings.


It really bothers me. I wonder what will happen with these cities, their culture and their buildings with all the massive changes underway? 


The Ukrainians are proud of their cultural heritage, but they also don?t want to lose even a second as now there is a push to make all the glittery Western promises become a reality. The cars must be newer and more expensive than those in Germany, the houses have to be bigger? and the design is either ?James Bond-like? (living on Mars) or highly traditional with a variety of Louis XV, Roman Empire and fairytale castle styles ? although, of course, with state-of-the-art technology!


I am afraid that this beautiful country is turning into a mixture of Las Vegas and Disneyland.


The cities have charming, authentic details that I have not seen anywhere else, like the girl selling ?kvass,? a traditional fermented beverage, from her bright yellow mobile distillery. But then in contrast to the traditional elements are international influences. For example, one of the latest hotels in the Ukraine, the InterContinental in Kiev, sets the stage for a traditional French restaurant, while others have more random offerings like the one combining sushi and pizza.


Yet a statue of Lenin continues to overlook the central square in Kharkov; his ideas are still a driving cultural force within the country?s modern history ? but I am not sure that they can provide guidelines for how the Ukraine can take a new direction in the future.

As a designer, I believe it would be nice to keep some of the ?kvass/atmosphere,? and not just create hotels and restaurants that reflect the international trends popular in Dubai and Los Angeles. So what do you think? Is a hotel that is modern and ?globalized? a sign of progress – or is the desire to maintain historical authenticity a more forward way of thinking?

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