Interview with Oleksandr Shevchenko


How to activate the unexploited spatial potential of higher education institutions and improve students’ experience without capital and million investments, we talked with Oleksandr Shevchenko, founder at Zvidsy Urban Agency.

In March 2021, the Ukrainian-Swiss Project “Medical Education Development”, together with the pilot higher education institutions, began their joint movement towards human-friendly learning spaces. The Project is currently creating architectural concepts of the student spaces based on the experience of foreign universities and expertise of Zvidsy Urban Agency; after that it will proceed to analysing the possibilities of every institution to implement the concept or its parts. The initiative is aimed at designing and implementing the spaces which are accessible for students, employees and teachers and which allow learning in smaller groups as well as comfortable time spending alone or with colleagues.

Could you explain what you mean by “spatial potential” from the urban perspective? Why can it be “unexploited”? What is meant by the phrase “space activation”? Which urban prospects do you see in the current Ukrainian context? 

Spatial potential is the potential of the territory seen through the specifics of geographical conditions, local culture, history, town planning, and, primarily, human needs.

An example of exploited spatial potential is the National Exhibition centre (VDNG). The forgotten exhibition space was reformatted into one of the biggest areas for leisure and seasonal mass events.

An example of unexploited spatial potential is the Lybid River – a potential public space with access to water and new pedestrian bridge which are currently inaccessible.

Space activation means the activities aimed at improving the space liveliness, encouraging different population groups to use the territory, enabling new user experience and possibilities to satisfy different needs.

Now, Ukraine is still in the process of transformation of the old soviet agenda into the new European one. This process is delayed to a certain extent due to regular clinches of public administrations, developers, and NGOs as to various urban spaces. In this case universities have a certain autonomy in terms of fulfilling their spatial potential. That is why we see the prospects of our work in the Project.

Due to formality of many processes in the soviet times, when the higher education institutions were established, the communities’ flexibility in forming their own spaces was lost, and only now we are coming back to restoring this flexibility. For instance, the lecture halls of an average Ukrainian institute in 90% are created exclusively for learning. They are not about additional extracurricular activities, student meetings or alternative or additional function.

In this project, restoring the potential means notional revival of users’ flexibility in sound exploration of spaces and creation of additional scenarios and formats for learning, leisure, time spending with peers. Thus, an ordinary 100-year-old tree planted during the foundation of the institution is not just a monument with a plate, but a potential place for meeting, rest, snacks, informal communication in the pleasant shade. The more there are such interconnected places the better the potential is fulfilled.

If you look at the existing context of the Ukrainian higher education institutions, they often have decadesold buildings at their disposal. How difficult is it to renovate them and what do the changes start from? Do we have the Ukrainian examples of transformation or creation of spaces at the higher education institutions which could be useful for us? 

Certainly, the work with any urban architectural space means thorough research before any further steps for space improvement. The most importance choice in this case is to create an organic symbiosis of both old and new, but not to build new object in the old epoch style.

At the same time, one should not forget that the function for such a type of task as building construction or renovation has to precede the form. In this way one can prevent simple “prettification” and concentrate on transforming the users’ experience inside the educational complexes.

You will never have enough money to create the project that will satisfy everyone. That’s why the financial criterion should not come first, and we should not compare the initial conditions with, for example, the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU). From the UCU it is important to take a human-oriented approach in space development, but not a processoriented one – the one that the majority of Ukrainian education institutions have. As soon as the student’s complex experience becomes the priority, we will see spatial and organizational changes which will update the issue of involving urbanists and architects into the development of campuses and buildings. The student’s complex experience is a collection of its interactions in the institution from entering to exiting it. Here a human-oriented approach is important which is opposed by the process-oriented one — between the bells of the lessons.

It is not important how an educational institution looks like and how old it is – space activation will follow a similar scenario and will be based on the current needs of the users. The main problem of moral obsoleteness of higher education institutions is the difference between the speed of space and human transformation. Young people change quickly, educational approaches do it slower, and spaces and building are very slow at it.

To have something in a new way, you should do it in a new way. The experience and results of the UCU confirm it; and one should use them fundamentally, but not only focusing on the form and design.

You have already had an opportunity to communicate with the pilot higher education institutions, and you have even visited some of them. Could you tell us what the attitude of the administrations is and what feedback you have as to the future changes in the spatial potential?

The work on transformation has just started, and I can say that we have a lot of tasks. The general transformation will be a synergy of our approach, institutions’ readiness to changes, and constructive and active participation of different users at the higher education institutions.

We have already presented the general idea of the project to the pilot higher education institutions, visited Zhytomyr, plan to visit Lviv and Ternopil. It is probably too early to draw big conclusions, but the general tendency of public objects or municipal property is quasi-feudal management. The premises and buildings have a spirit of a fortress, but not an ancient Greek forum. Often, it is a tradition of the past.

However, to their credit, our partners are responding to the students’ request, trying to understand it, and, where possible, support it. But transferring the abstract requests of students, teachers, and employees to spatial solutions can be difficult. At this stage external experts should indeed be involved.

By the way, tell us how exactly does the space influence the learning process? Do you have tangible practical examples? 

The learning process in the world has long moved away from a ‘lecturepractice-laboratory work’ to a ‘learning environment where responsible students make choices every day’ format. The choices are different – from which disciplines to study to where to sit with a book or where to contact a teacher from.

The spaces like Kharkiv School of Architecture and Ukrainian Catholic University show how multifunctionality of spaces can influence creation of different linkages between students of different years and faculties, teachers, and visitors. The students’ efficiency is increased, because they plainly do not waste their time for unnecessary movements and can concentrate on the important things. Moreover, the space can have a positive impact on productivity, stimulate and inspire students.

Could you advise on the key principles of spatial potential activation for Ukrainian higher education institutions which do not have a possibility to build a new building? Will every institution have their own principles? Which first steps can Ukrainian universities take to start their own path of change?

The changes to active the space in higher education institutions can be ensured by implementing some very simple principles every day:

  • Multifunctionality. A lot of processes in education are gradual, so thanks to combining several functions in one space the life around it can be livened up. Thus, if there appear new additional functions apart from the main one, this encourages active life around this space.
  • Focus on a human, but not a process. The learning/thought process is energy-consuming. It is important to minimize unnecessary energy usage in such a learning environment (for example, unnecessary movements, etc.).
  • Better small and regular changes rather than capital ones once per 10 years.

Can the solutions in the context of realizing the spatial potential be simple? How to form a space of cooperation and trust between students and institutions’ administrations instead of the fear that new furniture or fresh-painted walls will be quickly spoilt? 

Simplicity is the most difficult to seek. First of all, the administrations have to give some vote of confidence to obtain a new result. It is worth starting with studying and mapping the students’ spatial experience. We published main principles in the project guidelines which are publicly available. These guidelines are useful for any higher education institution.

After the study it is clear which things are the most vulnerable and what exactly should be done fundamentally. This is a so-called service model, which precedes any design. And afterwards one can proceed to solutions where procurement takes place. As a rule, there are different solutions for every budget, and the price is not a decisive success criterion. One should only avoid cliched objects in the spaces which are everywhere in thousands, for examples, signs “I love *institution/ town/district/villages or anything else”.

The funds for renovation and maintenance should be included into the budget in advance. Statistically, things get broken and order should be maintained. In the course of time everyone gets used to new objects and there is almost no vandalism. This process is called a “design appropriation”, when students and users identify themselves with these places.

Sometimes, one can try a shortcut of experiments. For example, to buy comfortable tables and chairs and put them around in different places, measuring the demand by simply making photos from time to time. After a series of experiments, the best option will be seen.

Can the updated space help managers, teachers and students to communicate informally more? Do the student feel being cared of at all? 

Students are people in a special period of time. One should not forget about it. Yesterday’s children and people changing the profession — these periods of life are stressful, full of uncertainty and concerns. The concerns can be expressed in a destructive way, it is natural. In general, students feel being cared of. But they also see when the budget is just “used”.

Taking into account the students’ need in implementation of such spaces is important. Sometimes, it is even feasible to give up formal and reputational objectives to respond to the students’ requests more precisely. For example, not to make a pompous entrance to the institute, but to arrange a sports area near a dormitory or a hidden meeting point. This is the way how trust among managers, teachers and students appear. All the teachers also used to be students once, so this approach will be positive for them too.

And the students are a proactive community. Today there are a lot of examples of the youth themselves arranging their own space which then turns into a popular club, co-working space or art studio.

The people who care develop it themselves to such a level of visibility which goes beyond the higher education institution. The support from administration in such projects positively influences warm relations, mutual trust and sense of responsibility for the space. A short list of the most famous cases:

  • White Space, KMArt Yard from KyivMohyla Academy;
  • Vezha, Belka from Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute;
  • Urbanavt, Lunoteka by Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

What would be your advice to people who have just started renovating the space for others? 

It is very difficult to choose a proper period for renovation – technological and fast-paced world is changing at a faster pace. So, there is no need to wait for the instruction for regular capital renovations from above, it is necessary to implement the programs which will stimulate systematic involvement of students and teachers in the processes within higher education institutions. It is also important to involve experts, as this will accelerate and facilitate the process of change and make the result better. Every higher education institution should review these processes every time your smartphone gets new updates from Silicon Valley.