Lithuanian Initiative Launches Massive Transformation of Soviet-Era Schools in Ukraine


9/4/20233 min read

The Lithuania-born initiative "Rebuild the Wonderful," which unites architects and urban planners, is launching a massive project to transform Soviet-era schools in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has already allocated funding for the creation of transformation projects for the first five typical and war-damaged schools, which are expected to open their doors next September after reconstruction.

Following victory, these prototypes can be used to transform thousands of other schools across Ukraine. "Rebuild the Wonderful" has brought together three architectural firms from Lithuania, Estonia, and Hungary, all of which have experience in transforming educational architecture. In Ukraine, the implementation of this project is overseen by the urban change company "Big City Lab."

The architectural concepts for Ukrainian schools are being developed in collaboration with Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, who is responsible for innovation and education, as well as the Minister of Education and Science, Oksen Lisovyi, and the NGO "Mariupol Reborn," which is planning the reconstruction of Mariupol.

Transformation, Not Renovation

According to "Rebuild the Wonderful" founder and "Do Architects" partner Gilma Teodora Gylytė, the issue of Soviet schools is relevant not only to Ukraine but to all of Eastern Europe.

"The Soviet empire used everyday architecture for propaganda, control, and habit formation, yet even after three decades of freedom, we still use the same architecture. We continue to prioritize renovating schools based on the same Soviet values, but we do not initiate their essential transformation, which would allow us to create buildings focused on people and their connections rather than the system. We repaint and insulate walls, spruce up schools, and pretend that it's enough," says G.T. Gylytė.

"Unfortunately, Ukraine needed a war to understand this mistake - by clearing Russian propaganda from all areas, it also addressed the education system, and now it has the potential to change its priorities faster than we did and transform schools. I very much hope that changes in Ukraine will also inspire the transformation of schools in Lithuania," the architect says.

She notes that Ukraine understands it would be too expensive and time-consuming to rebuild war-damaged schools from scratch, so it opts for a more efficient path - transforming Soviet-era schools by redesigning their spaces without demolishing the buildings.

Five Projects for Thousands of Schools

"Rebuild the Wonderful," together with "Big City Lab," surveyed all the schools in five de-occupied regions of Ukraine. Out of 3,059 schools, the war affected 835. Of these, the Ukrainian government included 403 schools on the priority restoration list. Comparing the projects of these schools revealed that 134 schools were built according to five typical Soviet designs.

"Our five projects, created with Estonian and Hungarian partners, will allow for a swift transformation of these schools in de-occupied regions, and in the future, this can be extended to thousands of other Ukrainian schools built according to these designs. Narrow and dark corridors, closed and single-use rooms, lack of common spaces, unused courtyards, and environments - all these elements of Soviet spatial propaganda must be transformed into modern schools," says G.T. Gylytė.

Last week, all project participants worked in Kyiv for three days - inspecting examples of Soviet schools in person, collecting technical information, consulting with local architects, and interacting with school representatives to understand their expectations. It was agreed with representatives of the Ukrainian government that the project concepts would be created within a month, followed by another month for technical project development, after which construction work could begin. It is expected that the first five transformed schools will open their doors next September.

The projects will be developed by three architectural teams: "Do Architects" from Lithuania, "Kavakava" from Estonia, and "Archikon" from Hungary. All these companies have experience in transforming educational buildings.

Ukraine Plans to Recreate the Education System

Representatives of the Ukrainian government overseeing the project emphasize the need to reboot the entire Ukrainian education system.

"In collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Science, we have created a strategy for transforming Ukraine's education system. This includes changing the approach to the teaching process and reshaping the image of the teaching profession, along with reconstructing educational institutions. We want to change the system so that children want to go to school. Schools should rid themselves of their Soviet past, unproductive spaces, and inefficient use of space. Therefore, the transformation of educational institutions is another step towards a completely new education system in Ukraine," says Mykhailo Fedorov, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine.

By 2030, it is planned to rebuild 9,000 schools across Ukraine. About 40% of them were built according to typical Soviet designs. The aim is for all schools in Ukraine to have bomb shelters. Currently, out of the 13,000 schools operating in Ukraine, about four-fifths have such shelters.

"Rebuild the Wonderful" is an initiative uniting architects, urban planners, and sociologists who aim to change the existing environment that programs inhumane values. The initiative's goal is to redesign public buildings and spaces in former socialist states, not by denying them, but by creating new value for people. "Rebuild the Wonderful" explores architecture across Eastern and Central Europe for its activities.