Ukraine Develops Europe's First Soviet-Era School Transformation Projects for Hundreds of Schools


5/23/20246 min read

Key Points Summary:

  • Pioneering School Transformation: Ukraine is undertaking the first systematic transformation of Soviet-era school buildings in Eastern and Central Europe, partnering with the Lithuanian-led "Rebuild the Wonderful" initiative.

  • Comprehensive Transformation Plan: Based on the transformation projects created by the international team of architects, up to 134 war-affected schools can be renovated initially, with the potential to expand the transformation to hundreds of other schools across Ukraine.

  • Architectural and Educational Reform: The transformation involves reimagining old, dark, single-function Soviet school spaces into open, modern, community-focused environments, guided by 12 newly developed principles.

  • Collaborative Effort: The project brings together architectural teams from Lithuania, Estonia, and Hungary, as well as Ukrainian partners and government support, to create spaces that foster innovation and humane relationships.

  • Vision for the Future: The initiative, supported by President Zelensky and led by Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, aims to align Ukraine's educational spaces with modern, value-based requirements, preparing for a future after the victory.

As Ukraine fights for its freedom, it is embarking on a pioneering effort that no other Eastern or Central European country has undertaken in the past three decades - the systematic transformation of Soviet-era school buildings. For this endeavor, Ukraine has enlisted the Lithuanian-led international architectural initiative "Rebuild the Wonderful." Yesterday in Kyiv, three architectural teams from Lithuania, Estonia, and Hungary together with implementing partner "Big City Lab" presented transformation projects for five typical Ukrainian schools to Ukrainian leaders and the public.

Based on these five projects, up to 134 war-affected schools can be renovated, and later - hundreds of other Ukrainian schools. Ukraine chose this strategy of educational building reform, understanding that demolishing old structures and constructing new ones would take longer and cost more, while merely repairing Soviet facilities would confine schools to spaces unsuitable for modern education for another two decades.

Architectural Remnants of Occupation

According to Gilma Teodora Gylytė, founder of "Rebuild the Wonderful" and founding partner at "Do Architects," Ukraine recognizes that transforming its education system is essential for its victory, hence the need to change not only the content but also the architecture.

"We studied Soviet school architecture in Ukraine and prepared five projects for the most common school types in a few months. This model will allow rapid transformation of schools in de-occupied regions, and in the future, it can be expanded to thousands of other Ukrainian schools built according to the same concepts. We are transforming old, dark, single-function school spaces to foster an open school community. Everything we consider Soviet spatial propaganda must change into modern schools. By transforming spaces we transform our daily routines and create humane relationships," said architect G.T. Gylytė.

These changes to five typical Ukrainian school buildings were presented yesterday in Kyiv by three architectural teams under the "Rebuild the Wonderful" umbrella: "Do Architects" from Lithuania, led by Gilma Teodora Gylytė and  Vadim Babij, "Kavakava" from Estonia, led by Siiri Vallner, and "Archikon" from Hungary, led by Csaba Nagy. "Rebuild the Wonderful" invited and connected value-creating architects from Eastern and Central Europe with experience in the transformation of Soviet buildings. 

According to architects, Soviet school spaces are formal and offer very few opportunities for students from different classes to interact, as they are designed to separate people rather than bring them together. This does not encourage independent, responsible behavior. The school transformation projects radically change these spaces, eliminating monofunctionality, creating opportunities for new interactions, and incorporating school corridors and courtyards.

Last November, at the request of the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and the project partner, the urban bureau "Big City Lab," this team of architects developed 12 principles for the transformation of Ukrainian schools. These principles will guide not only the restoration but also the reformation of schools across the country and have already been incorporated into Ukraine's education reform.

Transformation of Ukraine’s Education System

"When we started working with the Ministry of Education on the education transformation strategy, we realized that we need to change not only the content and meaning of education but also transform school spaces. Space influences a person's thinking. Our vision is that schools should resemble small offices like Google or Netflix, where breakthrough ideas and dreams are born. For me, this project is not only about reimagining spaces and getting rid of the totalitarian past. For me, this project is the future of Ukraine, which we are actively preparing for," stated Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation.

Ukrainians aim for transformed school spaces to meet the needs of children and teachers, comply with educational process requirements, and have modern functionality and design. This is implemented with an open-source approach - consultations with all education system participants, involvement of educators, and consideration of user experiences are conducted.

About 40% of Ukrainian schools are built according to typical Soviet designs. The first five pilot schools selected for the transformation project are located in the Kyiv and Kharkiv regions, as well as in Kryvyi Rih and Zaporizhzhia.

Government, Business, and NGO Sectors Unite for Change

Ukraine will be the first country in Eastern and Central Europe to transform Soviet-era schools not only according to technical but also value-based requirements.

The transformation of Ukraine's education system is taking place under the initiative of President Volodymyr Zelensky. The team led by Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov and the Ministry of Education and Science has begun fundamental changes in all areas of education, from kindergartens to universities. Together with partners, a concept has been created to transform old Soviet schools into modern spaces.

To implement these changes, the Ukrainian urban bureau "Big City Lab" has joined forces with the Lithuanian-led international initiative "Rebuild the Wonderful" and architectural bureaus nominated for prestigious European architectural awards: "Do Architects," "Kavakava," and "Archikon". Their projects are adapted to Ukrainian state building norms by Ukrainian architectural bureaus "Oksa," "Peker and Partners," and "Kumeiko Architects." The project is funded by the NGO "Mariupol Reborn," "DTEK," and "Metinvest."

"Rebuild the Wonderful" is an initiative uniting architects, urban planners, and sociologists who aim to transform the current environment, which often promotes antihuman values. The goal of the initiative is to transform public buildings and spaces of former socialist states, not by denying their past but by creating new value for people. "Rebuild the Wonderful" conducts its activities by studying architecture throughout Eastern and Central Europe.

Additional quotes:

"Educational spaces should reflect the approaches of modern schooling, the culture, and values ​​that we want to cultivate in it. If we declare that freedom is a value for us, then in schools we must also give this freedom to children. Not only to choose subjects, although this too, but also, for example, to sit on window sills specially designed for this purpose. If development and self-realization are values ​​for us, we must create modern maker spaces in schools where students can express themselves. Content and form are interconnected, so our task is to consistently transform this comprehensively." - Oksen Lisovyi, Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine.

"There is no need to demolish old schools and build from scratch to provide children with quality access to education: transformation costs 30% less than new construction. We have developed not only approaches to transformation but also project-cost estimates for the first five pilots, which were able to include the best world practices and balance the cost. Our transformation costs 30% less than building a school from scratch. It's not construction now, it's a laboratory of future practices. In it, we test all the principles and forms of rethinking the forced Soviet legacy. Because if we rebuild the Soviet without rethinking, we freeze the buildings for at least another 20 years. Rebuilding that does not orient itself to principles will turn Ukraine into a reserve of Sovietism." - Victoria Titova, CEO of Big City Lab.

"One of the great transformations for the better that Ukrainian cities need, all Ukrainians need - cities should become human-centric, child-centric. Public spaces built on totalitarian logic should get rid of it. First of all, we are talking about typical Soviet schools. They need not be restored but transformed into a comfortable, conducive environment for learning and development. For us, as Ukrainian business, supporting the school de-Sovietization project is a great idea. We sincerely hope that the first school transformations will take place and inspire changes in others." - Natalia Yemchenko, Communications Director at SCM.

"The reconstruction of ruined schools cannot rely on half-century-old developments. They should be modern, comfortable, ecological, safe institutions that will become a center of gravity for every schoolchild. I hope that the development of urban school infrastructure will be our important contribution to improving the well-being of citizens." - Tetiana Petruk, Director of Sustainable Development and HR Interaction at Metinvest Group.

"Children are our future. The future of a free and independent Ukraine depends on them. Therefore, it is important to provide them with the most favorable and safe conditions for learning. I am convinced that projects for the restoration and reconstruction of educational institutions are the first, but very important step that will make the process of students' learning more comfortable and effective. With 14 years of experience in implementing various educational programs on the DTEK Academy platform, we understand how important modern and quality education is for the development of new generations of professionals. Therefore, for us, the school transformation project is a responsible mission and an important contribution to the development of Ukraine." - Executive Director of DTEK Dmytro Saharuk.

“The space of support and understanding — that's what a modern Ukrainian school should be like. A space where the child's personality is at the center, surrounded by a modern interactive infrastructure for their mental and physical development. These are the schools we created in Mariupol before the full-scale invasion and will continue to build after the city's return. I thank the Government for the opportunity to replicate the experience of our city on a nationwide scale. The main thing is that the focus of our attention is not on buildings, but on the children themselves — the most valuable treasure of Ukraine." — Vadym Boichenko, Mayor of Mariupol.