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Slava Balbek, architect

"I started traveling throughout Kyiv when I was still in first grade at school. I lived in the Nyvky area and attended school #51 on Pylyp Orlyk street. It later became a lyceum of international affairs, where I got expelled from in the 9th grade. I was bad at school then. I was a good person, but I was bad at school. My sister and I used to get on Nyvky metro station, take off on Khreshchatyk station, move to the middle exit, and go up to Horodetskii street. There is a large playground and a House with chimeras. That was our everyday routine for nine years. Back then, Kyiv was divided into Nyvky and Lypky for me. I grew up on Lypky lived on Nyvky. And given that my grandmother was a pediatrician and on duty every Friday and Saturday, most of the classmates hung out with us at a private house, probably until the 9th grade. I spent all my conscious childhood on Nyvky: at garages and basements, in fights with the homeless, classic stuff at that time in general.

I did not understand then why people were trying to divide us. I did not understand class nature - why it is considered cool to live on Lypky and why it is not cool to live on Nyvky. Somehow we all mixed up together and became close friends. Nyvky had its own country life, parks, I lived with dogs, I grew up, I walked, I skied there. I was a boxer, so I made a lot of friends.

I was the only one who was allowed not to smoke in our company. People respected athletes like me.

I really like the Nyvky district. My sister lives there with her family now, and I know every nook and cranny: all the streets, the intersections, the country part of the area. 20, Honcharova street is my house address, where there used to be two five-story buildings. We went to play football from one five-story building to another. We had a conditional line - Shcherbakova Street, followed by another territory. We went to fights district versus district. Considering that there were fewer buildings on the other side of the line, we always won - we simply outnumbered our 'enemies.' And when we went to the area of Sviatoshyno sometimes, we had a hard time. I remember we took over the basement of a nine-story building, connected to the power plug of the building, stole tables from somewhere, found a tennis table, and used to hang out there. I recently even rated all the tricks we did as kids. I need to restore it somehow. Maybe I'll make a website or an app for millennial children so that they would understand "what childhood really is about."

As a student, I went dancing to the 'Safe' club. I always had 15 hryvnias on me: 5 hryvnias for Coke and 10 for a taxi to Nyvky. I went there just to dance. I knew all the guards and waiters. And everyone knew I wasn't scattering money, but dancing half a night and then going back home. Sometimes I walked from Lva Tolstoho street to Nyvky. It was hard after a whole night of dancing. Now I am mainly a day person, during the day I am interested in doing my projects.

Now Kyiv is a super cool city, turbodynamic even. I tell everyone about it and enjoy it every day because it is simply impossible to keep track of the number of places opening, launching, and updating.

If we talk about the bubble I'm in, it moves exponentially: up and forward. I am more for the progressive development of young people. This development runs up the hill in seven-mile jumps: small businesses, cafes, farms... First of all, Kyiv is a magnet for me, and secondly, there is the most incredible physical trace of what I did here. In fact, the whole of Kyiv is a big house for me, because everywhere I go, I find a friend if I come by a place that 'talks' to me, I know the waiters there. It's a village-spirited city for me, where everybody's good to you. I have no favorite places and places I don't like here. I have memories everywhere. In every place I visit in Kyiv, a memory will pop up.

A year ago, we opened a small place on the outskirts of Podil. I'm all in for Podil because it's cool, honest, true, and real... I consider it the most progressive area that's so self-sufficient that it will always survive. I like it very much because it is somehow separated from other areas, it is on the lower side of the city, it has its own limits in the town.

It is the area that can take you in no matter what: you can wear a jacket or shorts, you may be homeless or drunk, and that would be all right because it's Podil.

I don't like the phrasing "I'm developing Podil." It is developed by people who use it all, not by me. I create a possibility, I'm a tool, and our guests of 'Dyletant' cafe make things happen. They develop, they choose whether to come here or not. We are launching our next place in Pechersk on John Paul street. That's in a residential part of the Pechersk district.

​​It also seems to me that the left bank of Kyiv is totally underrated. Take the Troieshchyna area, for example. It's like a residential Pechersk, only ten times larger. Now, restauranteurs tend to look for new buildings in areas like Vynohradar, Troieshchyna, etc., creating unprecedented places there. There is no need to try and build another Besarabka in every square centimeter, where there is already no fresh air, water, or electricity, to open another place and close it soon after. Gentrification starts to develop - the reconstruction of individual city blocks that are interesting from a historical point of view or environmental advantages.

Today I have a very edgy tolerance for creative processes. I do not tolerate developers who break the laws. But I accept the creative urges, even if they come from a foreman. Why the ideas or fantasies of a foreman, who paints a building the color of the sky on Lukianivka or chooses the brightest colors, are more important than mine or any of the world's leading architects? Every person has a grain of imagination, and if it is grown, it must be respected. I can give advice, but you may not listen to this advice. I should show the example of how you would do it, and then just step aside and say, if you are interested, you can use it.

We have this rule in our workshop: if you don't like it, try and offer something better, and if you can't provide better - just sit and be quiet.

I can't influence the construction of the city. We have a program that we have been developing for two years now. The program will offer a solution to make the environment universal so that it is acceptable for everyone so that there is no such thing that someone is madly in love with the project and someone simply hates it. A solution to make it neutral-good. We're trying to find that approach. When we are ready, we will show everyone our vision, make an offer, wait and see. I tried to apply to Stanford with this program, it did not work out, so I decided to write it on my own. We want to create conditions for everyone that can work for both the developer and the authorities simultaneously. That is, if you're going to build something somewhere, just use those rules, and it will be much easier for you to make your way through. The more controlled territory you organize, the easier it is for you to get a permit, or it is cheaper to build all of it. The less you settle around, the more expensive it will be. Many approaches here still depend on finances, lawyers. That is why this takes so much time. It is necessary to interest those people who can actually pay for it. For example, the problem with the "UFO"* is following: it is rented by the investor who built Ocean Plaza mall, and his arguments are: "Guys, I'm paying for its reconstruction, I'm making it different for my money, so I will do as I please. Any questions?" It is necessary to make its reconstruction cheaper, so an investor can save a dollar, a thousand, a million. Only in this case will the investor be interested. It is crucial to find loopholes that will be beneficial financially and strategically. It is impossible to achieve the "new world" by having a beautiful vision and desire. Money runs the world. *'UFO' is a local name for the building near Lybidska metro station, which is a unique example of 70s soviet Kyiv modern architecture

If someone does not like Kyiv, I would suggest that they make their own plan on "how to improve it all," and then Kyiv will immediately be loved. It's not easy to make everything good.

It is easier to say that you do not like something, and it is more difficult to make suggestions. So I have a piece of advice or homework: write down how to fix it all.

I love San Francisco - it's a city-vacation because everything is in a relaxed mood there. The city itself is specific, but I just know it really well, and I have a sort of spiritual connection to it: no one gives a damn about anything, no one is in a rush, there are many different areas. And again, there is a very close connection to all natural valuables: the ocean, the forest, the mountains... What could be any better? Nature gives me replenishment of energy, some kind of mild energy, and the urban environment gives me active power that inspires my work. Nature inspires me to do sports, create a lifestyle... San Francisco combines a lot: take an hour drive, and you are on Lake Tahoe, drive for another hour, and you're in the mountains, 30 minutes later - you're by the ocean. I feel the energy of natural phenomena a lot.

I am sure that in 5 years everything here will be in Ukrainian. We have a group of clients who speak Ukrainian exclusively and refuse to speak Russian. And it made me improve my Ukrainian language skills. I like that we talk only Ukrainian to each other. It's amazing. Well, how else could it be? How to get a country to speak its own language? It can be done only at the legislative level. It's not a question of whether you want it or not. If you are surrounded by everything in Ukrainian with no access to any other language, you will automatically sooner or later begin to use it yourself. It's not a matter of a minute, a day. It's a fifty-year plan. People don't accept this in a moment or a month after the law is passed, but when it all surrounds them: Ukrainian-speaking news, films, cafe names, service. We present all our projects in Ukrainian. I really like it. Sooner or later, I will take this step myself as well. I am one hundred percent sure of this because this is a step towards development and not vice versa."

Slava Balbek, architect, founder of Balbek Bureau, co-owner of "Dubler" and 'Dyletant" cafes.


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