• "You have to understand that in Bakhmut there is nothing left," Volodymyr Zelensky said this weekend, after the announcement by the Wagner Group of the total capture of the city.
  • However, Ukrainian cities destroyed by the conflict will have to be rebuilt. With what priorities?

In Bakhmut, desolation reigns. The buildings are empty, gutted, blackened by explosions. The ground is no longer visible under the rubble, the flowers have given way to the shell casings, the bushes to the carcasses of burned cars. "You have to understand that in Bakhmut, there is nothing left," said Volodymyr Zelensky a few days ago. After months of siege, like Mariupol before it, Bakhmut was wiped off the map at the same time as it came under Russian control.

Let's take a little step back in time, the day after the signing of peace between Russia and Ukraine. Whoever wins, the flag that will fly over the city, life will resume its course once the song of weapons and sirens is killed. Can these devastated cities, where not a single building has been spared, be rebuilt? What are the challenges of such a project? How to combine heritage, war memory and new city? 20 Minutes takes stock with Christine Leconte, President of the National Council of the Order of Architects.

A destroyed city, can it be rebuilt?

Ukraine is not an isolated case. "This is a question that France has already experienced following the Second World War," says Christine Leconte. "Dunkirk, Caen, Le Havre or Saint-Nazaire for example were bombed and underwent phases of reconstruction," she quotes. The major example of the period is on the other side of the Rhine, in Dresden, almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing, and rebuilt under the GDR. Today, the "Florence of the Elba" still has a flourishing heritage, imposing baroque buildings and more than 560,000 inhabitants.

"In France, we have this experience", with the ability to implement "major national action plans", says the architect, with a "resumption of existing routes, or not". Several possibilities can be combined, from construction ex nihilo to "inverted architecture, that is to say, starting from the traces to look at how things were built". "We have the capacity to restore," adds Christine Leconte, referring to the example of Notre-Dame de Paris. "Urban planning is not a blank page, we can draw inspiration from what is done elsewhere, but we must sound an ambition with a framework at the beginning so that speed is a guarantee of quality."

What are the main challenges?

Because these are two of the major challenges of reconstruction. It must be "fast, because there are people to accommodate, and at the same time give them comfort that corresponds to our uses," says Christine Leconte. A rhythm difficult to find as long as the fight vampises most of the Ukrainian resources, like the village of Butcha, still under construction a year after being liberated. Another balance to be found is that of a "reconstruction with heritage" that takes into account the "modern challenges" of a "sustainable city". The Bakhmut-New could be a "city out of the ground, but which will use raw material that does not come from too far away to avoid too much carbon-intensive construction". In Mariupol, conquered for several months, the problem is different: the Russians have already unveiled some brand new housing on the occasion of a visit by Vladimir Putin on March 18, but are also suspected of razing buildings to hide war crimes.

In any case, one should not expect to see a completely different city emerge in place of the old one. This is not even desirable, because "people need to find their bearings, while projecting themselves into the future," explains the architect. The last issue is the need to finance these repairs: at the beginning of July 2022, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal already estimated the cost of rebuilding the country at 750 billion dollars. In other words, "architectural ambition" will probably not be in the list of criteria.

How to combine the memory of war and the need to rebuild?

"This is a sensitive and delicate issue," says Christine Leconte. Between a scarred heritage, marked memories and the desire to turn the page, "it is sometimes difficult to heal the wounds" during reconstruction. Heritage thus becomes a central element in the reappropriation of its identity by the city. "If we have the documentation, we are able to rebuild identically the theater of Mariupol", whose bombing had been a strong image of the beginning of the war. "We can give back these symbols that allow us to orient ourselves," insists the architect. On condition that the Ukrainians retake the city, naturally.

If heritage makes it possible to re-anchor the city in its history, it is also necessary "symbols to go towards the future". From war memorials to the monumental example of the Ring of Memory, there is "a need for these places of contemplation, which inspire for the future," according to Christine Leconte. Without necessarily "leaving a gaping hole", like the one built on the site of the World Trade Center for the attacks of September 11. In these martyred cities, it is necessary to find the place for "the memory of men while having a living environment for the inhabitants".

  • War in Ukraine
  • World
  • Bakhmut
  • Mariupol
  • Architecture
  • Town