Like many countries of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine suffers from urban decay: crumbling walls, collapsing roofs, potholes in the roads. But Fernando Romero, a top Mexican architect, sees something else: potential.
During a recent visit to Ukraine, Romero commented on the country’s prospects for foreign investment and development: “I really think that architecture and infrastructure projects can create opportunities to actually solve important problems and Ukraine is working on them,” he told Hromadske.
Romero also happens to be the son-in-law of billionaire Carlos Slim - the sixth richest man in the world - and has plenty of experience in large-scale redevelopment projects. Most notably, he is involved in the redesign of Mexico City’s International Airport — currently one of the largest construction projects in Latin America.
“I see huge potential of how Ukraine can, for example, build a new city exclusively to IT and try to create a new international model of how you can create a sustainable city,” Romero added.
Hromadske sat down with architect and global investor Fernando Romero to discuss his thoughts on opportunities and challenges facing Ukrainian infrastructure.
You’re in Ukraine for a couple of days and you are looking at the potential for global cities, so what you have observed here? What interests you here in Ukraine?
I have been two days in Ukraine, what I have seen is a country that has a huge history, extraordinary pieces of architecture, great public spaces, extraordinary people, great potential, remarkable achievements in the last three years. I am aware of the reforms that the countries is in process of developing, that I am sure will have huge impact in terms of the foreign investment in the coming years to the country. And I am very interested in the opportunities of how architecture and infrastructure can contribute to the old identity of Ukraine in the 21st century. As a reference, the project we have built in Mexico, the new airport is the biggest airport and construction in the Americas, for 68 million passengers. Four billion dollars single terminal in a massive plan of ten billion and it’s a good example, how we’ve seen the government not only do the reforms that are sometimes intangible, abstract, invisible but also pursue projects that can also connect with the history of the country and projected to the future. And I think that’s a huge potential that exists in Ukraine, how you can actually build with architecture and infrastructure the identity of the future, you know.
Are looking at creating these hubs? It all depends on the will of the people, can you really create a new place of connection in the middle of nowhere, in places that have not been popular before? Does it just depend on investment? Is it really enough to just start something like this, devote yourself to it, work hard, and then, all of a sudden, create a totally new global spot? What does it depend on?
Yeah, I think the world changes so fast with artificial intelligence and with the progress of technologies, I think new paradigms of what was impossible to happen in the 20th century will happen in the 21st. So, meaning that in terms of traditional urbanism, you have already developments of the main cities of course, but I see huge potential, of course, of how Ukraine can, for example, build a new city exclusively to IT, and try to create a new international model of how you can create a sustainable city. So that’s, for example, one opportunity, another opportunity is to rethink all the airport systems, more opportunities to think on the ports, to think of how an iconic building can become the postcard of the image of how Ukraine is a new country. Because if I go to google and I type in “Ukraine,” all I see is maps of Ukraine, and I see old buildings. Beautiful aspects of the old culture, it's the past, but it's still not associated with something new and what is the biggest challenge of Ukraine is how you can actually do something that creates an international image of a new Ukraine.
In terms of architecture, what direction do you see Ukraine moving in? We have this heritage of the Soviet architecture - not just in Ukraine, from Ukraine to the far east in Russia - where we have these gray buildings. But there are young architects, who are building taller buildings with glass and they look a bit more modern but there’s no change in the way of thinking.
As an architect, I see that nearly all architecture it's always connected with a context. So for example, a religious building from maybe the 15th century, it has its own identity connected with a local context. As you go to modernity then, of course, you see a lot of influence of Russia and very clean buildings that we call modern, but we are far away from modernity. Modernity was the conscious of post war - this was the 40s and 50s, it was 60 years ago. The reality is that architects are building a lot of postmodern late architecture that is ruined by developers, and it's only interested in solving business, not really solving culture, quality. How Ukraine can actually build its own identity, so all the more reasons [for the] buildings you see are basically replicas of commercial buildings everywhere in the world that is based on real estate business. So I sell you square meters to the market and it's not going to contribute anything to the city. So, I believe that there is a vision and if there is all this political will, there is also an opportunity of using that will and that vision to contribute [to] how you build an identity of Ukraine for the 21st century.
And finally, we’ve seen your projects, they are beautiful but they are not cheap. They require a huge amount of investment. Ukraine is not like Qatar, where billions are invested in infrastructure. Mexico, like Ukraine, has a huge rich-poor divide - what is it like working in those conditions? How do you implement low-cost projects?
I see infrastructure as a great opportunity to boost development, so it's a responsibility to build infrastructure and the cost of infrastructure is related with it's scale. So they are not cheap projects, they are important projects because they have the vision to solve important problems in society. But also the impact is very important. It can create thousands of jobs, it can create billion of dollars of revenue, they can create a new market, they can develop tourism and economy and they can reduce poverty. So I really think that architecture and infrastructure projects are opportunities to actually solve important problems - and Ukraine is working on them - but not only to solve them from the point of view of engineering, not only solving the quantitative aspects of infrastructure, but taking that opportunity to build, with architectural quality, a difference, because you can build the same projects and become invisible, a replica, no identity and you are not solving the biggest challenge that you have. That is, to project a country, to become attracted to the foreign capital, foreign investment. It's a new country, you need to project that. So that's part of the challenge that Ukraine has now.
/Written by Tanya Bednarczyk