"There was a time when I just did not want to walk the streets of Uzhgorod" – the chief architect of the regional center Petro Szarvas, who is convinced that the city can still be saved and its historical face can be preserved, says.
"Narodna Square is an uncivilized approach"
– Who is Petro Szarvas?
– I am a native and patriot of Uzhgorod. This is actually the only kind of patriotism I have. A sort of exaggerated local patriotism. Perhaps this is due to the fact that my whole family is originally from Uzhgorod, that our roots are here, in this city.
What else do you want to know about me? I studied first in Uzhgorod, then graduated from Lviv Polytechnic University, the Department of Architecture, returned home, and has been working in various positions since. I have been in administrative offices, participated in the designing projects. But first of all I consider myself a practicing architect and only then an administrator, or a community activist.
– Most Uzhgorod residents probably know you for your active work at the NGO "PRO URBE", tell us a little about your community work?
– We started doing it more or less actively 3 years ago. The Chief Architect of the region Andriy Zhyha gave us an interesting idea that resulted in the formation of a working group that was involved in the preparation of materials to create a reserve on the Castle Hill. As we thought at the time, a historical and architectural reserve could have been made there. But we understood that this support would not last forever, besides, there were many reports, paperwork, even though we worked on a voluntary basis. We got tired of that, and with the members of the same workgroup, we established the NGO because we understood that the political situation was constantly changing, and we must do what we have to do no matter what. Thus the NGO "PRO URBE" was established, which I headed and initiated.
– Did you have any developments to protect the historical heritage of the city or did you start from scratch?
– In fact, we started working on it as early as 20 years ago. I then worked in the regional architecture department and then we thought that we should protect Uzhgorod with preventive actions. Then, the privatization of housing just started, and we, oddly enough for the time, even managed to achieve a moratorium on privatization until we develop the program of protection and rehabilitation of the historic center. So we took cameras, the team and started working on each object individually. As of 1991-93, we completely recorded the condition of historic buildings in Uzhgorod. As a result, we made a list of historically valuable objects, for the privatization of which we suggested to make appropriate passports as for architecturally valuable object.
– And how did the work progress eventually?
– We managed to issue two such passports to happy appartment owners. On Dukhnovich street – the house with chimeras. Although it still did not survive, because they already replaced the woodwork. And another house on Luchkay street. But then, there was a veto of the chief architect of the region, we were told that we were committing illegal actions, because we had no right to force people, who have the right for privatization, to do all that. But, fortunately, we have a bunch of materials, about 1,500 pictures. For some time, we disengaged from it, because subsequent governments were not really interested in what we were doing. And when we formed a working group two or three years ago, we remembered that we have a great experience and began to work on it more seriously, but still only on a voluntary basis.
– And then, there was the "PRO URBE" and the struggle for Narodna Square?
– Yes, it was a small turning point. And the beginning of this process was Narodna Square. For me, to be honest, it was surprising that there was such hype around this square.
– Now some works still continue on Narodna Square. Are you going to react somehow and influence the situation?
– I have not changed my opinion on Narodna Square – I still think that this is absolutely stupid and uncivilized approach. After all, I do not believe that with this approach even that fountain will work properly, not when cobblestones are sinking nearby. I do not believe that all those plants will be well groomed, because no money is allocated for that, and it takes a specialist. You want to have Versailles? Fine, make a Versailles, but first go there and see how it all works. Also do not forget that next to this Versailles you will have neglected facades, peeling plaster, an array of air conditioners, plastic windows on buildings that have tremendous value.
– Which buildings are you talking about?
– The whole Halahov – a unique ensemble that you won’t see anywhere else in Ukraine. Or even in Central Europe! At one time, architects from around the world came to Uzhgorod and worked wonders here. And we treat it like ordinary projects. The money spent for reconstruction of Narodna Square would be enough for complete planting of the parterre zones on Dovzhenko street. After all, it is in a terrible state. And then do not forget that all this must also be taken care of, not only planted. After that, the issue of facades would have immediately arisen.
– Why do the government agencies dealing with architecture have so little authority?
– We once had the department of cultural heritage, I don’t known why it was dissolved. Now we want to return it. There is already an appropriate draft decision. And I hope that soon we will have an organization that can work actively and intervene in these processes.
– Do we have enough specialists who could undertake this work?
– I think so. But, even if we do not, we will consult with necessary specialists. There are enough people willing to help us. In particular, Hungarian restorers. They are real professionals. Recently I went with them to Horyany rotunda where the locals, trying to improve it, cause the destruction of 13-14 century frescoes. And believe me, it is very difficult to influence them. Experts were willing to take the community on a trip to Hungary to show them how they work and to prove that they do not want to harm.
– How did the people responded?
– Very strangely. They had to write a letter to us, because we can not come and work just like that. But we still have not received it. This is just one episode of our everyday life. People have done their job: they laid concrete paving elements near the Horyany rotunda, disassembled stairs of natural monolith andesite and made concrete ones. But it’s not the worst, because it can be disassembled. However, they concreted the rotunda itself along the outer contour. And the foundation, which prior to that could have breathed and had space to give moisture to, choked. Now the moisture begins to go up the walls and has reached a critical point. And these experts explained that in 4-5 years, the frescoes will peel off…
The new master plan can be discarded right away
– If Horyany rotunda, probably the most valuable historical building, is in such state, does it mean that we have reached the point of no return in Uzhgorod? Do we still have anything to save?
– There was a period when I almost stopped walking around the city. When we compiled that list 20 years ago, the city was not destroyed so much. Yes, there were stores on first floors, etc., but in general buildings, old windows, etc remained intact. And then it all started to get destroyed, to change, and I was so depressed that I just did not know what to do.
– What is your plan of action that will protect Uzhgorod from destruction?
– We are actually talking now about smaller problems, but there are more terrible things in the city. Here on one side you can see on my wall the current master plan, on the other side – the new one proposed for approval. I think that it was Serhiy Ratushniak who initiated the development of the new master plan of the city, still having a "fresh" one of 2004. And now everyone is expecting that we will soon have the new master plan and everything will be great. But it’s not going to be great, this master plan can be discarded right away.
– Do you see supposed areas of the city development marked in yellow? They are not there. All the land there is distributed. The city actually has nowhere to grow. The master plan essentially legitimizes those atrocities committed by predecessors. But it gives us no prospect. Uzhgorod is overcrowded and has reached rural houses. Beyond the limits, the city is also built up, mostly with private buildings of poor quality.
Huge plots of land have been distributed for free use. And now we can not provide a quality housing because everything is taken. Also, they forgot, for example, to leave space for social housing. We have no place to build a kindergarten. But we need it, kindergartens are overcrowded! Soldiers will return from the ATO, where is their promised land?
And what is probably the worst, there is no ground for foreign investment. What will our city live off, what will it make money on, where will Uzhgorod residents go to work to? We do not have any resources. Geopolitically, the city has a fantastic location: we have a bypass road, borders, the airport.Instead of using the airport as a logistics center, they distributed land for private development there…
– If the master plan is so bad, what are you going to do?
– I will insist on not approving it. The only thing that is good about this master plan, is that by law, if this is a historic city, the master plan has to include a historical and architectural key plan. This is one of the reasons it has not been approved. Therefore, last year, the authorities were forced to order the development of such plan. Besides our city, I think only Ternopil has such plan. It gives us a very good authority, because now the Department of Architecture has very little of it. This will enable us to monitor the situation within the historic area. Rather strict rules will be imposed. In particular, the height of buildings not only in the historical center, but also in the vicinities of it, is strictly limited. Therefore, any works in the center will have to be agreed with us, with the department for the protection of cultural heritage and so on. So we are looking forward to its approval.