It is hard to think clearly at these moments of extraordinary violence and destruction. Hard to pull away from the scenes of needless human suffering, to witness through virtual windows such disturbing events that we seem powerless to affect.

Our daily tasks and concerns seem of little relative significance, what seemed urgent and important yesterday seems inconsequential even frivolous today.

As architects it may cause us to question the seemingly trivial nature of our work, relative to the desperate urgency of essential human shelter and protection for those trapped within the rubble of bombed cities, or for the homeless refugees feeling the violence.

Such desperate human need can return our attention and understanding of architecture to the most basic needs of protection, shelter and the survival of human community. Surely the true essential nature of architecture must be the construction of bulkheads against human suffering and oppression, this must come first among the duties of the architect. Shelters to keep the rain and the cold from those struggling in the ruined cities and towns, and walls to protect and defend against violence.

The essentiality of human protection and shelter as the primary mission of architecture might make us think of our own rarefied architectural concerns as profligate and of relative extravagance.

Perhaps we might even think that architecture, as we conceive it, far beyond essentials that we take for granted, is itself is an indulgence, reserved for those who have the fortune and luxury to live without such existential fear of violence and oppression.

The images from the Ukraine also confront us with the relative superiority and efficiency of the technology of destruction and violence compared with that of our own design and construction; the vast contrast in human effort, speed and commitment between the act of making and the act of destroying.

Most disturbing is the display of technological power and capability in the use of these instruments of destruction and the edge we seem to be approaching as the violence is ratcheted up from conventional weapons, rockets, missiles, cluster bombs, thermobarics, potentially biological, chemical and perhaps even the first use of tactical nuclear weapons. The appalling human and environmental destruction these weapons so easily reap, together with the potential conflagration beyond the Ukraine, poses the threat of a global catastrophe beyond our imagining. We are already seemingly overwhelmed by the scale of the environmental disaster confronting us as a result of global warming to be able to even comprehend the magnitude of the devastation to our world that this new environmental threat seems about to lay before us.

The asymmetry in our technological capabilities for the destruction of our world and the repair of our world has never been more stark.

At these moments, our profession and our architecture seems powerless and pitiful. It fails to protect, defend and struggles to provide the most basic needs of shelter. Architecture seems to so easily fall to ruin around those it was meant to protect.

As we watch the cities of the Ukraine begin to crumble under the technology of violence, we are not only confronted with the human tragedy of loss of life and the most basic needs of shelter, but also with something more. The city, as Lloyd Rees, the great Australian landscape artist explained ‘is the greatest work of art possible’. The city is the greatest collective representation of humanity, of culture, of values and of human continuity. Cities are alive, not just with the vitality of the numerous human lives that inhabit them, but in themselves. Cities are living and breathing. The city is constantly evolving and growing as it responds and adapts to change. But the city is also unchanging, it continues across time, across generations. The city brings to humanity the promise of certainty and the eternal. And the city is for all of us because it has been made by all of us, not just the rich, powerful and influential and their architects, but by all those who have lent against the walls, bent the form of a small part of the city in some small way, left imprints and ephemeral individual markings. The city is the work of the whole community and all its architects.

The destruction of a city is therefore among the greatest crimes conceivable. It is not only the destruction of the lives of the inhabitants, but it is an attempt to destroy life itself; our collective life and continuity into the future. In these circumstances the mission of the architect must surely be to resist this violence, to ensure the life of our cities continue under any eventuality, that our cities are restored, rebuilt and resurrected; ensure that life is eternal.

The grim and disturbing images of human suffering and the destruction of our cities reminds us of the two most critical dimensions of architecture; to protect and preserve life, through the basic and universal need for shelter, to make a safe place, a shield from the cold, a place to teach our children, to heal the sick and to care for the aged: and beyond these existential essentials to give extended and eternal collective life through the making of our cities. Cities that are not only imbued with life and culture but are a life themselves.

Kyiv is a life eternal. It will never die. This great diverse city that has been evolving for more that fifteen centuries was laid to ruin after the second world war, then transformed to rise again as the great city it will always be. But life within Kyiv, and the life of Kyiv itself is today a global tragedy and the task ahead for the architects of Kyiv will be among the greatest any architect has faced.


Image: Reuters