April 10, 2024

Conserving Culture: A Conversation with David Wessel on Rebuilding Ukraine

As of January 2024, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed nearly a quarter of a million buildings, most of them private homes, according to the Kyiv School of Economics. Universities, health care facilities, and public infrastructure are also among the wreckage. The World Bank estimates that it will cost more than $400 billion to reconstruct the country.

But rebuilding Ukraine is about more than just new roofs, walls, and foundations. Considering the cultural losses that each demolished building represents, and carefully weaving that history back into the reconstruction process, is just as critical, says architectural conservator David Wessel. A principal at West Coast–based Architectural Resources Group (ARG) and CEO of ARG Conservation Services, Wessel is steeped in the industry’s best conservation practices.

Wessel, who also serves as board president at Filoli, a National Trust Historic Site in Woodside, California, was asked to help lead a recent study trip organized by the Center for Innovation, an organization focused on the latest advances in construction. The trip brought a delegation of 10 Ukrainian individuals to the United States in January 2024 to learn about the latest technology and approaches to reconstruction.

We talked to Wessel to hear more about the top preservation takeaways from the study trip, and how Ukraine can hold on to its cultural spirit as it rebuilds.

The Ukrainian delegation visited Filoli during their study trip and enjoyed a dinner reception there.

photo by: Iryna Gorb

Delegates from Ukraine, joined by representatives of the Center for Innovation, enjoyed a dinner reception at Filoli.

How did the idea to host Ukrainian delegates on a study trip come about?

I was asked to go to Kyiv, Ukraine, for the Center for Innovation’s conference [to discuss post-war reconstruction] in July 2023, organized with Ukraine nonprofit Dobrobat, a group of volunteers that rebuild damaged homes and buildings [in Ukraine] once an area is secured.

Through that, [we met] people who wanted to visit the United States, so we wanted to have a group come on a study trip. This was pretty much all organized by Center for Innovation Consultant Margie O’Driscoll. We took applications, and we selected a group of 10 Ukrainians—including engineers, architects, the president of one of the universities that was damaged in the war, a government minister, a representative of UNESCO, a construction contractor, and Dobrobat representatives—and they all came to San Francisco.

The Ukrainian delegation listens to a presentation by NASA during their study trip to the United States.

photo by: Center for Innovation (CFI)

Representatives from NASA made a presentation to the delegation at the Architectural Resources Group (ARG) offices.

The Ukrainian delegation got to meet with Rep. Nancy Pelosi during their study trip to the United States.

photo by: HOUR VOYSES | Darius Riley

Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi met with the Ukrainian delegation at Bay Area nonprofit SPUR.

What were the highlights of the study trip?

ARG’s offices on Pier 9 were the headquarters for the study trip. We had AECOM, which is a large engineering company who has the contract to rebuild the infrastructure in Ukraine, come to talk about their approach. I organized a session on cultural heritage and its role in recovery. We had a wonderful presentation by NASA where they shared how their research for space exploration and other work that they do has helped the construction industry.

We also took the group on visits to Stanford University, where we met with Martin Fisher in the engineering department, who has developed an innovative certification program for project delivery. We met with former United States Ambassador [to Russia] Michael McFaul. Rep. Nancy Pelosi visited one of our public events, and the Ukrainian delegation was able to meet with her privately. The group visited a site in Vallejo, California, where modular homes are constructed. We went out to various locations in San Francisco to see large construction projects and how these United States contractors were undertaking the work.

Then we ended at Filoli where they went all-out to host the group. Jim Salyards, director of horticulture, gave the group a wonderful tour of the gardens. [Filoli] CEO Kara Newport was there to welcome everyone. Director of Museum Collections and Curator Kevin Wisney gave a wonderful tour of the house. Filoli sponsored a dinner for the group, and we had a friend of mine, Ivan Linn, a concert pianist, entertain the group. He included pieces by Ukrainian composers.

How do cultural heritage and historic preservation intersect in this work?

What is under attack in Ukraine is culture. What we’re trying to do, and what preservation professionals do, is work to preserve culture. When it comes down to it, it’s the customs and traditions and the institutions that a society has—that is what we’re trying to preserve.

If we keep historic preservation and cultural heritage—as well as the people whose community is going to be rebuilt—at the table from the very beginning of planning for recovery and all the way through implementation, then the project is more likely to be a success.

One of the things we looked at in the session I organized on cultural heritage is how there have been past failures in recovery when the culture of the country is not understood. For instance, an NGO bringing in the wrong type of housing that the population is not familiar with. In Ukraine, much of the building style and what people live in are masonry buildings. We have to be mindful of that when planning for recovery. The culture should dictate the solutions that are found to replace damaged homes and buildings.

Concert pianist Ivan Linn entertained the Ukrainian delegation at a reception held at Filoli.

photo by: Iryna Gorb

Concert pianist Ivan Linn performs at Filoli for the Ukrainian study trip delegation in January 2024.

Warsaw, Poland, including the old town, is considered by many an example of one type of reconstruction that has been successful. The old town and other areas of the city were completely destroyed during World War II. Postwar, the city was rapidly reconstructed. The old town reconstruction was based upon historic photos, drawings, and the accounts of those who had lived there. The intent was to bring back faithfully what has been lost. This is one of many approaches to reconstruction.

What are some rebuilding techniques discussed during the study trip that would be well suited for Ukraine’s recovery?

Much of what we discussed with the Ukrainian delegation had to do with advances in project management and how technology has played a part in that. For instance, using laser scanning of damaged buildings to estimate quantities of materials needed for repair. A building would be laser scanned, and then that’s turned into a digital model, and then that can be used to estimate the quantities of concrete that need to be produced and delivered to the site to repair it.

The Ukrainian delegation visited Filoli during their study trip and enjoyed a dinner reception there.

photo by: Iryna Gorb

The Ukrainian delegates took a tour of Filoli in Woodside, CA, during their January 2024 study trip.

The Ukrainian delegation selected for the study trip got to visit the beach in Pacifica, CA, during their trip.

photo by: Iryna Gorb

The Ukrainian delegation had an opportunity to visit the beach in Pacifica, CA, in between educational sessions.

Another type of technology that could be used is 3D printing. There’s a lot of experimentation and use of that in the United States, where [some] homes are built with 3D printing. Those are masonry buildings, so that may fit well with the Ukrainian culture.

You want to plan carefully so you can rebuild quickly: Think slow, act fast. That became a real theme of the trip.

What I’ve been impressed with is learning more about how Ukraine is responding to this war. They are planning now, because they realize that the time may come very quickly when they can start to rebuild their country.

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Preservation magazine Assistant Editor Malea Martin.

Malea Martin is the assistant editor at Preservation magazine. Outside of work, you can find her scouring antique stores for mid-century furniture and vintage sewing patterns, or exploring new trail runs with her dog. Malea is based on the Central Coast of California.

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