April 26th saw the 32nd anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, with the explosion of the Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine causing the direct deaths of 31 people, the spreading of radioactive clouds across Europe, and the effective decommissioning of 19 miles of land in all directions from the plant. Thirty-two years later, a dual reading of the landscape is formed: one of engineering extremes, and one of eeriness and desolation.
As the anniversary of the disaster and its fallout passes, we have explored the past, present, and future of the architecture of Chernobyl, charting the journey of a landscape which has burned and smoldered, but may yet rise from the ashes.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, known as the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant during the Soviet era, was constructed between 1970 and 1977 and was situated 60 miles north of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. The plant was the first nuclear power station to be built in Ukraine and comprised four nuclear reactors. Plans for an additional two reactors were abandoned following the 1986 disaster.
In tandem with the scheme’s construction was the establishment of the town of Pripyat, built to house the workers and families of the Chernobyl plant. Pripyat contained over 13,000 apartments, almost 100 schools, a hospital, and a central administrative core familiar to many Soviet urban plans.
The town bore the hallmarks of an intermodal Soviet modernist architecture, optimized by the town’s 160 vast, state-funded, prefabricated apartment blocks. Within the generic, concrete street-space lay subtle flourishes of color and uniqueness, such as the Prometheus cinema’s stained glass windows casting unique light forms on colorless facades, or the much-photographed amusement park. Following the 1986 disaster, the town was evacuated and remains empty to this day.
The passing of time has resulted in two very different readings of the urban landscape in Chernobyl and Pripyat. In Chernobyl, an effort to shield the damaged nuclear reactor has resulted in the construction of the world’s largest movable metal structure. Known as the New Safe Confinement, the structure is large enough to accommodate the Statue of Liberty, or two Boeing 777s placed end to end. The arched steel structure was moved into position above the site with the help of hydraulic jacks, having been assembled nearby. The project, almost entirely without precedent, cost over $1.7 billion and was completed in 2016.
The current architectural reading of the nuclear site may signify the lengths humanity must go to in order to contain its own mistakes. However, the town of Pripyat demonstrates a counterpoint; the effects of total human abandonment. Frozen in time for 30 years, the urban and natural landscapes have become entwined. Buildings are being consumed by grasses and trees absorbing radiation from soil, while the only evidence of human interference manifests in graffiti, and the looting of stained glass windows and cables. Today, the town has become the focus of major public intrigue, as images from the abandoned town leak throughout the online world through television programs, and urban explorers.
The 1986 nuclear disaster rendered the surrounding landscape too dangerous for human habitation or agriculture. However, the future of Chernobyl contains overtones of optimism and renewal. The site which once played host to Ukraine’s first nuclear plant will soon play host to its first solar plant.
Only 100 meters away from the disaster’s epicenter and steel dome, over 3,800 solar panels have been installed on a concrete base. The plant will use some of the old nuclear infrastructures, operated remotely from Germany to minimize human interaction with the still-dangerous reactor site. When operational, the plant will power 2,000 homes, with future plans for the scheme to produce more electricity than the destroyed Reactor 4.
Meanwhile, the city of Pripyat is growing in popularity as a tourist hotspot, with guided tours of the city’s crumbling architecture offering spectators a leap backward in time, albeit for a maximum of two hours per visit. Here, a beautiful eeriness is derived as much from architectural landmarks such as the amusement park’s Ferris wheel, as it is from embellished details such as gas masks strewn across classroom floors.
The journey of Chernobyl, past, present, and future, embodies a broader political and social narrative. It operated at the height of one of the most intense political crises of the 20th century, and was the result of a determined drive by two opposing ideologies to showcase technological and architectural superiority.
With the 1986 disaster, undoubtedly the most infamous nuclear accident in history, the collapse and abandonment of Chernobyl would soon be followed by the collapse of the political ideology which created it. The mammoth architectural undertaking needed to contain the dangerous site underlines both the strength and weakness of modern technology.
Poignantly, however, the rebirth of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant as a producer of solar energy represents a positive narrative for both architecture and humankind: a continued drive for progress, advancement, and rebirth.
Whether reflecting on the past, present, or future, the name “Chernobyl,” and the architecture which embodies it, will continue to capture our imagination for decades to come.
On April 26th 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine suffered a catastrophic failure, resulting in a nuclear meltdown and a series of explosions which scattered radioactive material across large areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.