Just the Facts

Columbia University


Documenting architectural trends in Kyiv, Ukraine, navigating between historic preservation and Western-style development

Larissa Babij

Two years after the completion of my Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship, I am still living in Kyiv. In June, I plan to complete a master’s in cultural studies at the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.”

My thesis concerns theories of reading a city as a text and texts that use book form to describe the physical experience of place. I also study contemporary dance and performance technique with the experimental performance troupe TanzLaboratorium. In addition, I work as a freelance translator, editor and journalist for English-language publications, writing on contemporary arts and cultural issues in Kyiv.

The Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship marked the start of a process, which is still continuing for me. Working on my project was a crucial stage in an ongoing process of self-exploration. I learned that, while the depth of inquiry customary in academia drives me, I need the freedom to intuitively take in, digest and communicate my own subjective views through various media.

The material I collected and produced during the Fellowship year is still brewing and transforming as I spend more time in Ukraine and can examine it with more sophistication. In contrast to my original proposal, I now believe I am better equipped to use my own experiences as the lens through which to present Kyiv, the quickly expanding capital of a young Eastern European nation.

The most positive aspect of my Fellowship experience was the freedom to leave the conventions and demands that shaped my life in the United States and to independently explore my own interests. I had the freedom to be lost and to make mistakes and to let those “mistakes” lead me in a new direction.

The Fellowship provides an incredible opportunity to work independently, with all its pros and cons. I set my own goals and followed my own schedule. But there is also the challenge of not relying on an external structure for motivation, of depending on personal judgment when determining how to proceed, of learning how to find the necessary support from others for my own independent work. For those reasons, I would certainly apply again for the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship.

However, if I had the opportunity to undertake the Fellowship again, I would change the nature of my project. Its basic focus  — the relationship between space and society in a rapidly transforming Eastern European capital  — would remain the same. Yet I would choose as the dominant subject of my research the individuals inhabiting this changing space (myself included) rather than the architectural objects themselves.

Also, I would deemphasize the role of photography in the project. Through the working process, I realized that I am not a photographer. Rather, I am more interested in experiencing space physically and reflecting on that experience in words. Casual photos taken with a small point-and-shoot camera would have been adequate and perhaps more appropriate illustrations than the more “professional” photos I struggled to take.

My advice to students considering applying to the program: do it. The application process itself is valuable for organizing one’s ideas and interests into a realistic, “doable” project. The Fellowship provides an invaluable challenge to explore personal interests and desires, and then articulate one’s ideas and experience in a way that can be shared with others.