Since the Russian invasion, many places in Ukraine have become unrecognizable. Many cultural and historical buildings have also suffered from bombing and rocket attacks. A commission is now having them reconstructed virtually.

Emmanuel Durand finds his way over the rubble and fallen beams, then he sets up his 3D scanner and begins his work: he wants to virtually reconstruct the historic fire station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, which was severely damaged by Russian air raids. The French engineer has set himself the goal of preserving as many historic buildings in Ukraine as possible, at least virtually.

Since the invasion began on February 24, Russian shells and rockets have been falling in Ukrainian cities. The victims are not only countless civilians, but also numerous buildings that are part of the country’s cultural assets. The Kharkiv fire station is just one example: the red brick building from 1887 is an important testament to the industrial revolution in Kharkiv at the end of the 19th century.

With his swiveling laser scanner, Durand “captures” the building from all sides. His device can scan 500,000 points per second, he says. According to his own statements, he will collect ten million points at his current location alone, then he will set up his scanner at a different location and in this way gradually cover the entire building – from the outside and inside. In the end, it’s “a billion points,” he says.

Volunteer work in the middle of the war

In the evening, Durand puts all the data back together on his computer “like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle” in order to virtually reconstruct the building. The replica is accurate to within five millimeters, it can be turned in any direction or “cut into slices”. It even shows the craters of the explosions, the pressure wave from which shook the building to its foundations.

His work captures the current state of the fire station, Durand says. It also helps to see where the statics have suffered and what can still be restored. “We can see exactly what damage the rocket did – but also what the building looked like.”

Durand’s work is voluntary. The French specialist for 3D data acquisition works with architects, engineers, experts for historical buildings and a museum director – in addition to Kharkiv also in the capital Kyiv, in western Ukrainian Lviv and in Chernihiv in the north of the country.

In Kharkiv alone, they have listed 500 buildings of historical interest, says architect Kateryna Kuplyzka. She works on the commission that records all damaged historical sites. In Kharkiv there are already more than a hundred, she estimates.

Culture is the “foundation of every civilization”

Although Russian attacks in Ukraine’s second largest city have abated, shells are still falling. Kuplyzka fears that these and storms could further deteriorate the condition of the already damaged buildings. It is all the more important to record their current condition precisely – as well as the buildings that are still undamaged.

The Ukrainian architect believes that recording the damage could also be useful for later criminal proceedings. “Across the country, our cultural heritage has suffered seriously,” she says. “This is genocide of Ukrainian people and genocide of Ukrainian culture” – “a war crime”.

Kuplyzka’s colleague Tetjana Pylyptschuk does not accept the objection that her work is pointless as long as the war goes on and people continue to die every day. Culture is “the basis” of every civilization, says Pylypchuk, who is also director of the Kharkiv Literary Museum. “If only it were more widespread, people probably wouldn’t have to die and there wouldn’t be a war.”

The museum director had the majority of her treasures brought to western Ukraine to protect them from war damage – but also from possible Russian destructiveness should Kharkiv fall. Before the war, people hardly cared about cultural heritage, she says. “Today they realize how important it is.” Commission has historical buildings in Ukraine reconstructed virtually.