A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
31 January 2021
Here’s a bold claim – Kyiv might be Europe’s single greatest city for late-twentieth century Modernist architecture. It boasts many wild, eclectic, and vividly imaginative examples of the style, built during the height of Soviet monument-mania: the spacey Hotel Salyut, the steel-encased market of Zhytniy Rynok, the inverted canopy of the House of Furniture, and the surreal curves of Miletsky’s Crematorium in the Park of Memory.
Though amongst its steel and concrete marvels of Soviet-era architecture, one of Kyiv’s most striking modern buildings has, in recent years, also become one of the city’s most problematic ruins. Autobus Park №7 – once the pride of the Ukrainian transport industry – exists today as a decaying morgue for almost a thousand abandoned buses.
The Kyiv Transport Circus
Autobus Park №7 (or ‘АП №7’) was constructed in 1973. Its chief architect, V. P. Zinkevych, worked with design teams from Kievsky Promstroyproekt and Ukrgiprodortrans, and scientific teams from the organisations NIISKKISI and NIZHE. The construction crew was provided by the Construction and Installation Trust №1 of the Ministry of Industry and Construction of the Ukrainian SSR.
The design challenge was to create an efficient depot capable of housing and maintaining a fleet of some 500 buses, in an urban environment where building space was limited. Had the building been constructed like a warehouse, or a factory, using a square plan and a regular pillar-based solution for supporting the roof, it was estimated that the total size of the building would have needed to be at least 4,000 square metres. However, an ingenious solution was proposed instead.
The chief engineers on the project, V. A. Kozlov and S. I. Smorgon, were responsible for the idea of using a cable-suspended roof. They took their inspiration from circus buildings – the cylindrical concrete-and-steel constructions which were by this time a ubiquitous feature in cities throughout the Soviet Union. By designing the building on a circular plan, and suspending concrete roof panels on cables strung between a central support pillar and the outer walls, it was found that both space and construction costs could be significantly reduced. Moreover, this design, with its organic, circular shape, lent itself more to what was then considered a modern and humanistic work environment for employees – while its form, reminiscent of circuses and Palaces of Culture, presented the bus depot not as a bland, functional box, but rather a community venue.
Kozlov and Smorgon built a 1:10 scale model to test their idea. The central support pillar would be 18 metres high, a tower of reinforced concrete with a diameter of 8 metres, consisting of 0.3-metre thick concrete walls around an inner support of solid steel with a cross-section of 0.32 x 0.22 metres. Attached to the top of this pillar, were 84 radial cables – steel ropes with a diameter of 65 millimetres. Each of these cables was able to support a weight of up to 350 tons, and the roof would be constructed on top of them: a suspended tent dome, created from concrete plates, and with a total diameter of 160 metres.
On its completion in 1973, the building was considered an engineering marvel – its hanging roof was one of the largest ever constructed, and this system of support reduced the building’s necessary size from 40,000 square metres (the estimate for a pillar-supported roof) to a footprint of just 23,000 square metres. It went through a few names – АТО-09122, АТП-09127, АТП-33029, АТП-13029 – before finally settling on ‘AП7’.
As much as possible, the design aimed to take advantage of natural light. The concrete plates of the roof were fitted with portholes, most of which were concentrated close around the main support tower. In the outer wall, upright glass cylinders were installed between concrete panels, serving as sturdy support pillars that both insulated the building against the cold outside, and allowed refracted light to shine into the wings of the building. This solution proved particularly robust, and most of these glass pillars have survived intact since the early 1970s until this day. Between them, these design choices resulted in an interior space and working area that enjoyed bright sunlight during the day, thus minimising the additional cost of electrical lighting.
Once operational, Autobus Park №7 was the largest vehicle depot in the Soviet Union – and it was rumoured, potentially the largest anywhere in the world. It served as more than just a garage, though. It was the base of operations for the entire fleet of buses serving the capital, including city buses, intercity buses, and also those working international routes, to Germany, Poland, Belarus and Russia. The building was fully air-conditioned, it featured a four-gate vehicle wash, and a mechanised repair bay fitted with conveyor belt systems. The building had a staff of 1,500 workers, and featured workers’ canteens, as well as a computing centre too – where teams calculated staff salaries and work shifts, as well as designing and optimising bus routes.
Sadly, the glory days of Autobus Park №7 would be short-lived. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, many of the fleet’s international routes were discontinued. Services were gradually reduced through the 1990s, into the 2000s, while meanwhile, the building was increasingly used to store wrecked vehicles awaiting repair or decommissioning. The reduction of domestic bus routes in 2005 was a further blow, and eventually, in 2015, the autopark closed its doors for good – the building slipping into disrepair, as the once-proud circus was steadily transformed into a scrapyard.
Exploring Autobus Park №7
My friend, Vladyslav, says it’s best to enter the bus park before dawn; so he picks me up in his car at 5.45 am, and we drive out to the building at Darnytskyi. Vladyslav is a Kyiv-based urban explorer. He recently came back from his own trip, visiting ghost towns and dodging polar bears on the archipelago of Svalbard, off Norway’s Arctic coast. Here in Kyiv, he runs a business offering tours to underground tunnels, bunkers and off-limits ruins around the city. He also previously made the arrangements for my own four-day ‘stalker’ hike across the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
We leave the car on a side street, close to Autopark №7. Closed off to the public, Vladyslav explains that the only way to see it is the ‘unofficial’ way – so we take a run at the outer fence, pulling ourselves up and over the 2-metre barrier before dropping down into the courtyard, behind a derelict Ikarus bus. The yard is scattered with vehicles and debris. We walk on tiptoes, avoiding the pipes and broken glass, to reach the back wall of the circus building… where we skirt around, one hand to the wall, until we reach a broken window and clamber through.
For a while we see nothing but the backend of buses. They are rammed together, metal scraping metal, not parked so much as shoved into place. We clamber inside and through the first, outer ring of vehicles, past rows of mildewed seats, our feet suddenly meeting air where the floor, in places, has rusted away entirely to leave gaping holes. By the second ring, paths begin to open up between the vehicles. Ducking into the slipstream of these stationary buses, in the half-light this feels almost like a traffic jam – as if the vehicles had stopped only temporarily, on their way to somewhere else.
Then the walls of twisted steel part: we reach the central space of Autopark №7, a garage floor littered with rubber and glass, while all around lie the hundreds of wrecks, all facing inwards towards the central tower, and as the first light of dawn spills down from dirty portholes in the hanging concrete ceiling up above, this building takes on the appearance of a futuristic morgue.
Ahead of us, dominating the space, rises the 18-metre support tower at the centre of the building, a ladder zigzagging up its side to an observation platform above. We make our way to it, and begin to ascend.
For most of that morning, we have Autobus Park №7 to ourselves. It’s not until we return from the rooftop, and make our way back down to the gantry, and down the metal ladder to the garage floor, that we hear the security guard. He must have heard us too. Heavy, booted footsteps approach from the direction of the old office block, adjacent to the circus building. Vladyslav gestures silently towards the outer ring of vehicles, and we bolt for cover… back into the maze of buses.
We hide, but the guard doesn’t give up the scent so easily. As he enters the central space of the park, I catch a glimpse of him – a man in a dark green uniform, with a wrestler’s physique, and a length of metal pipe brandished in his right hand like a club. His primary concern is probably metal thieves, not architecture fans, but he doesn’t look to be in any mood for having a conversation about the difference. He shouts at us to come out… but that doesn’t sound appealing, so we remain silent. Then he begins a more thorough search for us, row by row, peering down the alleys between the vehicles. Each time he passes a bus he gives it an almighty thwack with the pipe, the loud metallic sound reverberating up to the concrete rooftop above.
Crouched behind the tail end of an old Volvo, it is only a matter of time before he finds us. The way back out is blocked from here, a wall of buses bars our path, and Vladyslav nudges me, pointing upwards instead. A ladder is fitted to the back of the Volvo, and carefully, we begin to climb it – keeping our heads low, then quickly stretching out to lie flat on top of the bus. If the security guard hears us, it doesn’t help him much. Every rustle and clang in here is magnified, but muffled too, making it very hard to place the source of any sound. He knows we’re here – he just doesn’t have any idea where, and there are a thousand places to hide.
I hold my breath as the guard circles around. He swings his pipe, dragging it scraping along the floor, and beating it on rusted metal hulls that echo like drums. At one point I think he’s spotted me. From my prone position I see him come to a halt just near us. He stops and breathes in heavily through his nose, as if trying to smell us out. I close my eyes and then I hear him coming closer, slowly, until he pauses right beside the bus I’m hiding on. When I open one eye to peek, I see the top of his head – close enough to touch. I don’t move a muscle. I wait… and he waits too, for what feels like a minute but is probably closer to ten seconds. And then finally he gives up and leaves. We hear the door slam at the far end of the circus as the guard exits the main building, back into the staff block with its guard post, kettle, and television. We wait a few more minutes just to be sure, and then we leave too, back out the way we came in, across the yard, over the fence, and away.
Death by Bureaucracy
Today, Autobus Park №7 in Kyiv seems to be locked in a downward spiral of decay. The building itself is nothing short of an engineering marvel, an extraordinary work of architecture that supporters have suggested could be adapted now into a museum, or even a film studio. In April 2018 a petition was registered on the website of Kyiv City Council, calling for the building’s preservation – but it only received 321 votes, a long way short of its target of 10,000 signatures. Even had it been successful though, good intentions don’t count for much without action and intent on the part of Kyiv City Council; where currently, any talks of potential preservation are being blocked at a bureaucratic level.
For 25 years the building has been owned by the company Kyivpastrans (‘Kyiv Passenger Transportation’), whose deputy general director, Sergey Litvinov, has said that Autobus Park №7 poses an imminent risk of collapse, and, given the cost and scale of such a project, would be “almost impossible” to save. Meanwhile, other former transport depots around the city have already been bulldozed to make room for new residential blocks and shopping centres. Many property developers would jump at the chance of getting their hands on this 23,000-square metre plot – and from the perspective of the current owners, it is probably a more attractive financial proposition. The building is neither listed nor protected, so were it empty, there would be nothing to stop the owners from knocking it down overnight.
However, for the time being all parties are locked into a kind of stalemate over the building’s contents. The estimated 903 rusting vehicles stored inside (including LAZ, Volvo, Ikarus, and various other brands of urban and long-distance buses) pose a major administrative problem. These buses cannot easily be removed, or scrapped, as technically they are yet to be decommissioned from service. A new regulation that was introduced into Ukrainian law in 2013 complicated the bureaucratic procedure and created a backlog; so that all of the vehicles inside Autobus Park №7 today are – officially, on paper – still in service and awaiting audit. As such they cannot legally be taken apart for scrap, and right now, there’s nowhere else to store them in the city but here.
So for now, it’s a waiting game. If Kyivpastrans and Kyiv City Council are able to solve the bureaucratic headache of their vehicle decommissioning procedure, remove the abandoned buses, and then find the will, not to mention the funding, to undertake the colossal project of preserving Autobus Park №7 (while turning down more lucrative offers from property developers in the process), then perhaps the building might yet be saved. But that’s a big if… and in the meanwhile, the circus roof is sagging, and young trees are already sprouting from cracks in the concrete.
It may just be that this building, an engineering marvel of the Soviet period, having failed to find its place in a post-Soviet world, is doomed to go the same way as the regime that built it.
Smena Magazine, 1974 – Issue No.19
Khabarovsk Polytechnic Institute, 1979 – Reinforced Concrete Space Structures (lecture notes, p.24-26), M. P. Danilovsky
Hmarochos, May 2018 – Why are Storage Facilities for Faulty Kyivpastrans Buses Being Set Up in Kyiv?
Kiev Vlast, November 2019 – Kyiv City Council Decided to Solve the Riddle of Bus Depot №7