Shells and missiles have been raining down on Ukrainian cities since the start of the war, claiming lives but also damaging historic buildings. Cultural services seek to preserve their memory with state-of-the-art technology and 3D scans.
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French engineer Emmanuel Durand, a specialist in 3D data acquisition, crosses a tangle of beams, walks over countless rubble to plant his laser scanner, a sort of tripod with a swiveling head, at a strategic corner of the fire station. This one was badly damaged by the Russian strikes.
Built in 1887, the red brick building with its watchtower is emblematic of Kharkiv's industrial revolution at the end of the 19th century.
With his camera, Emmanuel Durand “records” the building from every angle. “The scanner takes 500.00 points per second. On this station, we will have 10 million points. Then, we will change stations and go all around the building, outside and inside. A billion points...", he explains.
In the evening, Mr. Durand collects all the data on a computer, “like pieces of a puzzle”, to virtually reconstruct the building. The finished result is a perfect reproduction at five millimeters, which can then be turned around, or cut into slices. You can also see the craters of the explosions whose blast shook the structure.
“It allows the physical location of the building to be fixed in history. It can be used to see what has moved for security. To help see what can or cannot be restored, but also for museographical or historical aspects, he continues. "We have the real scene of the damage caused by the missile and an exact replica of what the building was."
As a volunteer, Mr. Durand travels with his scanner accompanied by architects, engineers, specialists in historic buildings and a museum director, traveling to Kyiv, Lviv, Cherniguiv, and Kharkiv.
In Kharkiv alone, some 500 buildings are listed as having historical interest, most of them in the city center under Russian fire, says architect Kateryna Kouplytska, a member of the commission responsible for listing damaged historical sites. She estimates that more than a hundred of them were affected.
If the Russian noose around the second city of the country has loosened, shells still fall regularly.
New explosions and the blast they cause, bad weather, works, visits... “These weakened buildings can deteriorate even more quickly. And you have to record the details precisely to be able to stabilize them” and retain their memory accurately, she explains.
“The registration of damages will also be used for criminal trials. Across the country, we see serious damage to our heritage. It is a genocide of the Ukrainian people and a genocide of Ukrainian culture,” she says, referring to “war crimes”.
After two days in the barracks, Emmanuel Durand's team moved to the Faculty of Economics at Karazine National University in Kharkiv, located right next to the imposing headquarters of the Ukrainian security services (SBU), the target of forces from Moscow which was hit by numerous projectiles.
The faculty, a former building from the Tsarist then Soviet period, is one of the first reinforced concrete buildings in the country. It is signed by the architect Serguiï Tymoshenko, a figure of the "modern Ukrainian" style at the beginning of the 20th century.
Isn't this recording work futile as the war continues and people are dying every day? “Culture is the basis of everything. If the culture had spread as it should, probably people wouldn't be dying and there wouldn't have been a war," replies Tetyana Pylypchouk, member of the commission, but also director of the Kharkiv Literary Museum.
She had most of her collections sent to western Ukraine to prevent them from being damaged by the war, but also to avoid Russian vandalism in the event of the eventual fall of Kharkiv.
"Today people realize all the more that cultural heritage is important when we didn't pay attention to it" before the war, she says.