Celebrating a rich urban heritage

  • Celebrating a rich urban heritage
Issue 6, October 2008.

Celebrating a rich urban heritage 

Austrian  Harald Binder is the driving force behind the Lviv Centre for East European Urban History, the arts and heritage venture which has injected a new dynamic into the Lviv culture scene. So what is it about Mr. Binder that has attracted him to Lviv?   

As Director and Chairman of the Board you are the leading light at the Lviv Centre for East European Urban History. What made you choose Lviv?

 The idea of developing a centre emerged gradually over the course of a number of visits to Lviv, as I grew to know the city, its people and institutions better. I became more and more convinced that Lviv needed some fresh input, a new institution which would blow fresh air into the cultural and intellectual landscape. Urban history, a discipline with a long tradition in Western countries, seemed to me the perfect academic field to break open this gateway. Studying the past of a (historically) multicultural city like Lviv opens up the mind: it makes you realize that not only your own nation built the city, but many communities took part in this cultural process. There is a large potential for intellectual exchange in this field and there are indeed institutions in the West which offer MA’s in urban history. I will be very happy when the first member of LCEEUH will take part in such a programme and then return to Ukraine with fresh ideas! It is indeed one of the principal aims of LCEEUH to act against the strong trend among talented people to leave Ukraine for the West. We want to give people a chance to develop there skills in their own country. 

When did you first visit Lviv?

 If I’m not mistaken it was 14 years ago. At that time Lviv looked very different: dark and gloomy, even sometimes frightening. I was not able to read Cyrillic then and could not speak any Ukrainian. My basic knowledge of Polish helped me make my way. It was almost impossible to find a decent café or restaurant and compared to today almost no shops with Western products existed. In the periphery this Lviv which I experienced 14 years ago of course still exists but in the centre of town a new world of consumption and tourism has moved in.

How does the ambience in Lviv compare with other European cities like Vienna?

 As all European cities are necessarily very different it is hard to give a general answer. Comparing Vienna with Lviv is not fair because they are cities on quite a different scale. There is of course the beautiful 19th century architecture which in the eyes of many make these two cities similar. But this is just the outside cover. The way of living, the mentality, behaviour in public, way of dressing, the relationship between the generations and between men and women – each society is clearly different. But Vienna also greatly differs from Rome in many of these aspects. For me there is no question that Ukraine belongs to a common European culture just as much as Italy. It is precisely this cultural diversity which positively defines Europe and it is high time that Western Europe made an effort to understand and appreciate the culture of its Eastern neighbours.

  It is difficult for me to see Lviv from the outside because after so many years and deep involvement I’m at least partially also an “insider”. “Society” is a big and complex term. Compared to the environment where I was born and raised I still perceive society here as relatively rough and driven by emotions. I have absolutely nothing against emotional people, quite on the contrary. What would do this country good, however, would be a little bit more rationality and regularity in everything pertaining to the public sphere. The state and its bureaucracy should be there not to frighten and frustrate the people but to serve them. To create such a feeling of confidence is one of the big challenges to be taken up by those entrusted with political responsibility. As to the Western perception of Lviv: Only the well educated will even know where the city is located. In Austria at least “Lemberg” sounds a bit familiar and may evoke some feelings of nostalgia. Nevertheless, when it comes to Ukraine as a whole, ignorance and stereotypes still prevail. Media all over the world naturally tend to simplify things especially in today’s world of pictures. I am quite sure that many people in the West are familiar with the Ukrainian prime minister’s hairstyle but would be highly surprised to learn that Ukrainian is a language of its own. 

How is Lviv managing to build bridges with the outside world? What are you doing to support this process?  

 We want to be a bridge or connection point in many ways. In order to counteract ignorance and stereotypes you have to bring people together and make them talk. This is true not only for the relationship between Lviv/Ukraine and the West but means building bridges within the country and, last but not least, within the city itself. The Centre initiated a highly successful roundtable forum called “Kolo Lvova” where representatives from various backgrounds – politics, administration, NGO’s, scientists – come together to discuss issues of urban development in Lviv. On the next level up we have an idea to start a new series of events which we plan to call “city encounters”. “Lviv meets Kharkiv,” for example. Such encounters can do at least a little bit to strengthen an awareness of belonging to a common state entity. In terms of the city’s relationship with the West, we have a considerable number of common projects with Western academic institutions and we use our international conferences and exhibitions to stimulate an exchange of ideas and knowledge. 

Next year you plan to hold a conference entitled “Sex in the Cities: Prostitution, White Slaving, and Sexual Minorities in Eastern and Central Europe.” What is the objective of this challenging approach?

 Two aspects can be regarded as especially important: First, we want to introduce new topics which will create some fresh stimulus for research in the region. This is certainly true for this conference. Second, the theme should touch upon general issues related to urbanization and urban life (including sociology, politics, culture etc.) and thus go beyond the local history of Lviv. We take our name, “Centre for Urban History of   East Central Europe”, seriously. To some extent our aim is to bring together scholars from Lviv, Ukraine and neighbouring countries and confront them with recent developments in “Western” academia. 

 How is the tourist trade impacting on the lives of ordinary Lviv citizens?

 For good reasons Lviv is now putting much energy in improving its touristic infrastructure. Many foreign investors count on a positive development in this sphere. However, as we all know, becoming a touristic site also has some problematic implications for a city and its inhabitants. We, the Centre for Urban History, are also interested in the “other Lviv”, where tourists don’t go but where most people spend their everyday life. One of our recent projects was a study about Sykhiv (the biggest “socialist” suburban apartment bloc region in the city), conducted by a Romanian anthropologist. 

What is your favourite spot in Lviv?

 There are of course plenty of beautiful places in Lviv. After so many years many of them are also associated with personal memories. But if I had to mention one favourite place of mine where normally no tourist goes it would be the so-called “Rondo” on Bohomoltsia Street, a square completely surrounded by wonderfully decorated secessionist buildings - and facing my institute. 

What would you say to fellow Austrians thinking about investing in Lviv?

 It’s beautiful, lively, different and yet familiar – and it’s only one hour away by plane. Come and see. 


What is your impression of Lviv society? How does it look from the outside?