The Architecture of Mariupol — and the legacy of Viktor Nielsen
Back in 2020 I was a member of an architectural jury for a competition hosted by the City of Mariupol, Ukraine and organised by Canactions. It was an interesting and compelling competition not least because the city is right near the region invaded by Russia in 2014.
The entries were as positive and refreshing as you’d expect in any architectural competition but that was amplified by the desire of Mariupol to work towards urban change and reinvent themselves through urban design and architecture. The many entries were all flavoured with optimism for the future and many incorporated a Ukrainian flair in the colours or the use of national symbolism.
As I write this, the city of Mariupol is under siege by Russian invaders serving the dictatorial whims of a mad man in the Kremlin. I just spent an hour looking over the entries from the 2020 competition, wondering what buildings are left standing around the competition site. What lives have been destroyed by barbaric shelling.
In 2020, I spent a time google streetviewing myself up and down the streets of the city in order to get a feel for the place and the context of the competition site in relation to the city at large. Due to COVID restrictions back then, I was unable to travel to Mariupol to attend the awards ceremony. I regretted not having this opportunity because the city has a distant Danish architecture connection that captured my imagination.
Viktor Alexandrovich Nielsen.
The splendid addition of the middle name does little to mask the archetypal Danish name of Viktor Nielsen (1871–1949). Little is known about the details of this architect’s life. The city archives were destroyed during the Second World War, including his diaries and sketchbooks, but in his career he managed to contribute to a wonderful architectural legacy in Mariupol.
From what I’ve been able to ascertain, Viktor Nielsen was from a Danish/German family who moved to Russia and settled in Saint Petersburg. He graduated from the Institute of Civil Engineers and went to work in the city of Rybinsk on the Volga River, where he designed and built a well-functioning city water supply system.
The City of Mariupol got wind of this and invited him to become the city architect in 1900 or 1901, when Nielsen was 29 years old. Mariupol had a serious issue regarding lack of clean drinking water, especially in the hot summers, so Nielsen was put to the task to improve water supply. It was no small feat and required considerable funding, including an application to the Ministry of the Interior to help cover the costs.
Nielsen was regarded as an outsider in the small city of 30,000 people. There was initial scepticism about this big city architect with a fancy education and not least the massive budget he proposed for the water supply system. Nevertheless, the funding was granted and the work began in 1906. In the same year, Nielsen was elected as a deputy to the Mariupol Duma (city council), which is clearly sign that he had managed to win over the locals. He also owned land — which was a sign that he had decided to invest in his own future in the city.
The city water supply system was completed in 1910 and by the next year, two-thirds of the city finally had reliable access to clean water. It was a massive success that made a huge impact on the quality of life in the city.
Nielsen was educated at a prestigious university and could have worked anywhere in the Russian Empire but for reasons we cannot know, Mariupol appealed to him. He settled down in a lavish home that he built himself, across from the City Gardens at 49 Semenyshyna Street, locally known as the “House of the Weeping Nymphs”.
Viktor Nielsen was influenced by the Vienna Secession and Art Nouveau. His mansion featured a high roof, splendid stucco work and patterned cornices. A decorative tower dominated one corner and a commanding view was to be had from the bay window. It was such an impressive home in this provincial outpost and the locals were enamoured with it.
The nickname “house of the weeping nymphs” stems from a family tragedy. Nielsen dedicated the house to a daughter of his, who died of typhus. He designed a three-dimensional profile of a nymph on the building. When it rains, water flows down the face like tears — weeping for the dead daughter. Local superstition added to the storytelling legacy. It was said that when the weather was bad, crying is heard from inside the estate.
Viktor Nielsen’s first building in Mariupol was another house that he built for his family which was dubbed the Lion House by locals because of the many lion-themed mascarons on the façade. For some reason, he didn’t end up moving in and sold it instead to a Cossack officer before building his House of the Weeping Nymphs.
Despite his family tragedy, Nielsen was now firmly settled in Mariupol and ready to begin building his architectural legacy. The list of buildings attributed to him is long, when you consider the size of the city back then: the Radio Hub building (1909), a diocesan school which later became the Pryazovskyi State Technical University (1911), Warehouse #7 and the Church of Constantine and Helena (1911). He also designed the school at the steel factory in the nearby city of Nikopol.
The church was by far his grandest building but was destroyed in 1936. One building, however, would end up as his most enduring work and the most poignant landmark of his legacy in the city. The 33 meter tall Water Tower.
While it served an important function in Nielsen’s work on the water supply system, it quickly became an iconic structure in the heart of the city and has been lovingly cared for ever since. On the occasion of the city’s 240th birthday, it was repurposed into a tourist centre, with event spaces and a coworking space.
Viktor Nielsen’s mansion has never received the same care. It is privately-owned and the building and estate were squatted in the early 2000s. The tiled floor and wiring have long since been ripped out. In recent years, the city has been working on giving it historical status and either forcing the owner to restore it to its former glory or purchasing it.
His architectural legacy was firmly established in a relatively short period of time. He arrived in 1900 or 1901 and work on the water supply system started in 1906. Most of his most loved buildings were constructed before 1917 — a nine-year flurry of architectural design.
Everything changed with the October Revolution and the formation of the Soviet State. Like many other architects of the age, Nielsen was regarded as a bourgeois tsarist and his ability to work was severely restricted. He was kicked out of his home when it was expropriated by the Soviets.
From tenderly designed Art Nouveau structures like the water tower and the church, he was put to work making functional buildings like factories.
It was Stalin’s Great Purge that forced the end to Viktor Nielsen’s career as an architect. Starting in 1935, Stalin started to purge the Communist party of people he considered threats. The murderous brutality of the purges is well-documented but countless people were also simply removed from their professions.
Viktor Nielsen was no longer allowed to work as an architect and was sent to work in the technical department of the new Azovstal factory. In 1936, his Church of Constantine and Helen was razed to the ground by the Soviets. It must have been heart-wrenching to see such a spectacular building destroyed before your architect eyes.
In 1943, Nielsen’s home and private archives were destroyed by fires caused by German soldiers and among the tragic losses was an album of sketches he made of the facades of the buildings and their surroundings which were the only visual documentation of many of the historic structures of the city.
Viktor Nielsen died in 1949.
The City of Mariupol insists on keeping his legacy alive, however. He has become a symbol of the city, with small caricatures based on one of the few photographs of the man placed around the city.
The architectural competition I worked on was also aptly named The Viktor Nielsen Open Competition. You can see the winners and runners up on the Canactions website.
As I write this, we’re eleven days into the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin and the future of Mariupol and countless Ukrainian cities is uncertain. Mariupol suffered horribly under the Soviets and Nazi Germany and now war has returned — right at a time when the city was planning a bright and better urban future for itself and its citizens. But neither the Soviets or the Nazis succeeded in erasing Viktor Nielsen’s name from the history books. His legacy stubbornly exists.
Lives are being lost and destroyed in Mariupol as I write this. Buildings are being bombed indiscriminately. I feel helpless. Writing the first English article about a forgotten Russian architect of Danish descent who worked in an obscure city on the Azov Sea will have little effect. But while my relationship with the City of Mariupol may have been transient, it is nonetheless tangible to me. Now more than ever.
Stand with Ukraine.
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I’m a sucker for melancholy tales of prolific architects who are long forgotten but whose architectural legacy remains, like these two Italians on the island of Leros in Greece.
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Thanks to these two articles, which contributed to my research.
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