Local architect designs Washington memorial to victims of genocidal famine in Ukraine

July 24

For the memorial, wheat was painted white and then scanned by a 3D laser scanner; the image was then imported into a computer which created a mold to be used in casting the bronze relief. (Will Figg/For The Washington Post)

District architect Larysa Kurylas steps back from a tall panel of sculpted wheat stalks to judge how the public will see the relief. She has come to Laran Bronze, a Pennsylvania foundry located near a casino and a state prison, to check on the progress of her memorial to the 3 million to 6 million Ukrainians who were systematically starved by the Soviet Union in a 1932 and 1933 famine. But the tall, studious woman isn’t happy with what she sees on a large piece of urethane carved by a computer-guided blade.

“The tips of the wheat are too soft,” she tells Lawrence Welker, son of the foundry’s owner, who is supervising the project. “They need to be more sharply defined.”

The Harvard-educated architect has faced several setbacks in the three years since her design was chosen for a memorial to be built in Northwest Washington. Even before the Russian takeover of Crimea, the political tug of war between pro-Russian and anti-Russian Ukrainian leadership had endangered the memorial’s progress.

Ukrainian gas tycoon Dmytro Firtash, who donated $2.5 million to build the memorial, was arrested earlier this year on charges of bribery, which he denies. And the use of computer-generated models to create the bronze reliefs has proved more difficult than expected, delaying its completion.

On a spring morning, as Kurylas stands next to the urethane panels and the computer used to create the wheat imagery, she feels a new sense of urgency to complete the memorial. Construction is scheduled to begin in late summer, and the continuing turmoil in Ukraine has renewed interest in the politically charged tragedy symbolized by her wheat field.

The famine is known by Ukrainians as the Holodomor, which translates to “death by hunger.” For Kurylas and other Ukrainian Americans, the memorial is important in making Joseph Stalin’s horrific actions known to the world.

“After the Holocaust, the Holodomor is the 20th century’s greatest genocide,” says Alexander Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and co-editor of “The Holodomor Reader,” a collection of documentary accounts of the tragedy. The provinces of Kiev, Cherkasy and Kirovohrad in central Ukraine and Kharkiv and Poltava to the east were the hardest hit, he says.

Ukrainian-born Petro Matula, who experienced the famine as a child and now lives in Potomac, remembers his grandfather burying a sack of wheat in a barn stall to prevent its confiscation by the Communists. “That bag of grain saved us from death,” says the 86-year-old retired engineer.


Larysa Kurylas in her Washington office. Behind her are a rendering of the memorial and some wheat, which plays a strong role in the design. (Lance Rosenfield/Prime/For the Washington Post)

The scale model of the memorial. The bronze relief will feature wheat that projects from and then recedes into the background. (Lance Rosenfield/Prime/For the Washington Post)

For Kurylas, whose typical projects are houses and church renovations, the memorial is the most important commission of her career. “It has a spiritual dimension,” she says.

The daughter of a Ukrainian-born teacher and a veterinarian, the 57-year-old architect grew up in Wheaton speaking her parents’ native language. She attended Ukrainian scout meetings on Fridays, Ukrainian school on Saturdays and Ukrainian Catholic church on Sundays.

“I feel as if I grew up in parallel worlds,” she says. “There was my American life and my Ukrainian life. It seems as if I spent my whole life explaining the existence of Ukraine and the differences between the culture, history and language of Ukrainians and Russians. When I found out about the design competition for the D.C. Holodomor memorial, I felt almost duty-bound to participate.

The memorial, which is funded by private foundations and individual donations, was authorized by a congressional bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) and signed into law in 2006. By then, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution had led to the election of president Viktor Yushchenko, a passionate nationalist who sought to raise international awareness of the famine.

His presidency led to the candle-shaped Holodomor memorial and accompanying underground museum in Kiev. Soon after it opened in 2009, Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture staged the international design competition for the Washington memorial.

Kurylas chose to depict a field of wheat that both projects and recedes across the memorial’s 30-foot-long bronze wall, representing the transition from harvest bounty to famine deficit.

“Wheat’s association with Ukraine is strong, as the nation is considered the breadbasket of Europe,” the architect says. “Wheat was used as a political weapon to starve the people of Ukraine.”

In her one-room office off Dupont Circle, Kurylas spent about four weeks developing her design and constructing a replica of the memorial and its surroundings, including miniature plexiglass buildings and trees made of sponges. “The height of the memorial, the number of trees, the wall details, all these are important to me,” she says.

Her husband, Steve Lann, a cabinetmaker, built a wooden case for the model and drawings so they could be safely transported overseas; through the Ukrainian American community, the architect found a businesswoman traveling to Ukraine who was willing to hand carry the case on the plane.

Kurylas was shortlisted as one of five finalists, but a shift in political power threatened the memorial’s momentum. In 2010, the now-ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was elected and reversed the position of his predecessor, Yushchenko, by stating it was “wrong” and “unjust” to call the Stalin-era famine a genocide.

Nevertheless, the Washington memorial moved ahead, and in 2011, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts chose Kurylas’s “Field of Wheat.”

As one of the few women architects who have designed modern-day memorials in Washington, Kurylas joins Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Julie Beckman, who with husband Keith Kaseman, designed the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.

The famine memorial will be built near Union Station on a triangular piece of federal land bounded by Massachusetts Avenue, North Capitol Street and F Street. At the west end stands the historic Childs Restaurant, a 1926 structure (now a bank) designed by William Van Alen, the architect of New York’s Chrysler Building.

The memorial’s wall and stone plinth will rise to eight feet to screen views of the Dubliner and Irish Times pubs across F Street. “Beer drinking and a famine memorial aren’t very compatible,” Kurylas says with a laugh.

A short text in English and Ukrainian about the famine-genocide will be inscribed on the wall next to the bronze relief of wheat. The back of the wall facing F Street will be sheathed in black granite carved in a geometric pattern inspired by the early 20th-century textiles of Vasyl Krychevsky, a Kiev artist who incorporated Ukrainian folkloric motifs into his designs. Slate pavers will have a hammered texture suggesting the jagged lines of plowed fields.

Seven redbud trees with purple, heart-shaped leaves will be planted behind the wall. At the west end will be a landscaped garden to absorb rainwater and a bronze bench from which to view the memorial.

One of the biggest challenges for Kurylas has been working with real wheat to generate the digital images that will be used to create molds for casting the sculpture. Last summer, she traveled to a relative’s farm outside Winnipeg, Manitoba, to harvest the wheat and in September drove the sheaves to the Laran foundry, which has cast bronze sculptures for the National World War II Memorial and other commemorative sites in Washington.

Welker arranged several layers of the wheat on a board and painted them white so the details of the thin, delicate stalks could be more easily recorded by a laser scanner. The scans were turned into the huge digital files used to create the models for the casting molds. For the memorial’s relief, the wheat is doubled in size from its actual dimensions.


A small model of the memorial site created by Kurylas. (Will Figg/For The Washington Post)

The plot of federal land where the memorial will be built. (Lance Rosenfield/Prime/For the Washington Post)

After Kurylas’s visit to the foundry, Welker sharpened the kernel details of the wheat by chiseling the models by hand.

Mary Kay Lanzillotta of Hartman-Cox Architects, the D.C. firm responsible for construction documents and administration, said the memorial is scheduled to be completed by spring, pending the nine-month production of the sculpture.

“We’ve made good progress,” Lanzillotta says. “We had seven years from when the legislation was signed to getting the building permit. It takes a long time to build on federal land, and it should — we are building for the ages.”

Once the bronze panels are sand-cast, the next challenge will be to weld the sections together so the wheat stalks and heads appear continuous from panel to panel.

Kurylas says she will remain vigilant over the final details, including the choice of patina for the bronze.

“I won’t exhale fully until the sculpture is finally set in place.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Post’s Magazine and Real Estate sections.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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