‘Chornobyl. Journey’ is a multimedia exhibition dedicated to the 35th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant disaster. The project’s goal was to form a new perspective on the Chornobyl tragedy: to help people reevaluate history and prompt a discussion about the future of the Exclusion Zone.
The organizers aspired to tell the story of Chornobyl in a contemporary manner and transport the audience into the epicenter of the events using immersive technology such as VR.
The exhibition was located inside the main pavilion of the Expocenter of Ukraine National Complex. It is a monumental building erected in the 1950s, crowned by a dome with a 25- meter spire. The pomp of the building emphasized the weight of the Chornobyl tragedy. Here, forms and meanings become intertwined.
Once we received the project and evaluated its challenges, we visited the Exclusion Zone to absorb the local atmosphere. Seeing the places affected by radiation with our own eyes allowed us to approach the project thoughtfully and kept us from trivial decisions moving forward.
To achieve the effect of gradual immersion, the structure of the exhibition was designed around the principle of a literary narrative: with the progression of the storyline, a climax and a conclusion.
It was decided to place the entrance off-center: this allowed to direct visitors to the beginning of the exhibition straight away and convey the logic of the content. The central entrance to the pavilion, on the contrary, was used as the exit.
In the ‘Catastrophe’ zone, we deliberately complicated the visitors’ movement, creating a labyrinth that doesn’t make it easy to bypass this block. This element is a metaphor for the arduous journey that the Chornobyl tragedy had to become for many people.
Emotionally intense blocks were located in windowless zones, while the educational blocks such as ‘Atom’ and ‘Nature’ were placed in areas flooded with natural light. The ‘Forest’, which was the finale of the journey, was placed in the central domed hall.
We aspired to integrate our design with the shape and volume of the pavilion as much as possible. The management of the Expocentre aided in this, giving us the green light to repaint the walls and dismantle the temporary metal constructions left from a previous exhibition.
Just behind the reception stood a standard doorway that led into the exhibition space. We proposed to dismantle it completely and instead installed a plasterboard wall, which cuts through the doorway. This solution helped guide the visitors in the right direction, leading them straight into the main hall, where the exhibition begins.
During the design and installation stage of the stands, it was necessary to provide ample space for interactive elements: touch frames, tablets, VR glasses. The mobile part of the exhibition, which was to be transported to other locations later on, was made of MDF, while the rest of the structures were made of plasterboard.
The lighting concept was developed by Alight, based on our requests. For example, the ‘Catastrophe’ zone was proposed to be flooded with dramatic red lighting.
Our team was tasked with designing the space for the exhibition. It was important to coherently plan the visitors’ route, helping them reflect on the historical events and fully immerse themselves into the atmosphere of the time.
The goal was to zone the pavilion according to the conceptual blocks of the exhibition: starting with the information block which focused on the events of 1986, and ending with the ‘Forest’ – a zone with living plants, which symbolized the transformation of the Exclusion Zone into a revival zone.
To use the space efficiently, we analyzed the pavilion, carefully measuring and photographing the area, and then building a 3D model. This helped us determine sources of natural light, form compositional centers and correctly interact with the volume of the space.
Another important goal was to make the space inclusive: all zones had to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.
The main challenge of the project was its rigid timeframe. We had five weeks to analyze the space, design the concept and then construct it. This prompted us to search for solutions that could be implemented swiftly. What complicated the process was the fact that the design phase took place at the same time as the coordination of the final lists of artifacts and exhibits.
The status of an architectural landmark dictated technical limitations. Since the constructions could not be mounted on walls or fixed to the floor, we had to plan in advance how to design the stand-alone constructions with maximum stability. After closing, part of the exhibition is planned to be relocated, meaning some of the elements had to be mobile.
With quarantine regulations in mind, the stands had to be spaced in such a way that would allow for social distancing.
The exhibition unites seven narrative blocks: ‘1986’, ‘Catastrophe’, ‘Prometheus’, ‘Atom’, ‘People’, ‘Nature’ and ‘Today, Tomorrow’.
The first block – ‘1986’ – is an excursion into the events of that time in Ukraine and the world.
Next, we see the ‘Catastrophe’ block, dedicated to the city of Pripyat and the Chornobyl disaster. It was decided to block the pathway between this zone and the central hall, leaving just a small window overlooking the living forest, as if peering into the future.
At the end of the block stands a six-metre model of the sculpture ‘Prometheus’ – the symbol of Pripyat. Its stylized silhouette, created by designer Sergii Holtvyansky, is made of polyfoam with the image printed on PVC.
As we pass by ‘Prometheus’ and through a screen, we find ourselves in a space with large windows. The transition between blackout zones and zones with natural light conveys the feeling that life goes on even after tragedy.
The educational block combines two parts: ‘Atom’ talks about atomic energy, and ‘Nature’ – about the Chornobyl nature reserve.
At the center of the hall we see a wooden ‘house’. It’s a momentous exhibit, which tells the story of the people whose lives were changed by the catastrophe: it records the stories of the liquidators and their relatives, station workers, those who were forced to leave their homes, and those born in the year of the tragedy. We wanted the audience to subconsciously absorb the imagery of the house, yet tried our best not to make it bland and too on the nose. We settled on a design with a non-standard configuration and a cut roof, which symbolizes the rift in the lives of families affected by the disaster. The "house" has two private rooms where visitors can share their own stories about the Chornobyl tragedy.
Behind another screen stands a hall with wooden benches, where lectures and film screenings are held. The domed ceiling, reminiscent of the reactor lid, holds a projection of the Chornobyl Zone logo, which is designed to gradually disappear. For maximum darkness in this area, we used blackout curtains.
The ‘Today, tomorrow’ block prompts a discussion about the future of Chornobyl. The exhibit is summed up by a projection of Pink Floyd’s ‘Marooned’ music video.
The exhibition concludes with ‘Forest’ – a symbol of nature reborn even after the catastrophe. Our team’s task was to design the green zone so that it would become a place one would want to engrave in their memory.
Planters containing the trees were hidden under a metal framework, and a false floor was constructed for the moss.
In the middle of the forest stands a bridge, crossing which you can fully immerse yourself into the atmosphere of the nature reserve. Round benches were placed under the trees, allowing visitors to rest and contemplate the journey taken.
The project ‘Chornobyl. Journey’, the concept and realization of which was headed by communication agency Gres Todorchuk, became the first experience of scenography for balbek bureau. Our team was thrilled to participate in a new format and have the opportunity to channel our experience and creative potential into this exciting project.
It was valuable for us to join a large team of like-minded people: curators, content creators, historians, scientists – all have made incredible efforts to share their vision of the Chornobyl disaster with a broad audience. We had the honor of implementing our very first government commissioned project, joining an initiative that will help reevaluate Ukrainian history moving forward.
Architecture Firm: balbek bureau
Architects: Slava Balbek, Vitalina Hoshovska, Anastasiia Partyka, Sofia Hupalovska, Sasha Martyniuk, Alyona Tryhub, Anastasiia Vinidiktova, Liuba Myronchuk, Anastasiia Romaniv Product Designers: Serhii Havrylov, Alina Vovkotrub
Procurement Manager: Daryna Ignatyieva
Project Managers: Tetiana Romas, Anton Lebediev