As bombs fall in Lviv, prof fears for campus he helped build

Eight weeks ago, students at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv were busy with their studies, enjoying in-person classes again and looking forward to things returning to normal.

Today, the UCU campus, located on the border of Poland in the westernmost part of Ukraine, has quickly become a major supply hub and sanctuary for displaced refugees fleeing bombs and invading Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

Associate professor of architecture Gerald Gast has been monitoring the situation closely from Portland. Not only does he have friends, colleagues and family in Ukraine, but since 2008, campus construction of the five new buildings that make up the UCU campus near Stryiskyi Park have been the focus of an ongoing master design project with graduate students involved in the UO’s Urban Projects Workshop in the College of Design.

Founded in 2002, the program provides advanced UO architecture students with opportunities for immersion in research, public architecture and urban design projects.  

“We have two new beautiful residence halls, and they are stuffed with refugees,” Gast said. “Many of the students are also in there, but some of them have gone home to help their parents. The other buildings on campus, including their beautiful new library, have been turned into collections centers for emergency supplies, and they are sorting supplies and getting ready in case of a future attack.”

To date, more than 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes and resettled elsewhere; some 500,000 of them have poured into Lviv. Some classes at UCU continue via Zoom, but many students and faculty have left the campus, and the ones who have stayed behind have volunteered to feed, house, and help displaced and injured refugees.

Lviv had been largely spared from the Russian assault until last month, when a warehouse was bombed. On April 18, missiles struck again, killing seven people, the first reported deaths in the city, and injuring 11 others. As of this writing, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army continues to devastate eastern Ukraine as it inches closer to Lviv and other cities in the west.

“They live with this every day, not knowing when or where the next missile is going to fall,” Gast said.

When Gast first visited Lviv in 2014, the 13-acre campus site was a blank slate, but over the past 14 years, five new buildings have been completed.

“When we started this, I said this will be about a 25-year effort,” he said. “We’re probably 40 percent finished in terms of the physical buildings, but we have another eight more or so to go.”

Identifying more with Poland and Western concepts, UCU is a Catholic college with a humanitarian mission that offers its students a broad, liberal arts education.

“In these past 14 years it has changed so much, become so much free, become so much more Western; more businesses opening up and it has really blossomed,” Gast said.

Still, it has not been that long since Ukraine was under Russian control. Gast said the students at UCU don’t remember, but their parents do. They don’t have to imagine what life will be like if the Russians are successful; they’ve lived it.

“Ukraine got its independence from the Soviet Union about 1992, so for the last 30 years they have been a free, independent country, at peace,” Gast said. “All of a sudden, in one month, the lives of everyone have been uprooted. You can imagine if you were a student at the UO and your country was attacked and you’ve never experienced war. This is a life-changing event.”

Meanwhile, the campus building project is on hold at least until the fall, but students at UCU have been sending videos to Gast every week documenting the continuing war. And if the unthinkable should happen and the campus is destroyed, Gast said, of course they will rebuild.

“It’s hard to talk about building a new campus, but life will go on,” he said. “I’m confident that Ukraine will not only survive but thrive after this. The war has brought people together, and at the local level at our university they’re even more intensely unified and committed now."

—By Sharleen Nelson, University Communications