Division by one: on Infinity According to Florian

7 december, 2023

Vlad Holovko

The Infinity According to Florian documentary was released in Kyiv cinemas. It is a movie about the Ukrainian modernist architect Florian Yuriev and his opposition against the developer who is trying to build up one of his most famous creations, the so-called Lybidska flying saucer. The movie's world premiere took place last year at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and the Docudays UA festival hosted the national premiere. The piece by director Oleksiy Radinsky received the Kinokolo award as the best documentary movie of 2022.

Infinity According to Florian can be identified as a portrait movie or even a biopic, although these genre frameworks do not entirely describe it. However, when thinking about the movie, I want to proceed from the figure of Florian Yuriev. His charisma and significance for Ukrainian modernism even led Oleksiy Radinsky to abandon his inherent ascetic techniques and stylistic attempts, going for a more classical form.

Yuriev is rather a versatile artist: architect, painter, sculptor, violinist, theorist, and teacher. In addition to the saucer, which is the main plot driver in the movie, his projects include the ground part of the Khreschatyk metro station and the iconic restaurant above it, as well as the former coat of arms of Kyiv. 

Florian Yuriev in his workshop. Screenshot from the Infinity According to Florian movie.

The “man of tough fate” tag fits our hero perfectly. Born to a geneticist in a Soviet concentration camp in Siberia, he also ends up in a concentration camp at a young age. However, due to his talents, he makes a deal with the repressive apparatus and eventually studies in Kyiv, which became his hometown. During the Khrushchev Thaw, Yuriev managed to design several modernist buildings and developed his synesthetic theory of color and sound. Later, he once again experienced the disfavor of the system, lost both daughters and became excluded from artistic and academic communities for a decade.

These biography fragments are just background in the movie. They only appear in some situational references Yuriev provides himself. The director does not concentrate on Yuriev's past, nor does he artificially reinforce the audience's attitude toward the protagonist with such notes. The focus is on the present and on the 90-year-old artist who is fighting for his legacy.
Color painting by Florian Yuriev. Screenshot from the Infinity According to Florian movie.
Yuriev's saucer is one of the prominent examples of the second wave of Ukrainian modernism of the Soviet era. Agenty Zmin NGO chose it as a symbol of Lybidska station on the modern Kyiv metro map. Activists and the community recognize it and stand up for its defense.

“Tarilka” (”Saucer”) and the high-rise bookcase-like building connected with it were erected as the Kyiv Institute of Information. Today, this complex is still there as a relic of the Soviet system of education and science. However, Yuriev himself designed “Tarilka” primarily for the concert hall, which was supposed to make his idea of color music real. He also developed a system of color equivalents to notes and even letters — so-called color alphabets. He was prompted to this idea, a kind of universal color language, by the Soviet concentration camps, where, like in the Tower of Babel myth, speakers of completely different languages were imprisoned. In the concert hall inside the saucer, color was meant to be a defining and unifying element, and work with light would allow combining music with color. Officials rejected such an avant-garde idea, but the concert hall itself was constructed, and, in terms of acoustic parameters, it was one of the best spaces across Ukraine.

I grew up nearby and, as a child, marveled at this building, an alien neighbor of yellow taxi buses and featureless kiosks. Until recently, only a small group of specialized researchers had an interest in it. At some critical moment, these researchers and a broader range of people managed to completely redefine the value of “Tarilka” and even find a new use for it. In 2016, an exhibition of the DE NE DE collective was held there, and later, Kyiv International, the episode of Kyiv Biennial 2017, took place. The latter events became the starting point for Yuriev and the community to confront the developer.

View of the saucer. Screenshot from the Infinity According to Florian movie.

According to the movie director Radinsky, this confrontation determined the activist nature of the movie. Its social importance is evident, yet Radinsky made it even more relevant through a plot that sometimes seems fiction. The best example is the movie’s chief antagonist, Vagif Aliyev, whose behavior seems to be a caricature of a typical developer from the capital city, a kind of Karabas Barabas (evil puppet-master from the Aleksey Tolstoy's 1936 book The Golden Key, or the Adventures of Buratino — tr.) who strikes terror in the architecture lovers’ hearts.

Nevertheless, he is a real person and a friend of Vitali Klitschko, holding Russian citizenship. Aliyev controls about 20% of the entire commercial area of Kyiv. He admits that a four-hour conversation with Donald Trump changed his life and confirmed the entrepreneurial rule: “One should engage in real estate when the blood flows.”

Vagif Aliyev’s distinctive feature is his gigantism: Yuriev is horrified by his desire to build the tallest building in Kyiv. If only Alieyev’s dreams remained dreams! The three tallest skyscrapers in the city are Aliyev's achievements: he first set a record with his Parus business center, then broke it with Gulliver Mall, and concluded the triad with a 47-story tower near the Klovska metro station. UNESCO even demanded the demolition of this monstrosity as it spoils the view of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Personally, I would like to add that this is not the only ruined landscape, as the building is visible from numerous city locations.

Aliyev is going to build the next architectural monster around “Tarilka” and turn it into a bizarre entrance lobby to the Ocean Mall, the second construction phase of his nearby Ocean Plaza. As the construction expands and approaches the building, activists sound the alarm and call on Yuriev to take advantage of his status as the author of the building. Imagine Don Quixote going into battle not against windmills but against real wicked knights, vastly superior in strength and number of men. Young allies coming to the aid of the noble hidalgo — architects Oleksiy Bykov, Oleksandr Burlaka, and Radinsky himself with his relentless camera on.

Florian Yuriev and architect Oleksiy Bykov looking at the construction of the Ocean Mall shopping center. Screenshot from the Infinity According to Florian movie.

Infinity According to Florian is not Radinsky’s first work to capture “Tarilka” and Yuriev. The remarkable building is one of the recurring observation objects in his experimental Circulation, but then, there is also the Facade Color: Blue — basically a short version of Infinity According to Florian. Blue is Vagif Aliyev's favorite color, which he wanted to paint “Tarilka” in. This conflict emphasis intentionally put in the title emphasizes the nature of the movie — film researcher Alyona Penzii called it a “horror documentary” at the time. This sense of horror is also present in the full-length Infinity…, but at the same time, with his life-affirming hope, Yuriev inspires everything around him.

The architect sets himself the goal of living to the age of 90, already knowing that cancer is increasingly affecting his body. He is aware of the irreversibility of death. Still, he is not ready to give up his life until he finishes all his plans: the last violin, a personal exhibition, and an autobiography. And the most crucial thing is defending the “Tarilka.”

Despite Yuriev's physical weakness, Vagif Aliyev does not underestimate his opponent. The businessman involves insidious diplomacy in addition to the usual construction actions, such as dismantling the interior and working without an approved plan. He agrees to meet Yuriev, calls him his teacher, and invites him to have a joint lunch. He keeps asking to be photographed with the author of the building he's about to devour, like a hunter posing next to wounded rare prey.

The juxtaposition of Yuriev and Aliyev is highlighted artistically through matching the scenes of creativity and construction. Room views of Yuriev carving a violin or displaying his musical inventions are interrupted by establishing shots of pouring concrete, welding fittings, and moving of a tower crane.

Flying Saucer. Screenshot from the Infinity According to Florian movie.

Looking for a middle ground between them, we will come across scenes of negotiations. Here, in addition to the already mentioned Aliyev and Yuriev and his constant companions, who called themselves “Florian's witnesses,” there are also some other peculiar secondary characters appearing. In one scene, Yuriev speaks with another prominent artist of his generation — Volodymyr Melnychenko. In another, architect and restaurateur Slava Balbek takes him to a meeting with Aliyev, where politician Serhii Leshchenko awaits them. Viktor Herasymenko, one of the leaders of the Save Kyiv Modernism community, quarrels with Aliyev's representatives at a meeting at the Ministry of Education and Science.

There is no less interest in the characters of the gray zone: they seem to declare their interest in preserving “Tarilka” but are uncertain, at least in terms of how to do that. The then Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine, Liliya Hrynevych, respectfully listened to Yuriev and assured him that the department would closely monitor the situation. She demands a clear project from the developer and appoints the next meeting, but she is already worried that she cannot imagine what forces they will face.

A meeting between developers and defenders of the saucer. Screenshot from the Infinity According to Florian movie.

The current Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine, Oksen Lisovyi, plays an equally important role. The then director of the Junior Academy of Sciences of Ukraine acts as a kind of mediator between the developer and the community. It was weird to hear him talking in Russian, moreover, when advocating for investing 150 million in the building of the complex. At Florian Yuriev's memorial performance in “Tarilka” during the Kyiv Biennale, for some reason, it was Lisovyi who presented the not-yet-approved reconstruction project and avoided answers about Aliyev's alleged gangster past.

Perhaps the most exciting metamorphoses took place behind the scenes with another supporting character, an architect, Vitalii Molochko. We notice him in several scenes as the author of the decision to take over the saucer by the new shopping mall. Then, Yuriev himself criticized his project and advocated restoration instead of reconstruction. Molochko has undergone incredible transformations: today, he is an ardent defender of architectural heritage. Molochko funded “Tarilka’s” roof painting and even submitted the building to the Register of Architectural Monuments. It was included there in 2020 following the Molochko project precisely. However, it kept the potential of placing food establishments there and using it for trade. Today, he is the project's author and the Presidential University's chief architect at the VDNH Expo Center in Kyiv. At the preparation stage, one of its pavilions had already been demolished to construct the above-mentioned university. After the Russian full-scale invasion, he headed the newly created Ukrainian International Institute for Reconstruction, which was designed to promote post-war reconstruction. The question arises: did the worldview and professional changes occur on a fundamental level, or was it just a modernization of the facade?

In one of the scenes, Florian Yuriev summarizes: “Architecture expresses social relations. Now they are chaotic, so chaos affects architecture as well.” His attempts to negotiate with the agents of chaos are unsuccessful. “I am an architect, your words are empty for me,” he insists. “Show me the project,” yet no one had seen one. This thoughtlessness and disorganization are tearing Kyiv apart. The most telling symptom is not the panorama of high-rise buildings but the footage of the flood that the car with Yuriev inside has to drive through. This resembles a biblical motif emphasizing the architect's image as a holy martyr.

Yuriev died at the age of 92, half a year before the full-scale invasion, which he also predicted. He even designed a coffin for himself. In March 2022, Vagif Aliyev was arrested by the Security Service of Ukraine. It seemed that at least this could save “Tarilka” from destruction. However, this story is far from being over: Aliyev has been released from custody. He continues constructing his shopping center and is going to buy the seized Russian share of the neighboring one from the state. The movie, nevertheless, reveals to us, the next “witnesses,” the fundamental formula: infinity, according to Florian, is a struggle divided by man.

Infinity According to Florian (2022; dir. Oleksiy Radinsky) will be available in cinemas until December 13, 2023.

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