Chernobyl's Palimpsestic Shelters

A Concrete Tale of Forms of Delay


  • Anna-Maria Meister KIT Karlsruhe & Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz - Max Planck Institute



Chernobyl, Concrete, Steel, Modern architecture, Cold War, History of engeneering


The more than 400,000 cubic-meters of concrete meant to contain the deadly debris of the largest nuclear accident of the 20th century in Chernobyl in the Ukraine were named “Sarcophagus” in the Western world— an architectural term describing the stone enclosure of a dead body. It would not remain the only structure built to contain the catastrophic fallout. After 1986, the supposedly ever-durable material of modern architecture started to crumble under the radiation. A new enclosure needed to take shape. In an international architecture competition held in 1992 by the Ukrainian government, an arch was chosen as “New Safe Confinement” (NSC) to keep the toxic matter sealed inside. Built from steel this time, this new shell was completed after lengthy delays in July 2019—a monument containing a brutalist radioactive ruin. Its building technology, implemented to delay leakage to protect future human generations, in turn needs those very generations precisely for its own maintenance. This article poses the many hulls of Chernobyl as architectural palimpsest: a deathly bind of matter and time, of decay, ruin, and construction in the fall-out’s ongoing aftermath. Written as history of architectural knowledge, the making space for a destructive non-human occupant (under human care) turns a seemingly straightforward architectural narrative into the story of a structure built too late to keep the world around it inhabitable.

Author Biography

Anna-Maria Meister, KIT Karlsruhe & Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz - Max Planck Institute

Anna-Maria Meister is an architect and historian and currently professor for architecture theory at KIT Karlsruhe, co-director of the saai archive, and Lise Meitner Research Group Leader at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz (KHI) - Max Planck Institute. Her work focuses on the interdependencies of processes of design and the design of processes, especially regarding their political, social, and aesthetic consequences. She holds a PhD from Princeton University, a Master’s degree from Columbia University, and was a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She is co curator of the international research project “Radical Pedagogies” and the eponymous book (2022).






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