February 19, 2015

Revolution by Design: A Soviet Equivalent of the Bauhaus Finally Gets its Due

Driving the Moscow avant-garde of the 1920’s, one school helped create design as we know it today. The Higher Artistic-Technical Workshops, usually referred to by the staccato Russian acronym VKhuTEMAS, was founded by Bolshevik government decree. Vladimir Lenin himself is reported to have visited the dormitory in 1921, inciting in the students a burning desire to search for the new at a watershed moment in history. The school is currently having its own moment in the spotlight, thanks to “VKhuTEMAS—A Russian Laboratory of Modernity” at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin through April 6.

VKhuTEMAS has been compared, in its interdisciplinary teaching methods and its zeal, to the Bauhaus, founded in Weimar, Germany, by architect Walter gropius. That makes a german venue named for his great-uncle a fitting destination for the exhibition, an expanded version of an earlier one at Moscow’s Schusev State Museum of Architecture. The 250 works document the role of world-famous names such as Wassily Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Konstantin Melnikov, and Alexander Rodchenko, who all taught at the school. But the roster is also rich in figures not as familiar in the West, exceptional in their own right as teachers and students of a philosophical movement that produced both very concrete results and unrealized architectural fantasies. “VKhuTEMAS was also the only art institute in Moscow during the russian Civil War, the only available place to work for many artists and architects,” curator Irina Chepkunova explains.

The curriculum and methodology at VKhuTEMAS, as traced in the exhibition, drew from the practical assignments and fierce debates that were central to the creative associations of the time.“The teaching method was revolutionary, like everything then,” Chepkunova says. In a program of study that was a forerunner to 21st-century core curricula, students were required, regardless of their specialty, to spend the first two years in a general program. Architects taught the study of space, sculptors the study of volume. Students had to address conceptual questions. What is a construction? What is a composition? In each case, assignments were very abstract, such as illustrating heaviness and lightness.

Nikolai Ladovsky, a dreamer, was the author of the school’s interdisciplinary program, and archives compiled by his assistant, instructor Vladimir Krinsky, were eventually donated by his family to the Schusev. (That they even survived is in many ways miraculous, because those of other seminal VKhuTEMAS figures disappeared, for example during the second World War.) “As the founder of Soviet Russia’s first avant-garde architectural group, the Association of New Architects, or ASNOVA, Ladovsky is considered the leader of rationalism,” Chepkunova says. “But it wasn’t very rational. For example, the rationalists ‘calculated’ how much psychological energy it takes for a person to understand and evaluate buildings. Rationalism was much more of an emotional understanding of architecture, unlike constructivism.”

Another difference between rationalism and constructivism, according to Chepkunova, was the number of buildings completed. Rationalists finished very few. For example, Ladovsky led a group of students in designing and personally working on the construction of the international red stadium—which promptly ran out of funding. The sketches and plans, however, were shown at the “Exposition Internationale Des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” in Paris, where the project received a gold medal. So did the VKhuTEMAS teaching methodology itself, indicating how integrated the school was in the architectural discourse of the day.“ There were also close ties between VKhuteMAS and the Bauhaus,” Chepkunova adds. “Bauhaus architects wrote articles for the VKhuTEMAS magazine Contemporary Architecture, which was published in both Russian and German.”

In 1927, VKhuTEMAS was renamed the Higher Artistic-Technical Institute, or VKhUTEIN—the word institute, as opposed to workshops, stressing the importance of the applied arts, a requirement for soviet industry. Glory was short-lived, unfortunately. As Stalinist architectural preferences turned away from the avant-garde, toward a reconsideration of classical forms, the school was disbanded altogether in 1930. Today, VKhuTEMAS lives on in courses at the Moscow Architectural Institute. “Teachers here definitely know about it,” Chepkunova says, expressing gratification, mixed with surprise, at the world wide interest in the berlin exhibition. “It’s hard to say how it will inspire those who see it for the first time.”

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