Around a century ago, two schools of art and architecture were founded in the aftermath of war and revolution. In Germany, Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus provided a new model for twentieth-century design teaching, bringing industry, craft, and art together to create objects for the masses. Though it was hounded out of existence by the Nazis, the true success of the Bauhaus was in the fact that a number of its leading lights fled west to the USA — after a brief stop in Hampstead — where their influence was eventually immense. What happened further east, with many modernists either dying in the Second World War or giving in to Stalinism, wasn’t truly rediscovered until the 1980s. A new book by Anna Bokov, Avant-Garde as Method, aims to rectify the historiographical neglect of Vkhutemas (an acronym for ‘Higher Artistic and Technical Studios’), the post-revolutionary state art school in Moscow.
Comparisons with the Bauhaus are instructive: the German school ran from 1919 to 1933, Vkhutemas from 1920 to 1930. The schools were very much aware of each other, both were led by three directors, and both were denounced and embattled before their closures. But where the Bauhaus only ever taught a small number of dedicated students, Vkhutemas opened its doors to thousands of proletarians with no entry requirements, and more importantly, where the German school attempted to convince an existing capitalism to accept its output, the teachers and students at Vkhutemas were concerned with the absolute and fundamental remaking of everyday life.
For the Soviets, art was integral to the happiness of the masses, and Pavel Novitsky, Vkhutemas’ third director, stated: ‘Architecture is the art of the [era of] proletarian dictatorship. All other visual arts should serve it or die. It will change the face of the Earth, reconstruct everyday life, reorganise and transform our social life and work.’ But what would this mean in practice? On the one hand, it meant students designed projects for
social condensers and workers’ clubs, communal housing, and collectivist institutions, while aesthetically it meant an a priori rejection of traditional architectural training, in which the classical ‘language’ was taught through imitation of its orders and proportions.
Under the tuition of figures such as Rodchenko and Stepanova, El Lissitzky, Tatlin, Ladovsky, and Vesnin, the search was on for a new architecture for a new world, which to a large extent was to be found in the exploration of pure form. In student work simple solids appear to float, or intersect each other in impossible ways, expressing fundamental sensations such as mass or balance with a dynamic tension akin to that then being explored in abstract painting. This may look familiar now after generations of computer design, but at the time was essentially unprecedented.
Like much early Soviet ideology, there was an obsession with uncovering the ‘scientific’ basis of architectural form, and Bokov details the ways in which the new pedagogy laid claim to the status of an experimental method uncovering the deep psychological realities of spatial perception. Unfortunately, resources in the post-civil war period didn’t stretch far, and the scientistic language was almost completely aspirational, seeking rhetorical legitimacy for an aesthetic project unmoored from built reality. In a time of shortages the students’ work became more and more grandiose, culminating in Georgy Krutikov’s ‘Flying City’ (1928) — literally a blueprint for space communism — which brought forth denunciations in the press.
Bokov’s work in the archives brings to light not only the exchange and influence Vkhutemas had on the more celebrated Bauhaus, but also portrays the enthusiastic bravery of the attempts to create an egalitarian pedagogy from scratch. But the story also throws light on the present: teaching architects today is recognisably similar, and certain problems of daylight, arrangement, ventilation, ergonomics, etc., remain similar no matter the mode of production. To a large extent, the political effects of a project reside in its aesthetic expression, something that the Soviets always took exceptionally seriously.
Like at Vkhutemas, today’s students’ diploma projects often act as both a demonstration of skill and a social polemic, and these tend to be those of the left. But while the socialist Bauhaus was crushed, and Soviet radical architecture was suppressed under Stalinism, today’s students are encouraged to tackle racism, sexism, inequality, the housing crisis, the legacies of empire, climate change and so on, with the neoliberal university allowing them to explore these themes safe in the knowledge that their ability to effect this change is at a historic low. The temptation towards fantasy is always there, and it is difficult to avoid indulgence when political conditions outside are less than welcoming — but there is an energy in young architects today that more auspicious political conditions could make good use of.