Extraordinary in its breadth and depth, Anna Bokov’s new book celebrates the lasting legacy of the visionary Russian avant-garde school Vkhutemas, finally taking it out the shadow of its German counterpart Bauhaus.
Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, a massive re-education campaign swept Soviet Russia. Lenin’s government, devoted to educating the masses of the newly empowered proletariat, created the Higher Art and Technical Studios, collectively known as Vkhutemas, in 1920. This school was dedicated to turning out professional creatives for the modern industry through an advanced and highly interdisciplinary artistic and technical curriculum. The school’s legacy was short-lived following its abrupt shutdown by Stalin’s government in 1930, yet, despite a century of obscurity, its historical and pedagogical impact remains deep.
In Avant-Garde as Method: Vkhutemas and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920–1930, architect and historian Anna Bokov explores Vkhutemas’ history, unique pedagogy, and complicated legacy. Utilizing an incredibly extensive assemblage of archival research including works and publications from Vkhutemas faculty and students, Bokov analyzes and deciphers key texts and images of these avant-garde protagonists. Looking further, the book explores the conceptual relationship between Vkhutemas’ pedagogy and Modernism, raising valuable and fundamental questions in design education that, relevantly, seek to reframe the classroom as a laboratory. The book is the first comprehensive study of Vkhutemas in English.
What follows is an excerpt from chapter three, “Pedagogy: Teaching As Experiment,” which examines the core curriculum of Vkhutemas in relation to the Bauhaus and explores the “Space” and “Graphics” courses iconic to the program.
Prolegomena to Propaedeutics: „Stepping into the Unknown“
The ultimate mission of Vkhutemas was to develop a system of industrial education capable of training thousands of students at a time. In just the first year of 1920-21, over 2,000 students enrolled in the school. In 1922 there were 2,222 students matriculating, while in contrast the Bauhaus trained 119 students during the same period. Yet the main pedagogical objective was not only to teach a certain artistic skillset but to formulate a new aesthetic language, accessible to students of varied backgrounds and prior experience, that could be applied to design solutions for industrial production.
At both Vkhutemas and the Bauhaus the educational program progressed from the foundational training mandatory for all students to specialized disciplines elected by each student and approved by the faculty. The foundational courses at Vkhutemas, known as “propaedeutics” (propedevtika)—an introduction to any science or art—similar to the Vorkurs (literally, pre-course) at the Bauhaus, were structured as a sequence of preliminary or core exercises. Importantly, propaedeutics did not simply offer an introductory system of courses that preceded a deeper study of a subject but sought to provide an abbreviated exposition of a field of knowledge in a systematic, elementary way—in its entirety.
Vorkurs and Propaedeutics
The main pedagogical agenda of both foundational curricula—at Vkhutemas and at the Bauhaus—went beyond aesthetics to include practical, hands-on experience by working with materials and making physical objects. According to Gropius’s famous curriculum diagram of 1922, the Vorkurs at the German school lasted one semester and included the “elementary study of form, study of materials in the foundational workshop” (Elementare Formlehre, Materiestudien in der Vorwerkstatt). The Vorkurs, similarly to Vkhutemas’s propaedeutics, went through several distinct phases: from Johannes Itten who taught in 1919-22, to László Moholy-Nagy with Josef Albers who replaced Itten in 1923, and finally to Albers alone, who started teaching the course after Moholy-Nagy departed in 1928 and continued until the school’s closure in 1933.
The pedagogy of Moholy-Nagy and Albers can be seen as a balancing act between material experimentation and the resulting form. The systematic treatment of various materials gave way to embracing their inherent nature and letting matter find its most befitting form. A set of exercises on balance and equilibrium produced by Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus students around 1923-24 can be described as engaging the lines of force, which, while invisible, impact the formal organization of materials. The synthesis resulting from material and projected forces produced a new type of morphology, transforming passive matter into active form. The dynamic relationship between material and form is further explored in exercises by Josef Albers. While at first the “initiative” came from the materials themselves, subjected to operations such as stacking, bunching, or folding, it eventually progressed to a state where material was subordinated to form. This investigative pedagogical approach required a direct interaction with physical matter to glean possible visual and tactile properties and their place as they became protagonists in a new aesthetic paradigm. At Vkhutemas, in turn, the preliminary pedagogy was based on the “elements of art” (khudozhestvennye elementy) i.e., space, volume, color, line, which were treated as “material.” As most actual materials, including paper and wood, were scarce in Russia at the time, Vkhutemas students had to be resourceful, reusing found materials and often relying on clay, which was readily available.
Upon completing the core training, students gradually proceeded towards their specialization at one of the eight Vkhutemas departments. At the Bauhaus, according to the 1922 curriculum, students went on to take five types of classes in the process: the Study of Nature (Naturstudium), the Study of Fabrics (Lehre von den Stoffen), the Study of Space, Color, and Composition (Raumlehre, Farblehre, Kompositionslehre), the Study of Construction and Representation (Lehre der Konstruktionen und der Darstellung), and the Study of Materials and Tools (Material und Werkzeuglehre). Depending on individual ability, the students proceeded to do practical work at the Bauhaus workshops, usually completing their “apprenticeship” in about three years.
At Vkhutemas, as at the Bauhaus, there were several phases of evolution of the core curriculum: initial “laboratory” exploration (1920-23), with the Painting Department being the largest platform for experimentation; establishment of the mandatory interdisciplinary program (1923-27), with the Core Division emerging as the dominant force; further streamlining of the core training from a two- to a one-year program (1927-29); and finally, its closing in 1930. However, the foundational program at Vkhutemas was much larger than at the Bauhaus, with dozens of professors teaching various courses. For example, during the first three years, in parallel with the courses Space in Architecture and Volume in Sculpture, the following eight propaedeutic courses in painting were being taught in the Painting Department: Maximal Influence of Color by Lyubov Popova and Alexander Vesnin, Form Through Color by Alexander Osmerkin, Color in Space by Aleksandra Ekster, Color on the Plane by Ivan Klyun, Simultaneity of Form and Color by Aleksandr Drevin, Volume in Space by Nadezhda Udaltsova, a course on color by Wladimir Baranoff-Rossine, and Construction by Alexander Rodchenko. These functioned as “pedagogical laboratories” for studying the “elements of painting” and for developing “objective method,” applicable for preliminary training.
After the establishment of the interdepartmental Core Division, the search for a fundamental color discipline split into two main tracks—in the first, color was studied as a painting phenomenon and in the second as an optical one. By 1924, the head of the Core Division, Konstantin Istomin, developed the program of the “Color kontsentr,” approved by dean Favorsky, which consisted of two sets of disciplines: a more traditional painting-based and a scientifically based course on color. While the theory of color was taught by physicists and psychologists, the practical “color laboratory” studies were led by Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938). Klutsis, who was a student of Kazimir Malevich at Svomas and a graduate of Vkhutemas, taught at the school between 1924-30. His propaedeutic course on color was specifically developed to train students outside of the Painting Department, including future architects and industrial and graphic designers. One surviving selection of exercises from the course comes from sisters Vera and Nadezhda Kolpakovy, who entered Vkhutemas in 1926 initially as students in the Textile Department but transferred to Architecture shortly after. The course initially addressed fundamental aspects of color science and offered a series of exercises on spectral circles (by student Kirill Afanasiev); followed by tasks on complementary and contrasting colors, on chromatic and achromatic harmonies, on analysis of achromatic levels of materials, and on texture (faktura). As the students advanced, Klutsis’s program aimed to help them use color as an auxiliary “production material”—for example, to develop color schemes for architectural surfaces and to address relationships between color and architectural forms.
The two other foundational courses that exemplify Vkhutemas’s novel pedagogical approach are the Space course developed by Nikolay Ladovsky and his team, and the (Graphic) Construction course by Alexander Rodchenko. Both courses were conceived in the “kitchens” of Zhivskulptarkh and Inkhuk, where Ladovsky and Rodchenko worked side by side starting in 1919. These organizations stimulated what appears to be a productive dialogue—something of a “comradely” competition between peers—by meeting on a regular basis and critiquing each other’s responses to project prompts. Furthermore, the two professors were next-door neighbors, living in adjacent apartments with a shared balcony, which might have provided further opportunities for overlap. Like Ladovsky, Rodchenko was rigorous in structuring his assignments, which for him extended beyond teaching into developing a coherent theoretical position. His own work across several artistic mediums drew on pedagogical process as a clear conceptual algorithm and, moreover, was instructive in itself. Both of them deployed design pedagogy as a mode of exploration in order to shape the emerging Modernist paradigm.
One must trace the arc from theorization to eventual implementation in architectural and urban projects, as well as in industrial products, in order to fully understand the dynamic, evolving nature of the Space and Graphics courses. A factual analysis of the key assignments (zadaniya) and the resultant student exercises (uprazhneniya) attempts to navigate the uncanny mechanisms of the relationship between the instructions and their materialization in the work often produced in three dimensions Codas. At the center of this investigation is the study model as a primary working method and a pedagogical tool—crucial to Ladovsky’s psychoanalytical method—along with Rodchenko’s Constructivist methodology founded on the “initiative” of form, starting with his own artistic experiments with Spatial Constructions.
Space at the United Studios and at the Core Division
Conscious of the conservative opposition from the classically biased senior faculty, Ladovsky, together with his colleagues Dokuchaev, Krinsky, and Efimov, set up the United (Left) Studios, known as Obmas (short for Ob’edinennye Masterskie), in the fall of 1920. As an independent unit within the Architecture Department at Vkhutemas, it strategically ensured a degree of autonomy apart from the department head Ivan Zholtovsky (1867-1959)—a devout Renaissance scholar, who promoted the so-called “living classicism” (zhivaya klassika) as a dominant direction in Russian architecture. This status allowed the Rationalist faculty to methodically develop their own pedagogical approach, which drew on contemporary achievements in art and science, rather than the styles of the past. As El Lissitzky asserts:
[This] group of young professors […] succeeded in constituting an autonomous department in the faculty of architecture at the academy (Vkhutemas) in Moscow. Here they had the benefit of the scientific apparatus of a modern university and could rely on gifted young students, devoted to their work, so something new started to happen.
Traditional training in the academy would typically start out by letting the students draw fragments of historical examples and learn components of an order before moving on to working on architectural projects. In other words, after copying exemplary works of architecture, the so-called uvrazhi, students would go on to doing integrated designs from the very start. At the beginning these would be simplified—e.g., a pavilion or a gardener’s hut in the park—but eventually move on to more integrated problems—e.g., a diploma project such as “a palace of a Russian ambassador in Italy” or an advanced project for a villa or a museum, executed in a certain historical style. Rationalists, on the other hand, started not by assigning a concrete project but by breaking down a problem into a set of constituent operations, which could be taught as design “elements.” Their “psychoanalytical” method, as discussed in the previous chapter, offered a new path for architectural education, based on invention rather than canon.
When the Rationalists started teaching in 1920, their “experiment and search did not have any precedent in architectural education,” according to Vladimir Krinsky, who describes these initial years as “stepping into the unknown, crossing the line between “old and new.” Krinsky’s own experimental studies on “spatial composition” at Zhivskulptarkh, at Inkhuk, and at Vkhutemas are a testament to this creative and methodological leap. He writes:
The schematic quality and incompleteness of the student assignments were balanced by the enthusiasm and a sense of composition of both teachers and students. The theoretical positions were being refined with experience.
The traditional Beaux-Arts model—i.e., learning by copying—was no longer feasible in the context of the new pedagogical model. Instead, the new student work itself would serve as a precedent for the next round of exercises. Ladovsky’s teaching, for the most part, was done verbally, in writing, or through sketching, rather than by referring to historical examples. He wanted the students to discover and invent by themselves, recalling the pragmatist “learning-bydoing” dictum. Given the condition of paradigmatic change in architecture, of which Rationalists were the agents, showing students any precedents might have limited their free-flowing creativity. The written and verbal assignments, on the other hand, established an objective framework that was—at least in theory—removed from the instructor’s immediate participation, eventually facilitating the design training of an unprecedented number of students.
The course (distsiplina) on “abstract forms”—Space—originated at Obmas, which can be considered the first experimental laboratory for teaching modern architecture in an institutional setting. It is important to note that while architecture studio was the primary focus of education, it was taught alongside other subjects, most notably sculpture. The body of student work produced in the United Studios between 1920 and 1923 constituted an important milestone towards advancing modern architecture, as demonstrated by one of the earliest photographs of an exhibition of student work from the Space course. Obmas counted about eighty students in total, split between four instructors. On average, the students worked on four exercises per semester. Given that each of the students produced at least one version, it would mean that there were 320 iterations made each semester, and over 640 per academic year. Three years into Obmas’s existence, Vkhutemas authorities established the Core Division “with the task to provide general artistic training to all the incoming students of all eight departments.” This radically expanded the mandate of the Space course from a purely architectural discipline to an interdisciplinary one.
Obmas educated a diverse range of students, some with no previous training and others who had to defer their studies as a result of World War I, the Revolution, and the Civil War. While most students who were in school before these upheavals had to restart their training, some of the older ones proceeded directly to their diploma projects. Ladovsky drew the first team of instructors to teach Space on a school-wide level from this advanced group. In the fall of 1923, he recommended seven of his students as instructors for the newly formed Core Division. These were Viktor Balikhin, Sergey Glagolev, Mikhail Korzhev, Ivan Lamtsov, Viktor Petrov, Yuri Spassky, and Mikhail Turkus. Only Balikhin (1893-1953) had received his diploma in 1924, while the rest of the instructors continued their studies at the Architecture Department for several more years simultaneously while teaching. These young professionals also joined the ranks of the Association of New Architects (Asnova), founded the same year, in July 1923. The simultaneity of teaching, research and collective practice allowed for a productive dialogue between experimental pedagogical approaches and innovative professional applications.
The core curriculum gradually became both more comprehensive and streamlined in order to accommodate students from other departments. For instance, a series of new abstract exercises was added, particularly on the articulation of surface (poverkhnost’) for students in Painting, Graphics, and Textiles. While at Obmas every abstract exercise was immediately followed by an applied or a production one (proizvodstvennoe), in the Core Division the teaching program focused exclusively on “formal attributes of the arts: architecture–space, sculpture–volume, painting–color.” The main goal of the Core Division was the “mastery of foundations of composition” in these areas. In the first phase of the Space core curriculum’s existence, up until 1926, abstract exercises took up the entire first year and a portion of the second. It was not until the second semester of the second year that the students would work through the same themes by means of concrete productive tasks with an eye towards applying such exercises to each student’s future specialization, e.g., Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics, or Architecture. This approach was not without its challenges and was later criticized for its arbitrary “formalist” nature, requiring Vladimir Krinsky, who promptly succeeded Rodchenko as head of the Core Division, to concede that the order of exercises was “backward.” “The task was sort of set upside down,” he stated, a “[f]unctional solution was being fitted to a formal one.”
To appreciate the scale of this undertaking, it is worth noting that within the Core Division there were on average about 450 students per year spanning two years (and later consolidated into one year). If each of them worked on four Space assignments each semester, that meant that over 1,800 models were being produced—adding up to about 3,600 models each year. The correlation between the large number of students and the prolific iterative production in a classroom setting accelerated the search for new aesthetics and contributed to an emerging Modernist paradigm in Soviet Russia and beyond. Student work from the Space course, and particularly from the Obmas period, was featured in some of the most important international period publications, including Adolf Behne’s Der moderne Zweckbau (The Modern Functional Building) and ABC: Beiträge zum Bauen (ABC: Contributions to Building) edited by El Lissitzky, Mart Stam, and others.
Excerpted from Avant-Garde as Method: Vkhutemas and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920–1930 by Anna Bokov. Copyright © 2020 by Anna Bokov. Reprinted by permission of Park Books.
Cover image: Nadezhda Kolpakova. Student exercise Color Solution for Architectural Volume for the second-year Color course taught by Gustav Klutsis at Vkhutemas. Moscow, 1928–29. © MARKhI Museum, Moscow
Footnotes have been omitted.