Anna 1 2

Anna Bokov

April 15, 2021

—How did you get inter­est­ed in doing your book, Avant-Garde as Method: Vkhutemas and the Ped­a­gogy of Space: 19201930”?

I became inter­est­ed in Vkhutemas [pro­nounced f‑KHOOthe-mahss] as an archi­tec­ture stu­dent, when I first stud­ied the oth­er side of the avant-garde move­ment in Rus­sia, which had this explo­sive ped­a­gog­i­cal out­put and facil­i­tat­ed the birth of mod­ern archi­tec­ture and design. The school remains prac­ti­cal­ly unknown out­side of the Russ­ian cul­tur­al sphere and, even in Rus­sia, it is not real­ly known or under­stood. My book is the first com­pre­hen­sive pub­li­ca­tion on the school in English. 

While I focus on archi­tec­ture ped­a­gogy, from the core cur­ricu­lum to diplo­ma projects, I cov­er the over­all his­to­ry of the school and dis­cuss oth­er dis­ci­plines, includ­ing tex­tiles, graph­ic and indus­tri­al design, which were all a part of this new syn­thet­ic edu­ca­tion­al mod­el. The mis­sion of my project was to make the school — its lega­cy and ideas — acces­si­ble to the larg­er glob­al audience. 

—Can you sum­ma­rize what the Vkhutemas was about?

Vkhutemas was not sim­ply an edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion, in a tra­di­tion­al sense; it was explic­it­ly set up to change the order of things as they were aes­thet­i­cal­ly, spa­tial­ly, phys­i­cal­ly, and con­cep­tu­al­ly. Its mis­sion was to cre­ate a new lifestyle, to build a new world. It was a lab­o­ra­to­ry of the avant-garde and an incu­ba­tor of Modernism. 

In a typ­i­cal edu­ca­tion­al set­ting, exist­ing knowl­edge is being passed on from teacher to stu­dent. But in the case of Vkhutemas (and the Bauhaus of course) that edu­ca­tion­al process was bi-direc­tion­al and ven­tured beyond the lim­its of cur­rent­ly defined knowl­edge. In fact, it was more of an exchange, which served as a means of pro­duc­ing new knowl­edge. Vkhutemas demon­strat­ed that edu­ca­tion is about har­ness­ing a col­lec­tive genius more than any­thing else. It showed that a fer­tile edu­ca­tion­al set­ting can indeed func­tion as a time machine of sorts, trans­port­ing us into the future.

—If you were to com­pare the Ger­man Bauhaus and what hap­pened in the Sovi­et Union, what dif­fer­ences would you find?

Like the Bauhaus, Vkhutemas was an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary school. The Sovi­et school was more than ten times larg­er in terms of stu­dent and fac­ul­ty pop­u­la­tion, result­ing in a much more com­plex and plu­ral­ist insti­tu­tion with many com­pet­ing voic­es. The oth­er sig­nif­i­cant dis­tinc­tion was a con­cep­tu­al one. The Vkhutemas man­date was to edu­cate not just indi­vid­u­als but the mass­es, and can be con­sid­ered the first coher­ent attempt to devel­op a mass edu­ca­tion­al mod­el for mod­ernist archi­tec­ture and design, which was based on the so-called objec­tive method” rather than indi­vid­ual mas­tery. Also, Vkhutemas aimed to train spe­cial­ists for mod­ern indus­try,” while the Bauhaus ini­tial­ly was focused on craft and shift­ed towards indus­try a few years later. 

—What role do tex­tiles play in your research?

Tex­tiles were among the most fas­ci­nat­ing visu­al mate­ri­als that I dis­cov­ered. One of the biggest rev­e­la­tions was the work of Lydia Mayakovskaya (poet Mayakovsky’s sis­ter) who was the first woman to hold an exec­u­tive posi­tion at a major tex­tile fac­to­ry in Moscow. She devel­oped her own tech­nique of aerog­ra­phy, where there is a spe­cial way of apply­ing col­or to fab­ric with a spray­ing gun and sten­cil pat­terns. The final effect is both struc­tured and organ­ic, and the col­ors flow and blend in unique ways, recall­ing pat­terns found in nature with­out copy­ing it.

Tex­tiles at Vkhutemas dif­fered from the Bauhaus in that the stu­dents worked on designs that could be mass pro­duced and focused on learn­ing the indus­try at local fac­to­ries rather than focus­ing on weav­ing indi­vid­ual tapestries. 

—Were you able to inter­view any of the stu­dents who attend­ed the school? Did any of them become well known or were they forgotten??

Most Vkhutemas stu­dents and teach­ers belonged to a gen­er­a­tion that dis­ap­peared before me. Many died dur­ing Stalin’s time in the 1940s and 50s, some made it to the 1970s, and very few sur­vived to see the 1990s. One of the longest liv­ing stu­dents, Lydia Komaro­va lived for 100 years (1902 – 2002) – she is a leg­end. How­ev­er, grow­ing up in a fam­i­ly of archi­tects (my grand­moth­er and my father) I met some of the for­mer stu­dents as a child – for exam­ple, Leonid Pavlov, stu­dent of Ivan Leonidov at Vkhutemas, who was one of the most impor­tant archi­tects of Sovi­et Mod­ernism (he designed Lenin’s Muse­um in Gor­ki) and remem­ber his enlight­ened optimism.

—The Ger­man Bauhaus had a huge influ­ence in the USA after World War Two. What hap­pened to the influ­ence of the Sovi­et school?

Sim­i­lar to the Bauhaus, whose fac­ul­ty and stu­dents were sud­den­ly pres­sured into hid­ing their artis­tic as well as polit­i­cal views with the arrival of the Hitler régime, Vkhutemas affil­i­ates had to embrace the new vision of total­i­tar­i­an social­ism under Stal­in and the resul­tant real­ist” par­a­digm. How­ev­er, while most of the Bauhäuslers were allowed to emi­grate, thus giv­ing them and their ideas a sec­ond life abroad (espe­cial­ly in the Unit­ed States), their Vkhutemas col­leagues were com­plete­ly cut off from the rest of the world and forced into silence for decades. Many of the stu­dents and younger fac­ul­ty were draft­ed to the front dur­ing World War II and did not make it back. Those who man­aged to sur­vive the Stal­in­ist repres­sions and war were too intim­i­dat­ed to dis­close any infor­ma­tion about their for­mal­ist” peri­od, until well into the 1960s. Vkhutemas’ after­life was very dif­fer­ent from that of the Bauhaus — result­ing in near­ly com­plete obliv­ion for sev­er­al decades. 

The school’s lega­cy con­tin­ues in var­i­ous ways. To start with, its ped­a­gog­i­cal inno­va­tions enjoyed an after­life start­ing in the late 1960s. Por­tions of the core cur­ricu­lum were revived at the Moscow Archi­tec­tur­al Insti­tute and at the Stroganov Acad­e­my of Design and Applied Arts. The Ped­a­gogy of Space” course was cap­tured in the text­book Ele­ments of Archi­tec­tur­al Spa­tial Com­po­si­tion, ini­tial­ly pub­lished in 1934, and reg­u­lar­ly reprint­ed decades lat­er. But most impor­tant­ly, Vkhutemas ideas were so pow­er­ful dur­ing the 1920s — when its stu­dent and fac­ul­ty work was pub­lished, exhib­it­ed, copied, and dis­cussed in the pro­gres­sive media in Rus­sia and abroad — that its real influ­ence is much larg­er than we can pos­si­bly imagine.

Read Full Issue