—How did you get interested in doing your book, “Avant-Garde as Method: Vkhutemas and the Pedagogy of Space: 1920-1930”?
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 regime, 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.