VKhuTEMAS: A Russian Laboratory of Modernity. Architectural Designs 1920-1930 at the Gropius Bau in Berlin

Lubov Popova, Abstract composition, 1921, oil on canvas © The Schusev Museum of Architecture, Moscow

Originally published on Russian Art & Culture, Feb 24 2015.

The exhibition space of the Gropius Bau in Berlin gives a selective insight into the works of students and teachers at the VKhuTEMAS workshops in Moscow from the 1920s to the 1930s. Berlin is a suitable location to establish a connection between the Russian VKheTEMAS and the German Bauhaus (founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar) since it was divided into West and East until 1989. The German show is curated by Irina Chepkunova and focuses only on works of the architectural studio. The drawings exhibited in each room are accompanied by a brief introductory text to communicate the experimental nature of the works. The amount of textual formation provided is very limited, and knowledge on geometrical perspective and physics is an advantage for the visitor.

Lubov Popova, Abstract Composition, 1921, oil on canvas © The Schusev Museum of Architecture, Moscow

Similar to the VKhUTEMAS workshops for Higher Art and Technical Studies structure of eight faculties, the exhibition attempts to give an overview of the concept of teaching to convey the ideas behind the works of their students. At first the initiative of the school was to train a new generation of artists for industries and manufacturing. This idea was in line with some of the teachers’ personal views, since they lived according to this understanding of themselves as artists: art and architecture was supposed to take on an active role in society by designing and erecting a new communal urban life. In 1920, two thousand students were accepted into the state-supported school without any entrance exam. They were enthusiastic to learn from their teachers, who are today considered as the Russian avant-garde at that time. It was possible for the students to receive an interdisciplinary education with such obligatory elements as surface, sculpture and space included in the first two years. Practical teaching was conducted with textiles, wood, metal, ceramics, prints, paint, plastics, and lessons in architecture were also offered. El Lissitzky, Naum Gabo, Moisei Ginzburg, Gustav Klutsis, Vasily Kandinsky, Nikolai Ladovsk, Alexander Melnikov, Lyubov Popova, Alexander Rodchenko, Alexei Shchusev, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Vesnin were responsible for the teaching and for the direction of the new school – and all of this only three years after the October Revolution took place.

Wesnin A., Abstract Composition, 1922, paper, ink, brush © The Schusev Museum of Architecture, Moscow

The way the exhibition presents selective works of VKhUTEMAS gives the impression that the students were mainly educated in geometrical drawing and in creating visual effects by using colours, and that there was an emphasis on intellectual training to respond to and to submit proposals to official building projects. But in fact, the VKhUTEMAS workshops offered more than that to their students; the visitor should have a look at the works of different workshops and in different media. After the first room of the exhibition space has visually introduced the visitor to some study drawings of the teachers and of some students, the second room is devoted to Kriniski’s class “Colour and Form“. By drawing and experimenting with colours he taught his students what we would today associate with Russian constructivism. Looking at the works of the teacher placed alongside with their students works, one is able to understand the close relationship between them. The similarities of their works are striking.

Krinski W., Experimental methodological study for “colour and spatial composition“, 1921, paper, pencil, gouache © The Schusev Museum of Architecture, Moscow
Burow A., Study work at the Moscow Institute of Civil Engineers, Lighthouse in a port, Side view, sketch, 1922, pencil, ink © The Schusev Museum of Architecture, Moscow

The study drawing shows that students had to be familiar with the basic laws of physics, otherwise they were not able to make realistic architectural studies. But even though these technical works convey artistic and scientific skills on paper, the majority of their architectural efforts did turn into nothing of materialist nature and many of the works went straight into the private archives of the makers and later on into public ones. Finding jobs after graduating from the practically oriented school also turned out to be difficult for many, since Russian constructivism was replaced with Social Realism under Stalin’s stint in power from 1924 onwards. The students of the VKhuTEMAS experienced the changed socio-political environment and found themselves forced to go into other professions rather than into the arts and architecture, tells an alumnus student in the video shown at the end of the exhibition. In “The Russian Bauhaus“,a German documentary film of 1984, the same alumnus also shows some of his works and reflects upon his time at the school.

The school’s architectural projects were very ambitious in terms of size and effort required from their students. Especially proposals for the International Red Stadium (Moscow) at the end of the 1920s were very ambitious. None of the submitted projects made it into reality. In 1930, the new approach to artistic schooling and real life production at VKhUTEMAS ended during Stalin’s second five-year plan with its closure. The school’s architectural faculty was combined with the Institute for Higher Engineering and Architecture, which is know today as the Moscow Architectural Institute. Some historical architectural buildings and the approaches of modern Constructivism were replaced with the overly sweetened gingerbread style and with Social Realism by Stalin, with the aim to take complete control over the all spheres of life.

Krinsky V., News stall for the sale of propaganda materials. Elevation, 1919 © The Schusev Museum of Architecture, Moscow

But the exhibition on the architectural style of the Russian Bauhaus does not seem to have an end. The closer the visitor gets to the final room of the exhibition, the more he wants to know: where can I see these buildings in real life? After watching the video, it becomes clear: nowhere. Yet, the video leaves a melancholic incentive to go back to the very beginning of the exhibition and find out how this could happen. What could have been done differently, to prevent the work of young motivated artists from turning into utopian concepts? And how can we use this cognisance today?

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