The decantation chamber of Soviet modernism: VKhUTEMAS projects from the 1920s

Academic Conferences in the VKhUTEMAS

Iakov A. Kornfel’d
Sovremennaia arkhitektura
No. 5-6, 1926. Pgs. 135-137

In November each faculty in the VKhUTEMAS had a conference and set itself the following aims:

  1. to establish direct links between the school and its main “consumers,” i.e. the state economic organizations and soviet society;
  2. to sort out the faculty’s own program;
  3. to take note of practical shortcomings in their training of specialists and to discuss proposals for correcting the teaching program appropriately, and to look at the ideological make-up of their curriculum.

The conference in the Architecture Faculty took place on Thursday 18 November. The first session attracted 70 percent of those invited. VKhUTEMAS Rector P.I. Novitskii was elected chairman and spoke on the change taking place in the social context of our lives, with its requirement that we give form to the new way of life and solve architectural tasks of a vast scale in the fields of social, industrial, and housing construction.

Dean of the Architecture Faculty I.V. Rylskii then reported on the academic life of the faculty and on the structure of the curriculum. He noted that of the 70 students who have left the school in the three graduating classes completing the whole course since the Revolution, only one has remained on the unemployment list at the Labor Exchange — which shows that architects emerging from here really are being trained to meet today’s practical requirements.

Academician A.V. Shchusev spoke in his lecture of the opposing views current with us today about the architect’s proper role. The first view holds, he said, that the architect must be an engineer, since the economic condition of the country does not permit us luxuries, and so any elements of decoration or ‘beauty’ must be regarded as superfluous to the tasks of construction.

The second maintains that the architect’s role is precisely to embellish the constructive scheme worked out by the engineer, but this requires supplementary means which at the present time we do not have.

Both of these opinions, he said, are unfounded, as the correct view is that the architect’s work must always correspond to the economic solution of the task. In organizing space, which is the main task of the architect, it is necessary to have the capacity to think spatially, and that is what permits the architect at all times to become the organizer of construction. A good solution is also a beautiful solution, since beauty is inseparable from the right spatial and volumetric solution of the task. Also inalienably beautiful is our conception of the joy of life to which humanity is aspiring, and it must always be one of the fundamental tasks of architecture to satisfy this aesthetic sensibility of humanity.

The second speaker was Professor N.V. Dokuchaev, who spoke about the organization of courses in the theory of architecture, and of the research institute. Points were made during the discussions by representatives of AKhRR [Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia, a doctrinaire realist organization], of ASNOVA, and OSA.

Architect Sukhanov, speaking in the name of AKhRR, concentrated his criticism on the ideological line of VKhUTEMAS architecture, being convinced of the necessity to return to the classic traditional models.

The ASNOVA representative, architect Lamtsov said that architecture has a right of existence since it is not something that costs a lot of money. Architects Burov and Kornfel’d gave greetings to VKhUTEMAS from OSA and the journal SA, noting the vast revolutionary role of VKhUTEMAS in creating a new understanding of architecture.

The second day was devoted to work of two sections, on academic aspects of both artistic and technical sides of the curriculum, hearing lectures and preparing resolutions on them. The technical section examined the curriculum in detail, and found it in general to correspond to the faculty’s requirements. It noted the necessity for strengthening the use of seminar and laboratory sessions in a number of subjects.

The sections did not support the view of comrade Bekker, the representative of Glavprofobr (Chief Committee for Professional and Technical Training), who in the first plenum had proposed a significant reinforcement of the faculty’s technical curriculum.

The modern condition of technology forces the technologist to pursue the path of a broader scientific differentiation, advancing both the organizational methods and the practical work.

The second plenum adopted all proposals of the scientific and technical sections without discussion, including the resolutions on the lectures of professors Rylskii and Lakhtin in the first plenum and of Professor Ladovskii on tasks of the research institute being established in the faculty. Also accepted without discussion were the arguments of Professor A.A. Vesnin’s lecture on the program for teaching freehand drawing and sketching [risovanie] in the faculty. This posed in a new way the problem of an all-round development of spatial thinking in the students and of mastering the methods of perception and communicating volume, surface, color, form. It offered a means of studying the particularly important question of the connections between internal arrangements of objects and the forms expressing this structure externally. In a teaching structure of the kind he proposed, this sort of drawing becomes an inseparable part of architectural education.

Also accepted without discussion were resolutions on the lecture of Prof L.A. Vesnin, on the methods of systematically linking tasks set in the various state economic organs. The work already done up to now on such tasks convinces us of the realism and appropriateness of this method of working, which ought to be applied more widely. In the second plenum as in the first, discussion also focused on questions of the ideology of modern architecture, in this case in relation to the lecture of professors Krinskii and Dokuchaev on methods of teaching on the 1st and 2nd years, in the Faculty’s Basic Course, and of linking the programs of these years to the work of students in the 3rd year. At the present time the teaching on the first two years is conducted by architects who are members of ASNOVA. Their teaching method is based on studying form from the point of view of its independent existence and perception. The result of this is to isolate form from the functional aims of the object being designed and from its constructive and technical essence. In reality the study of the ‘foundational disciplines’ of volume, space, color, mass, weight, scale, etc., leads to complete abstraction and is perceived by the students as canons of a new metaphysical understanding of space quite removed from real life.

OSA members who spoke in the discussion contrasted this method of abstract formal study to the method of building up a design organically on materialist principles, i.e. the method of functional thinking, which establishes elements of the form in response to specific concrete preconditions.

Only under these conditions can we eliminate that gulf of which the lecturers were speaking, between the first two years’ courses and the later ones.

3 thoughts on “The decantation chamber of Soviet modernism: VKhUTEMAS projects from the 1920s

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