VKhUTEMAS: The “Soviet Bauhaus”

Architectural Review

Agata Pyzik
May 8, 2015

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VKhUTEMAS was an art and technical school set up in 1920 in Moscow that saw itself as a realization of the new revolutionary government’s approach to art, and which was to become a vital part of building a new society. Often this ‘building’ was in the most literal sense: one of the chief skills taught there was architecture, next to industrial and technical design, textiles, painting and sculpture. This exhibition in Martin-Gropius-Bau focuses on the school’s architecture teaching, and on the highly interdisciplinary, experimental methods developed there by some of the greatest Russian architects of the 20th century, such as Nikolai Ladovsky, Moisei Ginsburg, and Konstantin Melnikov. They were able to produce such pioneering results by treating artistic education as part of a whole. Many of these architects were also fascinating painters. At the same time, few of VKhUTEMAS students’ boldest designs were built, and the school faced a political backlash as early as 1929.

This “Soviet Bauhaus” (as the exhibition’s subtitle has it) raises interest today not only because Constructivist luminaries such as Rodchenko, Klutsis, and Popova taught there, but also because of an emerging interest in the less explored aspects of the art of the revolutionary period. The Berlin show concentrates on the pedagogic work of teachers and usually unknown students at VKhUTEMAS, whose rarely seen work hangs next to the better-known abstract compositions of Stepanova or Rodchenko’s spatial constructions.

Given the traditionalist legacy of tsarism, these artists had first to break with the 19th century. This is visible in the early 1920s work of Nikolai Kolli, later the job architect on Corbusier’s only completed Soviet building, Tsentrosoyuz. His drawings of foliage compositions on Neoclassical architecture show how attaining Constructivist form meant learning from the past as well as its rejection. The school’s architecture faculty initially combined three threads: Neoclassicist, taught by Ivan Zholtovsky; the experimental Rationalist school, headed by Ladovsky; and a non-conformist pedagogical program led by Melnikov and Ilya Golosov, the “New Academy.” The link between classicism and Modernism is here less sharp than it’s often portrayed — there are many student drawings, which, in order to reach for new spatial forms, reach first to French visionary architects, such as Boullée and Ledoux, and develop these in an ever more stern, reduced way.

This relationship between the French Revolution and classicism is echoed in the creation of a new, atheistic, rational Soviet state and society, cherishing internationalism and heroes of modernity, in such projects as the Cathedral of International Understanding by the Rationalist and VKhUTEMAS teacher Vladimir Krinsky, or Ladovsky’s Monument to Columbus in Santo Domingo. Successive rooms show how students’ responses to extremely matter-of-fact tasks, such as “production exercise to determine and represent a form,” produced extremely varied results, bulky edifices or thin, fragile towers, coming in bright, contrasting colors, and using collage and photomontage, to establish new forms of space. Students had a lot of freedom, leading to extraordinary diploma projects such as Nikolai Sokolov’s Constructivist spa, which was envisaged to be partly under a mountain, a reminder that one of objectives of early Communism was comfort and luxury. Another final-year project is Georgi Krutikov’s Flying City, accompanied by a Surrealist photomontage predicting the space program and proving that traffic will soon become too congested and dangerous — as early as 1928!

In the end, VKhUTEMAS’ undoing was part of increasingly pragmatic late 1920s politics, which demanded its greater involvement in national industry. Although students like Ivan Leonidov attempted more utopian approaches to planning than the likes of the showcase steeltown Magnitogorsk, they were rejected. Finally, the school’s dissolution was an inevitability tied not just to the Stalinization of Soviet Russia, but to the tendency by 1930s modern architects everywhere to abandon experimentation in favor of a more bland International Style.

Student projects

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Complex frontal composition based on nuance and contrast combination of plastic and shade, using elements of rhythm

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Student exercises for the color course

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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

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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. Continue reading

The dead in living color

Chromatic modernism in
the USSR, 1920-1935

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Modernism is often criticized for its allegedly dull monochromes, the ostentatiously unpainted surfaces of its buildings and the desaturated stillness of their black-and-white photographic representation.

Part of this was intentional, for either promotional or artistic reasons. Thus one gets the rich black-and-white photos of brutalist buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, still colorless despite the availability of new technologies. As such, it’s just as much a part of brutalism’s brooding aesthetic as anything else. (Don’t believe me? Take a look through Fuck Yeah Brutalism’s archives). Or else there’s the deliberate intradisciplinary gesture, as in constructivist tekstura, which insists that the material components should be fully exposed, not concealed beneath “artificial” coloring. Either way, the naked white of plaster or the gray-on-gray of concrete, polished metal through untinted glass.

Another part was, of course, incidental. For a long time color photographs weren’t practical, and so much of early modernism’s more chromatic creations were lost to the general public — or at least, to anyone who couldn’t visit them in person. Continue reading

Leonidov’s Narkomtiazhprom [Наркомтяжпром Леонидова], 1934

Above: Ivan Leonidov

From explanatory notes to the Narkomtiazhprom competition

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Until now the architecture of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral have formed the architectural center of Moscow. It is natural that with the construction of a colossal new building on Red Square, the role of some buildings within the ensemble of this central Moscow complex will change.

I consider that the architecture of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral should be subordinated to the architecture of the Narkomtiazhprom [Commissariat of Heavy Industry], and that this building itself must occupy the central place in the city.

The architecture of Red Square and the Kremlin is a delicate and majestic piece of music. The introduction into this symphony of an instrument so strong in its sound and so huge in scale is permissible only on condition that the new instrument will lead the orchestra, and will excel over all the others in its architectural quality.

The foundations of the competition of the Narkomtiazhprom building must lie not in splendor, or in the florid trumpery of details and forms, but in simplicity, severity, harmonious dynamism, and pithiness of content. Historical motifs must be compositionally subordinated to this leading element, on the principle of aesthetic contrast.

In the project the high towers are the compositional center. Their forms are determined by both functional considerations and architectural ones, in which I include such factors as the need for a clear structure of composition, for a sense of movement, and for powerful spatiality and grandeur. The low parts of the building such as the auditorium, speakers’ tribunes, exhibition areas, and the rear building are related in heigh to the surrounding architecture, and this lower plan is assembled in a composition of lesser contrasts.

Three towers:

The first is rectangular in plan with a lightweight, openwork top, and its main elevation faces Red Square. The top is glazed with suspended terraces constructed of stainless steel.

The circular tower is conceived as a contrasting element to the first. In form and treatment it is picturesque, with balcony-like terraces on its exterior. Here the material is glazed brick, and the surface character of this unusual material is what makes it possible to achieve this integrity of form. The illumination inside the tower is diffused; visibility is resolved by the insertion of vertical windows of clear glass within the general pattern of the cladding. At night the tower will stand out with its light silhouette and barely-perceptible structural frame, and with the dark patches of the balconies.

The third tower has a complex spatial configuration on plan, while being simple and strong in elevation.

Red Square, as the focal space of the entire proletarian collective, must not cut itself off from access by this proletariat, and therefore the low parts of the building must be treated in such a way that they enter into the general idea of ideologically saturated movement in the Square.

This is achieved by placing spectator stands in the foreground.

The Square is divided into two terraces at different levels. This makes it possible to achieve new effects in military parades, such as putting the tanks onto one level and the cavalry on the other.

Even with the existing width of the Square, it is impossible to provide a good view of the Lenin Mausoleum from the GUM side, when it is used as a saluting base for Party leaders] during the parades and mach-pasts. Extension of the Square to a width of 200 meters will create even greater difficulties of visibility. But this terraced treatment of the Square will also provide good views of the Mausoleum.

The main accommodation in this project is distributed as follows:

The main foyer is located in the center of the building and illuminated from above. Entrances are provided from the new boulevard, and from Ilinka and Nikol’skaia Streets.

The polyclinic, kindergarten, creche, mechanized canteen, hotel, and library are located in the lower volume behind the spectator steps. Here too are all other forms of service accommodation.

All accommodation for the working operation of the Commissariat is located in the towers, which are interconnected by aerial walkways. The Workers’ Club faces towards Sverdlov Square, and is connected by a passageway with the main entrance foyer. The total built volume of the complex is 1,064,460 cubic meters.

Arkhitektura SSSR, 1934 № 10, pgs. 14-15

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Soviet avant-garde architectural negatives (mid-1920s to early-1930s)

Blueprint abstractions (all blueprints, really, are anticipatory abstractions) of modernist building projects by Soviet architects Ivan Leonidov, Leonid Vesnin, Aleksandr Vesnin, and Nikolai Krasil’nikov.

From Sovremennaia arkhitektura [Modern Architecture], 1930 (no. 5, pgs. 2-3):

In publishing projects for the Palace of Culture to be built on the Simonov Monastery site as discussion material, the editors of SA observe that not one of them provided a generally and entirely satisfactory solution to the problem. The arguments which have developed around these projects in the press, higher education establishments, and in public debates have mainly emphasized the design submitted by I. Leonidov, and as a result have come to assume the character of an undisguised persecution and baiting of the latter.

The editors of SA are perfectly well aware of the shortcomings of certain of I. Leonidov’s projects: ignoring the economic situation today at the same time as indulging in certain elements of aestheticism. All these features are undoubtedly a minus in Leonidov’s work.

Architectural blackprints.

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But the critics of Leonidov’s work totally fail to see what from our standpoint is a great plus in it, which for all these shortcomings makes it in certain respects better and more valuable than the work of his competitors.

…The editors of SA, whilst recognizing that some of the accusations made against him are correct (abstractness, schematicism, etc.) consider that despite this the works of Leonidov are highly valuable as material of an investigative and experimental character, and they most forcefully protest against the groundless persecution of him.

Signed,
The editors of Modern Architecture.

Ivan Leonidov, Sketches for City of the Sun

Ivan Leonidov’s late series on Campanella’s City of the Sun (1940s-1950s)

after Tommaso Campanella

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Leonidov’s late work, inspired by Campanella’s famous utopia:

The greater part of the city is built upon a high hill, which rises from an extensive plain, but several of its circles extend for some distance beyond the base of the hill, which is of such a size that the diameter of the city is upward of two miles, so that its circumference becomes about seven. On account of the humped shape of the mountain, however, the diameter of the city is really more than if it were built on a plain.

It is divided into seven rings or huge circles named from the seven planets, and the way from one to the other of these is by four streets and through four gates, that look toward the four points of the compass. Furthermore, it is so built that if the first circle were stormed, it would of necessity entail a double amount of energy to storm the second; still more to storm the third; and in each succeeding case the strength and energy would have to be doubled; so that he who wishes to capture that city must, as it were, storm it seven times. For my own part, however, I think that not even the first wall could be occupied, so thick are the earthworks and so well fortified is it with breastworks, towers, guns, and ditches.

When I had been taken through the northern gate (which is shut with an iron door so wrought that it can be raised and let down, and locked in easily and strongly, its projections running into the grooves of the thick posts by a marvellous device), I saw a level space seventy paces wide between the first and second walls. From hence can be seen large palaces, all joined to the wall of the second circuit in such a manner as to appear all one palace. Arches run on a level with the middle height of the palaces, and are continued round the whole ring. There are galleries for promenading upon these arches, which are supported from beneath by thick and well-shaped columns, enclosing arcades like peristyles, or cloisters of an abbey.

City of the Sun (Civitas Solis, Город солнца)

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Ivan Leonidov

These are some utopian sketches and plans by Soviet avant-garde architect Ivan Leonidov.  Here’s a defense of Leonidov’s work against some of the criticisms leveled against it by the rationalist Nikolai Dokuchaev, written up by his fellow constructivist, Aleksandr Kuzmin:

Projects may be criticized in various ways.  Amongst the critics of Leonidov’s projects there is a category of architects who, whilst understanding and recognizing the great importance of the projects to the development of a genuinely contemporary architecture, try by all means fair and foul to discredit them.

True, for all who understand this, such manoeuvers appear dismal and trite.  But unfortunately they do not all understand this.  They do not all see clearly that the heart of the problem can all too easily be littered up with scientific rubbish; not everyone sees that there are very few true theorists of architecture on the pages of our magazine, but a lot of reporters who jump from one case to another and are helplessly attacking issues which are beyond their capabilities.  In just this way Professor Dokuchaev writes in the journal Building Moscow (and when not being unduly familiar, he is incoherent), in an attempt to shape public opinion on Leonidov’s work. Continue reading

Soviet Constructivist Architecture – Blueprints and Realizations

The following pictures are examples of architecture built in the Soviet Constructivist style, a style founded by the Vesnin brothers (Aleksandr, Leonid, and Viktor) along with Moisei Ginzburg between 1923-1925.  Officially, the Society of Modern Architects (OSA) was the main organ for all Constructivist architecture.  However, I have also included pieces which clearly exemplify the Constructivist style, even if the architects involved were not technically members of OSA.  Both blueprints and photographs of the eventual realizations of their plans are shown here:

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Recommended Architectural Blogs and Articles, along with My Gratitude

Leonidov's Proposed "Ministry of Heavy Industry" (1934)

I should like to thank the following architecture-related websites and point to some of their best articles:

  1. dpr-barcelona: I would like to thank Ethel Baraona not only for her enthusiastic promotion of my site on Twitter and so on, but for her friendship.  After I posted some links to a few of the journals I’d uploaded, she immediately e-mailed me personally expressing her thanks.  That said, she and her co-contributor have produced some excellent content of their own, in articles both in English and in Spanish.  To point to just a couple of them: “Ivan Leonidov and the Russian Utopias” and “Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms | Iakov Chernikhov.”
  2. Critical Grounds: Thanks to the author of this blog for pointing his students to the English-language modernist architectural archive I created.  And if you have the time, please read the following excellent articles: “In the Name of Being: Critical Regionalist Landscape Urbanism, a Critique,” his reference to another critique of environmentalism in “Ross Adams on the ‘eco-city’,” and finally his own “Parallel Lines: formal expression as publicity in the architecture of Hadid’s Central Building for BMW Leipzig.”
  3. sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy: As always, the Bolshevist and “interdistrictite” Owen Hatherley must make the list.  Not only for his incredibly helpful promotion of my own blog, but for his numerous good articles.  Some of his older articles from his previous blog are more immediately related to what I’ve been working on: “No Rococo Palace for Buster Keaton: Americanism (and Technology, Advertising, Socialism) in Weimar Architecture,” “The Functionalist Deviation Politics of building, aesthetics of anti-architecture,” and especially “A Pod of One’s Own — Architecture or Revolution: the Congres International d’Architecture Moderne, 1928-33.”
  4. Kosmograd: There’s too much good, cosmopolitan material at this site, which is mostly dedicated to early Bolshevik architecture and the Soviet space program.  He has linked to my site on several occasions, for which I am very thankful.  Interesting articles on this site include “Communal House of the Textile Institute,” the hilarious “Eco-town of Tomorrow and Its Planning,” and his interesting piece on “Decaying Orbiters.”

Репринт Журнала Современная Архитектура [Reprint of the Journal Modern Architecture] (1926-1930)

I came across this advertisement yesterday while searching online for any articles on the early Soviet periodical Modern Architecture.  For those who don’t spend their time painstakingly researching long-dead avant-garde movements, this publication might not mean much.  However, it’s of great historical and theoretical importance — a project featuring a truly spectacular cast of characters.  The main organ for the OSA group of architectural Constructivists, Modern Architecture was edited first by the legendary theoreticians and architects Moisei Ginzburg and Aleksandr Vesnin, later coming under the editorship of Roman Khiger, after 1928.  Its layout was designed by Aleksei Gan, author of the seminal text on Constructivism in art, Конструктивизм (1922).  A number of young Soviet modernists contributed pieces to the journal: Mikhail Barshch, Ivan Leonidov, Nikolai Krasil’nikov, Kazimir Malevich, etc.  Articles by some of the most extraordinary foreign avant-garde architects and artists were also included: Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, and Fernand Léger.

Needless to say, I was immediately overcome with excitement. You see, last winter I spent weeks at the New York Public Library, poring over their microfiche collection of the 1927-1930 editions of Modern Architecture (they didn’t have the volume for 1926).  I sat there using their clumsy old machines, struggling to center the pages exactly and bring them into focus by using the different microscopic lenses, only to make poor-quality printouts in the end.  So now that Tatlin press is re-releasing it in full, 80 years after Stalin’s government forced them to cease its publication, I can honestly say I’m stoked.  Here’s the description included in the ad:

ISBN 978-5-903433-12-4

редактор составитель — Эдуард Кубенский
вступительная статья — Жан-Луи Коэн
5 томов, 1076 стр., 24.0х34.0 см,
мягкая обложка, футляр, рус./фр./нем./англ.

Современная архитектура — иллюстрированный журнал «Государственного издательства», выходивший в Москве с 1926 по 1930 годы 6 раз в год. Журнал освещал вопросы современного градостроительства, жилой, промышленной и сельской архитектуры, типового проектирования, истории и теории архитектуры и строительства. Несмотря на короткий срок своего существования, журнал Современная архитектура — журнал-эпоха. В его реализации принимали участие ведущие мастера эпохи авангарда. Среди выдающихся имен, имевших отношение к журналу, можно назвать архитектора и бессменного редактора журнала Моисея Гинзбурга, автора проекта Дома Наркомфина; художников Алексея Гана и Варвару Степанову, занимавшихся версткой и дизайном издания и других. На его страницах публиковали свои работы Иван Леонидов и братья Веснины, Ле Корбюзье и Мисс Ван дер Роэ. Отдельной темой выступает в издание его графический строй, являющийся образцом передового дизайна своего времени. Сегодня эти журналы стали библиографической редкостью: растет цена информации, размещенной на их страницах. Об актуальности всего, что связано с эпохой русского авангарда в мире, не приходится говорить, это давно сформировавшаяся позиция. Анализ этого явления и его актуализация сегодня поможет еще раз осознать место России в мировом архитектурном пространстве.