VKhUTEMAS: The “Soviet Bauhaus”

Architectural Review

Agata Pyzik
May 8, 2015

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

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

Student exercises for the color course

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Ivan Leonidov’s proposal for the Lenin Institute in Moscow (1927)

AIM: To answer the needs of contemporary life through maximum use of the possibilities of technology.

THEME: The Lenin Institute is the collective knowledge center of the USSR.

LOCATION: Where the new city is developing. Lenin Hills in Moscow.

CONSTlTUENT PARTS: A library with 15 million volumes of books and 5 reading rooms of 500-1000 seat capacity, and an institute of librarianship.

Auditoria varying in capacity from 250-4000 people. A scientific theater, i.e. planetarium. Research institutes for individual academic work.


MECHANIZATION: Library — Delivery of books to the reader and back into the stacks takes place through vertical and horizontal conveyor systems; upon request from the catalogue hall, the books are automatically delivered to the reading rooms. Continue reading

Anti-Constructivism in the Soviet Avant-Garde: Nikolai Dokuchaev and ASNOVA

Nikolai Ladovskii's Rationalist Metro Station in Moscow (1931)

Not all of the early Soviet architectural avant-garde was “Constructivist,” strictly speaking.  Though this was the title often generically ascribed to all modernist architecture coming out of Russia, only those pieces produced by the architectural group OSA can be considered constructivist.  OSA’s self-proclaimed position was that of constructivism, which was founded on the principle of the “functional method” of design, as Ginzburg and the Vesnin brothers described it.

An earlier avant-garde group, ASNOVA, had been founded in 1923 by Nikolai Ladovskii, Nikolai Dokuchaev, Vladimir Krinskii, and El Lissitzky (though Lissitzky spent most of his time abroad).  This school of architectural thought was deeply informed by the principles of abstract Suprematism in painting, the style invented by Kazimir Malevich some years before.  In fact, Lissitzky’s PROUN series led directly into his architectural phase of production.

As opposed to the Constructivists in OSA, which was founded two years later (in 1925), the premise of architectural Rationalism, as it came to be called, was formalistic, rather than functional.  The members of ASNOVA appealed to evidence gleaned from the study of psychotechnics, a science imported from Germany and America, to claim that certain formal shapes and patterns of design had a direct effect on the psychology of those who viewed the structure of a building.  Once these formal principles could be discerned, they could be used to produce an ideological effect, lifting viewers out of their state of false consciousness and inspiring their participation in the construction of the new society.

Nikolai Dokuchaev was, next to Ladovskii, the main theoretical exponent of Rationalism in architecture.  With Lissitzky in Germany, working on periodicals like G, ABC, and Merz, and the majority of Krinskii’s time devoted to teaching and designing new projects, it fell to Dokuchaev and Ladovskii to explicate ASNOVA’s programmatic stance.  In the following series of articles, taken from the early Soviet periodical Советское искусство (Soviet Art), Dokuchaev compares the Soviet Constructivist architecture of the OSA group with architectural parallels he sees in the capitalist West.  He criticized the Constructivists’ “functional method,” equating it with the spare style of Functionalism that was prominent in Germany at the time.  Then, in a later article, published in the journal Строительство Москвы (Building Moscow) [the issue is reproduced in full], Dokuchaev lays out his proposal for the Socialist city of Magnitogorsk, one of the first of many experimental cities that were planned to be built.

These articles and the one complete issue can be downloaded below:

Николай Докучаев – «Современная русская архитектура и западные параллели» (part 1) – Советское искусство – (1927) – № 1

Николай Докучаев – «Современная русская архитектура и западные параллели» (part 2) – Советское искусство – (1927) – № 2

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 4

“The Green City” of Moscow, 1930

Mel’nikov’s Proposal for the Laboratory of Sleep (1930)

Included in this post is the original issue of Building Moscow (Строительство Москвы), in which the general planning schemes for the proposed “Green City” of Moscow were submitted. Contributors to this competition included some of the premier architects and city-planners of the day: Moisei Ginzburg and Mikhail Barshch of OSA, Nikolai Ladovskii of ARU (a splinter group of ASNOVA), and Konstantin Mel’nikov, who was more of an independent (his membership in the different avant-garde architectural societies of the day varied over time).

The plans were wildly ambitious, and, unfortunately, none of them were realized. Nevertheless, the ambition and utopianism of their proposals remain as fascinating and haunting today as ever. Haunting, because these plans were so crudely shoved aside by Kaganovich and the Stalinist bureaucracy — because the ideas survived as artifacts long after their potential for realization had passed, because their fantasy has since outlived history and continues to linger over it, like a ghost. Thus, the fact that these science fictions were discarded, placed on the Hegelian “slaughterbench of history,” did not mean that they altogether vanished without a trace. They survive, spectrally, as testaments to a society that could have been.

The extraordinary ambitions of the Soviet planners were declared unrealistic and impracticable. And indeed, given the Soviets’ technological and material limitations at that time, they may well have been impossible. But such a verdict has often been passed on past visions of the future, and utopian speculation in general. Yet the modernists who took part in this competition felt that such utopianism was not only warranted, but required by a revolutionary society like the Soviet Union. Under capitalism, they argued, utopianism was a waste of time and impossible to realize. Now that the October Revolution had overturned these social relations, however, utopia was at last realizable, and so fantastic visions of the future were at last justified.

In any case, this issue contains Ginzburg and Barshch’s reproduction of their famous Disurbanist scheme for the Green city, which they had first unveiled in an issue of Modern Architecture (Современная архитектура) a month before. It also includes Mel’nikov’s mysterious and intriguing proposals for a “Laboratory of Sleep,” an “Institution for the Transformation of the Perspective of Man,” and a “Sonata of Sleep.” Ladovskii’s project for “the rationalization of rest and socialist living” saw him experimenting with his notion of a parabolic city within the municipal limits of Moscow. The rationalization of rest and sleep were indeed very important when it came to the Green City; Le Corbusier mentioned over and over his delight at the Soviets’ abolition of the seven-day week, replaced now by a five-day cycle of working for four days and resting on the fifth.

Below is the original issue, digitized and restored to the best of my ability from the microfiche copy:

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 3

A Few More Issues of Строительство Москвы

Here are a few more issues of Строительство Москвы:

Строительство Москвы – (1929) – № 5

Строительство Москвы – (1929) – № 6

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 6


Строительство Москвы/Building Moscow Explained, Plus Some More Issues

Diagram for the Proposed Reconstruction of Moscow

 Строительство Москвы, pronounced “Stroitel’stvo Moskvy,” was a Soviet journal published from 1924-1941.  In the first couple years of its existence, its focus was primarily on the construction industry and its activities in Moscow, talking about city renovation following the end of the devastating Civil War.  Its articles during this period were of a mostly journalistic nature, reporting recent developments and discussing new building proposals.  One section toward the end was usually reserved for a “Chronicle of Foreign Technology,” in which new technological achievements in the West were detailed.

Around 1927, however, the focus of the journal shifted to more theoretical matters, absorbing some of the avant-garde influences of magazines like SA, which was reflected by some of the more programmatic articles it featured.  The nature of modern architecture was discussed, in a way that was slightly more inclusive than the strictly Constructivist SA, under the editorship of Ginzburg and the Vesnins (and later Khiger).  Nikolai Ladovskii published several articles in Building Moscow, as well as his protégés Krutikov and Krasil’nikov.  Some of the more traditional, academic architects were also able to publish during this period.

Between 1929 and 1931, the subject of greater city planning was introduced to the journal, with a great deal of attention devoted to the plans to reconstruct Moscow, overseen by Stalin’s henchman Kaganovich.  The competition for the design of the Palace of the Soviets, planned for construction right outside the Kremlin, was also a major subject dealt with by Building Moscow.  After 1932 or so, with the results of the competition in, the journal slowly began to drift into a neoclassicist direction, where it would remain until it ceased publication in the leadup to war with Germany in 1941.

Anyway, here are another few issues of the journal, of a more avant-garde and theoretical flavor, talking about urbanism and design:

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 5

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 6

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 8

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 10

Digitizing Microfiche: Строительство Москвы и другие Советские журналы об архитектуре (Building Moscow and other Soviet Journals about Architecture)

Aleksandr Sil'chenkov's Proposal for the "House of Industry" Project, 1929

Another long overdue update.  My two-month absence can be explained by a series of personal matters to which I’ve had to attend, as well as by an exceedingly laborious part of my research in which I’ve been involved.  This post will share some of the fruits of that labor, however, providing a sneak-peak into some of the subjects I’ve been working on.  I flatter myself to think that I am also hereby contributing to the further democratization of knowledge, freeing long-forgotten documents from their obscurity in old libraries and distant archives.  But the truth is that I have been the beneficiary of so much of the work undertaken by people with similar motives, scanning valuable documents and thereby disseminating their information, that I feel this is the least I could do.

Cutting to the matter at hand, the files attached to this post are just some of the old avant-garde journals which I’ve been carefully converting to a readable PDF format, in full-text versions that include illustrations as well as raw text.  The difference between these files and the ones I digitized from Современная архитектура late last year is that I actually never encountered the physical documents that I was working with.  These rare documents were only accessible to me in microfiche and microfilm format, preserved as part of Columbia University’s and the New York Public Library’s effort to catalogue early Soviet periodicals.  Some of these microform documents were in good condition, with minimal dust and other imperfections.  Others, unfortunately, were not.

To briefly describe the process by which I digitized these journals (for those who might be interested or are perhaps considering similar work), I shall here sketch out the major steps it involved.  First, I had to create a makeshift light-table separate from the actual microform scanners at the library, which tend to produce extremely shoddy and unreadable facsimiles.  I then proceeded to photograph each individual frame of microfilm or microfiche with a digital camera.  I personally do not own a camera with a very high-resolution optical lens (this requires something like a 40-100x zoom), so I instead removed one of the detachable high-zoom lenses from one of the scanners and then shot my own pictures at my camera’s maximum zoom through this second lens.  Anyone who has better equipment than I did can easily bypass this step.

It took a while to get used to taking good shots of each individual frame, but once I had gathered all of them I loaded them onto my computer and began running them through image-processing software.  The number of programs I ended up using, which probably could be simplified by anyone who knows how to work with images better than I, included Aperture, Photoshop, and the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP).  If anyone is interested in the actual adjustments I made to each file to render them more readable, they can inquire in the comments section.  I shall spare my readers these boring details.  Anyway, clarifying the text portions of these journals I found often distorted the images that appeared alongside them, and so I decided to process each page with images twice, once for the images and once for the text.  I then mapped on some cleaned-up versions of the pictures onto the cleaned-up texts and ran the resulting images through the ABBYY FineReader text-recognition program.

The final product of this whole confounded process can be found below.  Enjoy! More will be coming soon.  I’ve catalogued the entire run of Строительство Москвы from 1926-1932, Советская архитектура from 1931-1934, and a number of assorted articles relating to architecture from the journals Советское искусство, Плановое хозяйство, and Революция и культура.  They shall be forthcoming.  Here are some of the ones I’ve finished so far:

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 9

Строительство Москвы – (1931) – № 8

Строительство Москвы – (1930) – № 1

Строительство Москвы – (1929) – № 1

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 4

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 2

Строительство Москвы – (1928) – № 3

Николай Докучаев – «Архитектура и планировка городов» – Советское искусство – (1926) – № 6

Izvestiia ASNOVA/Известия АСНОВА (1926)

The first and only issue of ASNOVA’s journal, with its layout designed by El Lissitzky and Nikolai Ladovskii

Izvestiia ASNOVA [Известия АСНОВА] PDF Download

Today I made my way from the NYPL Schwarzman building over to Columbia University’s Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library.  I half wondered if I’d bump into Louis Proyect along the way.  After some sifting through the WorldCAT I discovered that some of the original source documents I’d been looking for were in Columbia’s collection.

Most astoundingly, I happened across a copy of the architectural avant-garde group ASNOVA’s sole publication, Izvestiia ASNOVA (Известия АСНОВА), from 1926.  Unlike their rivals, the architectural Constructivists in OSA, the Rationalists of ASNOVA were never able to maintain a steady periodical of their own.  Still, it’s a beautifully designed text; none other than El Lissitzky worked on its layout.  It has some interesting theoretical pieces by Nikolai Ladovskii on architectural pedagogy and the insights of Münsterburgian psychotechnics into the effects of various formal combinations on the mind.  Also, it includes the article in which El Lissitzky unveils his famous Wolkenbügel proposal, describing some of the specifics of the project.

Though it’s only eight pages long, this piece is incredibly rare to find in its full-text form.  A few quotes and passages from the journal are often cited in passing, but no one to date seems to have taken the time to digitize it.  So anyway, I copied some images of it and ran it through some text-recognition software and then uploaded it for everyone.  Just click on the above link to download it.