Vkhutemas: Laboratory of Modernism, 1920–1930 is open at The Cooper Union’s Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery through Friday, May 5. The exhibition examines the architecture pedagogy of Vkhutemas, a Soviet interdisciplinary design school that aimed to democratize design education and developed universal teaching methods based on scientific discoveries and artistic experimentation. The effort was short-lived as Vkhutemas was shut down after a decade by Stalinist authorities, effectively ending its significant contributions to modern art and design and persecuting many of its faculty and students.
Originally scheduled to open in late January, Vkhutemas: Laboratory of Modernism, 1920–1930 was postponed to this spring to further situate the exhibition within an expanded study of historical and political context. To address the complexity of the issues, Cooper convened scholars, students, faculty, and members of its larger local community to explore an expanded framework for this exhibition and to develop supplementary contextual materials and programming. This work allows for the uncovering of a history once lost to political suppression, alongside an open exploration of what we can learn from it today.
With models, drawings, diagrams, and animations by undergraduate and graduate students from The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture that analyze and reconstruct the work of Vkhutemas students from a century ago, the exhibition highlights the significance of this revolutionary, yet little-known pedagogy. The exhibition is curated by Anna Bokov, Ph.D., assistant professor adjunct, The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, and Steven Hillyer, director, The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive. Vkhutemas: Laboratory of Modernism, 1920–1930 was the result of two Cooper Union seminar courses and a workshop on Vkhutemas taught by Bokov beginning in 2019 as a well as over a decade of her scholarly research. An acronym for Higher Art and Technical Studios, Vkhutemas was founded in 1920 with the goal of making design education accessible to formerly disenfranchised social classes. The school was often compared to the Bauhaus in Germany, which operated during the same period, as both were committed to an experimental approach to design education.
The exhibition features the models, drawings, diagrams, and animations of 27 Cooper Union architecture students who explored the work of Vkhutemas students made about a century ago—a peer review of sorts. It also includes an historical timeline outlining the trajectory of the school leading up to and just beyond the decade it was active, as well as its intersections with the sociopolitical and cultural events of those years. The work on view within the exhibition is organized around five themes: Instruments, which recreates the Vkhutemas psychotechnical laboratory devices for standardized student testing; Constructions, which reconstructs the artistic experiments of Vkhutemas professor Alexander Rodchenko; Objects, which features digital recreations of Vkhutemas-constructed furniture and appliances; Exercises, featuring a selection of Space course experiments developed by Vkhutemas professor Nikolay Ladovsky; and Projects, which features 10 architecture diploma works of Vkhutemas students – all reconstructed by Cooper students.
Through Friday May 5, 12:00 – 7:00 pm
Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery, 2nd Floor