VKhUTEMAS: the Revolutionary School of Architectural Teaching

Lenin, who became the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and the new head of state in Russia, knew that in order to fulfil the communist ideals that he and his party had adopted to, Russia had to be transformed into a workers state, where education would be a paramount tool. As stated by Lenin: ‘the real education of the masses can never be separated from their independent political, and especially revolutionary, struggle. Only struggle educates the exploited class. Only struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, and forges its will.’

The year 1918 witnessed the reorganisation of the entire system of art education in Russia by the new NARKOMPROS - Peoples Commissariat for Education. The Free Governmental Artistic Workshops (Svobodnye Gosudarstvennye Khudozhestvennye Masterskie – SGKhM) were set up in several Russian cities, including Moscow and Leningrad, with the participation of several leading artists. In 1920 two of these were amalgamated into a new school, VKhUTEMAS – Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops (Vysshie Gosudarstvennye Khudozhestvenno-Tekhnicheskye Masterskie), by a state decree signed by Lenin. The first point of the decree stated the aims of VKhUTEMAS quite explicitly; ‘is a specialised educational institution for advanced artistic and technical training, created to produce highly qualified artist-practitioners for modern industry, as well as instructors and directors of professional and technical education.’

VKhUTEMAS (1921-1926) was a new approach for a new society that aimed to bring education to the masses and masses to the growing industrial production in Moscow. As the influx of thousands of students from the countryside could not be trained using elitist academic methods, the situation raised fundamental questions about design education: Is there an alternative to the academic model through the influence of art? How can an institution teach something that has not yet been done? And how do you teach hundreds of students many of whom were from peasant and diverse backgrounds?

VKhUTEMAS was a center for three major movements in Russian avant-garde art and architecture: Constructivism, Rationalism, and Suprematism. The teachers and students would transform views of art and reality with the use of precise geometry with an emphasis on space, in one of the great revolutions in the history of art. The VKhUTEMAS was a revolutionary new type of school that has set up research ‘laboratories’ or ‘workshops’ to investigate the objective foundations of the artistic fields they were teaching and formulating new educational programs. This consisted of the development of a well-structured curriculum and a rejection of the École des Beaux-Arts model. The mandate for mass education was framed within a larger Soviet project of industrialization, reorganizing all areas of life —from artistic to labor practices—on a scientific basis. The school counted among its ranks Russian avant-garde artists and architects such as Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) and Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958), Lyubov Popova (1889-1924), El Lissitzkii (1890-1941) and Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) and Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) whom each played a prominent role through institutionalizing the Russian avant-garde into an institutional curriculum. These teachers and artists were originally members of INKhUK – Institute of Artistic Culture (Institut Khudozhestvennoy Kultury, 1920-1924), set up by Vasily Kandinskii (1866-1944) in 1920 in order to develop the scientific objective approach for visual and spatial arts which played an important role in the influence of teaching at VKhUTEMAS.  The school was comprised of eight art and production departments — Architecture, Painting, Sculpture, Graphics, Textiles, Ceramics, Wood, and Metalworking. Within these departments the school established an ‘objective method’ aimed to provide for all, creating a unified pedagogical approach across different fields—from painting to architecture. It was based on primary ‘elements’ and their ‘properties,’ creating a solid formal foundation and allowing for synthetic thinking across all disciplines. The method relied on the newest scientific discoveries and technological achievements and on the most progressive artistic trends. But the ultimate goal of the objective method was to integrate artistic culture with industrial production – to bring ‘art into life.’

The history of VKhUTEMAS was closely linked with that of the Bauhaus in Germany (1919-1931). The two schools conducted student visits and exhibitions exchanged ideas through publications and shared foundational values that were disseminated by the key avant-garde protagonists, in particular, Kandinskii and Lissitzkii. While both schools aimed for a new unity of art and technology, VKhUTEMAS aimed to create the proletarian version of that unity, eventually resulting in an ideological gap. Like the Bauhaus, VKhUTEMAS was an interdisciplinary school that consisted of both art and industrial departments and it also had a well-developed preliminary course. However, the Bauhaus did not teach architecture for its first eight years and the schools also differed greatly in size due to different educational reforms.

VKhUTEMAS was facilitated by a preliminary curriculum or Core Division (Osnovnoe Otdelenie) that consisted of four primary courses — Graphics (graficheskii), Color (tsvetovoi), Volume (obemnyi), and Space (prostranstvennyi). While the Core Division was formally established by 1923, similar to Bauhaus’s Basic Workshops (vorkus, 1922) designed by Walter Gropius (1883-1969), the VKhUTEMAS courses continued to evolve from the establishment of the school until its closing. The core curriculum cemented the foundation of VKhUTEMAS’s interdisciplinary approach and became the unifying element of the school. The four preliminary courses emerged from the core sections of three VKhUTEMAS departments — Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. All four courses were mandatory for the entire student body, irrespective of their subsequent specialization.  

In 1920 the Constructivist artist Rodchenko began teaching the course Graphics where he experimented with articulating the distinct perceptual qualities of elemental forms. The course was designed around a set of compositional constraints and simple sequential operations, using basic geometric figures, such as circles, triangles, and squares.

The Color course started with breaking down the spectrum of a rainbow demonstrating how colors could be combined based on either contrasting or complimentary properties. Color was conceived as a primary element and even as a form of energy that does not simply cover up an object but ‘constructs’ it.

The Volume course was formed within the Sculpture department by Anton Lavinskii (1893-1968) and Boris Korolev (1884–1963). The course was initially formed under the influence of Cubism, as both Lavinskii and Korolev were strong advocates. The course Volume was an alternative to the age-old practice of sculpture training. Students were asked to produce compositions by exploring the properties and dynamics of a given volume in space or by articulating a relationship between volume and its weight. The Volume course taught one to deconstruct complex natural and artificial forms using cubist analysis and basic geometry with no surface detail to signify a building.

The course Space offered one of the first alternatives to the classical academic atelier and apprenticeship models of architectural training. Space was the first to train a large number of students in the fundamentals of modern architecture. Space was developed as a foundational architecture course by Nikolaii Ladovskii (1881-1941), Nikolai Dokuchaev (1891–1944), and Vladimir Krinskii (1890–1971) within the department known as OBMAS – United Left Workshops (Obedinennye levye masterskie, 1921–1923). This department used Ladovskii's ‘psychoanalytic teaching method’. Space was paramount not only for its innovative pedagogy but also as an experimental laboratory for developing new architectural language. It was based on, in Ladovskii’s words, the ‘economy of psychic energy’ and ‘the fundamental human need to orient in space.’ In 1921 he proclaimed ‘Space, not stone, is the material of architecture.’ The students were given assignment drawings (written instructions) and were asked to translate these into forms through abstract (otvlechennyi) models in clay, paper, wire, and wood. The most innovative pedagogical method was designing directly in the model (maketnyi). When starting a model, students were not aware of its final outcome; the result was formed as part of the process of making. The subject Space between the four disciplines was the key discipline in architectural-artistic education at VKhUTEMAS.

VKhUTEMAS was renamed VKhUTEIN – Higher Artistic and Technical Institute (Vysshiye Khudozhestvenno-Tekhnicheskii Institut), in 1927 in order to signify a re-concentration on the production of things useful to the national economy. Painting was relegated to a minor position in the curriculum and the foundation course, the unifying feature of the multi-discipline training, was dissolved.  The impact of substituting the word ‘Institute’ for ‘Studios’ was to reorient teaching with a more scientific focus, resulting in a number of courses being reduced in length or removed. In particular, the course Space was reduced from two years to one term.

Between 1929–1930 marked a shift of the First Five Year Plan by prioritizing the tasks of mass industrialization. This eventually led to the school's disintegration in 1931 into separate specialized institutions as the existing institution was believed to be ‘ineffective’ by Stalin’s government. VKhUTEMAS and VKhUTEIN were considered ‘formalist’—a disparaging term in Stalinist Russia. Despite their cultural importance as the center of the emergent modern movement, the school became primarily viewed by the Soviet state as an instrument of political manipulation by the West, the repercussions of which cut it off from the history of modern architecture. However, in the 1920s its mass teaching mandate, as well as its aim of institutionalizing the Russian avant-garde into an institutionalized curriculum, made VKhUTEMAS a revolutionary school of architecture. Its history and spirit live on today.