The Cooper Union’s nearly canceled exhibition on the Soviet design school Vkhutemas will open April 25. Vkhutemas was a state-run school whose purvey included architectural education, with the school serving as a center for early Soviet art and architectural development.
Slated for an 11-day-run that closes on May 5, Vkhutemas: Laboratory of Modernism, 1920-1930, will “examine the architecture pedagogy” of the school, The Cooper Union said in a press release. The exhibition is curated by assistant professor adjunct Anna Bokov and Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive director Steven Hillyer. It was originally planned to open January 25 and was postponed given the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, a decision made days after an op-ed in Archinect from Peder Anker, a professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, criticized the show.
The show’s delayed opening has given room for additions of historical and political context to the exhibition, according to the Cooper Union. In a statement, Cooper Union president Laura Sparks said that “there is value in examining the teachings of Vkhutemas, and it is critical that we expanded the study to probe and learn from the broader geopolitical circumstances surrounding the formation, operation, and closure of the school and those that confront us today.”
Amid controversy around the show’s initial proposed announcement and delay, which included a petition that gathered over 700 signatories and encouraged a litany of editorial pieces, the Cooper Union invited “scholars, students, faculty, and members of its larger local community” to contribute to an amended framework for the exhibition. The show will include an introductory text that shapes the exhibition’s updated framework.
The show will include models, drawings, diagrams, and animations from the work of 27 Cooper Union students, and a timeline that lays out the direction of the school within the context of the early Soviet Union’s rapidly-shifting social and political contexts.
The exhibition will be organized around five themes: Instruments, Constructions, Objects, Exercises, Projects. Instruments will “recreate” Vkhutemas’s methods of standardized testing; Constructions will remake experiments conducted by famed Soviet photographer, designer, and Vkhutemas instructor Alexander Rodchenko who led the school’s construction basic course; Objects will digitally recreate furniture and appliance design work from the school; Exercises will display a portion of the Space course experiments run by architect and pedagogue Nikolai Ladovsky; and Projects will show ten Vkhutemas student diploma projects, reconstructed by Cooper Union students.
Coinciding with the exhibition’s run is the panel “War/Art Balance: Deimperializing the Soviet Avant-Garde at the Time of Russia’s War on Ukraine, Its Culture, and People,” hosted by the Cooper Union. Participants will include Tetyana Filevska, a Ukrainian contemporary art specialist and curator; Mayhill C. Fowler, an associate professor of history at Stetson University whose research focuses on Ukrainian culture; Myroslava Maria Mudrak, professor emerita of the history of art at Ohio State University, whose research focused on Eastern European modernist art; Brad Samuels, assistant professor adjunct at the Chanin School and cofounder of the firm SITU; and Oleh Kotsyuba, manager of publications at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute and chief online editor of the Ukrainian journal Krytyka. The panel will focus on Soviet, Russian, and Ukrainian avant-garde movements and “expand the prevailing colonialist lens through which these movements are often viewed.”
Chanin School acting dean Hayley Eber said in a statement that “the exhibition, together with the courses from which the exhibition originated and the scholarly inquiry this semester, have given our students an opportunity to revisit this period of early modern architecture pedagogy and further extend it into new ways of thinking, which has been invaluable.”