Vkhutemas (Вхутемас, acronym for Высшие художественно-технические мастерские; Vysshie KHUdozhestvenno-TEkhnicheskie MASterskie Higher Art and Technical Studios) was the Russian state art and technical school founded in 1920 in Moscow.
The workshops were established by a decree from Vladimir Lenin with the intentions, in the words of the Soviet government, “to prepare master artists of the highest qualifications for industry, and builders and managers for professional-technical education.” The school had 100 faculty members and an enrollment of 2500 students.
Vkhutemas was formed by a merger of two previous schools: the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and the Stroganov School of Applied Arts. The workshops had artistic and industrial faculties; the art faculty taught courses in graphics, sculpture and architecture while the industrial faculty taught courses in printing, textiles, ceramics, woodworking, and metalworking.
It was a center for three major movements in avant garde art and architecture: constructivism, rationalism, and suprematism. In the workshops, the faculty and students transformed 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 new institution was founded to provide artists, both visual and plastic, and architects for the industrial, economic and political development of the country. Students were to be taken primarily from the working class and initially required no special qualifications to enter.
A preliminary basic course was an important part of the new teaching method that was developed at Vkhutemas, and was made compulsory for all students, regardless of their future specialization. This was based on a combination of scientific and artistic disciplines.
During the basic course, students had to learn the language of plastic forms, and chromatics. Drawing was considered a foundation of the plastic arts, and students investigated relationships between color and form, and the principles of spatial composition. Akin to the Bauhaus's basic course, which all first year students were required to attend, it gave a more abstract foundation to the technical work in the studios.
The primary movements in art which influenced education at Vkhutemas were constructivism and suprematism, although individuals were versatile enough to fit into many or no movements—often teaching in multiple departments and working in diverse media. The leader figure of suprematist art, Kazimir Malevich, joined the teaching staff of Vkhutemas in 1925, however his group Unovis, of the Vitebsk art college that included El Lissitzky, exhibited at Vkhutemas as early as 1921.
While constructivism was ostensibly developed as an art form in graphics and sculpture, it had architecture and construction as its underlying subject matter. This influence pervaded the school. The artistic education at Vkhutemas tended to be multidisciplinary, which stemmed from its origins as a merger of a fine arts college and a craft school.
A further contributor to this was the generality of the basic course, which continued after students had specialised and was complemented by a versatile faculty. Vkhutemas cultivated polymath masters in the Renaissance mold, many with achievements in graphics, sculpture, product design, and architecture.
Painters and sculptors often made projects related to architecture; examples include Tatlin's Tower, Malevich's Architektons, and Rodchenko's Spatial Constructions. Artists moved from department to department, such as Rodchenko from painting to metalworking. Gustav Klutsis, who was head of a workshop on colour theory, also moved from painting and sculptural works to exhibition stands and kiosks. El Lissitzky, who had trained as an architect, also worked in a broad cross section of media such as graphics, print and exhibition design.
The industrial faculties had the task of preparing artists of a new type, artists capable of working not only in the traditional pictorial and plastic arts but also capable of creating all objects in the human environment such as the articles of daily life, the implements of labor, etc.
The dean of this department was Alexander Rodchenko, who was appointed in February 1922. Rodchenko's department was more expansive than its name would suggest, concentrating on abstract and concrete examples of product design. Theoretical tasks included graphic design and “volumetric and spatial discipline” Students were also given internships in factories. Rodchenko's approach effectively combined art and technology.
The textile department was run by the constructivist designer Varvara Stepanova. In common with other departments, it was run on utilitarian lines, but Stepanova encouraged her students to take an interest in fashion: they were told to carry notebooks so that they could note the contemporary fabrics and aesthetics of everyday life as seen on the high street.
Architectural training at Vkhutemas was divided in two camps—the neoclassical school of Ivan Zholtovsky, the first dean of the Architectural Department, and the United Left Workshop or Obmas headed by Nikolai Ladovsky. Ladovsky was known for his innovative teaching methods, notably his statement that the primary material of architecture was space.
His training program was superficially similar to classical training: first, study a particular architectural element of the past; then, use it in abstract drafts; finally, apply it to real-world architectural tasks ranging from seaside jetties (1922–1923) to skyscrapers (VSNKH Tower, 1924-1925).
I) aggregation of appropriate theoretical studies and existing theories of architecture of all theoreticians
II) excavation of relevant material from theoretical studies and investigations extracted from other branches of art, which bear on architecture
III) exposition of our own theoretical perspectives to architecture. -Ladovsky
In 1923, Ladovsky founded another rationalist group, ASNOVA. Between 1925 and 1930 Ladovsky's department at Vkhutemas-Vkhutein and the Vesnin brothers, divided between Vkhutemas and MVTU, were engaged in a vocal professional competition of students' projects, which further separated the rationalist and constructivist strains of avant-garde architecture.
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.
Vkhutemas was a close parallel to the German Bauhaus in its intent, organization and scope. The two schools were the first to train artist-designers in a modern manner. Both schools were state-sponsored initiatives to merge the craft tradition with modern technology, with a Basic Course in aesthetic principles, courses in color theory, industrial design, and architecture. Vkhutemas was a larger school than the Bauhaus, but it was less publicised and consequently, is less familiar to the West. Vkhutemas's influence was expansive however—the school exhibited two structures by faculty and award-winning student work at the 1925 Exposition in Paris. Furthermore, Vkhutemas attracted the interest and several visits from the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr.
With the internationalism of modern architecture and design, there were many exchanges between the Vkhutemas and the Bauhaus. Both schools flourished in a relatively liberal period, and were closed under pressure from increasingly totalitarian regimes.
As early as 1923, Rodchenko and others published a report in LEF which foretold of Vkhutemas's closure. It was in response to students failure to gain a foothold in industry and was entitled, The Breakdown of VKhUTEMAS: Report on the Condition of the Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops, which stated that the school was “disconnected from the ideological and practical tasks of today”. In 1927, the school's name was modified: “Institute” replaced “Studios” (Вхутеин, Высший художественно-технический институт), or Vkhutein.
The Association of New Architects [Assotsiatsiya novykh arkhitektorov] was registered in 1923 and split in 1928. In 1926, it published a single issue of ASNOVA journal edited by El Lissitzky and Nikolai Ladovsky.
LEF [LEF] [Left Front of the Arts; Levy Front Iskusstv], a wide-ranging association of avant-garde writers, photographers, critics and designers in the Soviet Union. It had two runs, one from 1923 to 1925 as LEF , and later from 1927 to 1928 as Novyi LEF [New LEF]. It’s reassessment and development of the subject of public health.
In 1927, the editors of the leading Constructivist journal, Contemporary Architecture, sketched out a radical architectural concept intended to foster a social revolution. Led by Moisei Ginzburg, the editors declared that it was the duty of the Soviet architect to develop the ‘social condensers of our epoch’. A ‘social condenser’, they explained, was architecture that ‘shaped and crystallised a new socialist way of life’.
Be it in the form of communal housing, public kitchens, workers’ clubs, administrative buildings, factories or parks, they insisted the social condenser should cultivate a new code of behaviours, norms and habits that would elevate human consciousness and secure the advancement of humanity, through the as yet unrealised potential of socialist organisation. This was a daring vision based on the imagined virtues of greater human interaction and cooperation.
This was, as CA put it, the ‘epoch of socialism-under-construction’.