Launching “What Is an Art School?,” an ongoing series examining at the past, present, and future of art education, we take inspiration from the recent Avant-Museology symposium’s focus on early Soviet exhibitions to explore little-known Soviet educational practices, including the art school Vkhutemas (1920-1930). The following writing is connected to a larger set of translations—to appear in English for the first time—and commissioned texts focused on critically important, forward-thinking art teaching that will be published in the weeks to come.
Nikolay Ladovsky is still a largely mysterious figure. One of the progenitors of the Soviet architectural avant-garde, he remains, perhaps, the most undervalued and least recognized of his contemporaries. Despite his efforts, very few of his architectural projects were built, and his career fell victim to the political struggles of the 1930s. Like most of his colleagues, Ladovsky came to Vkhutemas trained in the classical tradition, yet he had already formed a different set of views and questions about architecture. His goal was to develop a comprehensive foundation for a new formal language, a version of a “classical order.” This foundation was based in his viewpoint, inspired by scientific thought of the time, that the basis of architecture was rooted in “rationality,” a set of objective laws and principles. For Ladovsky, architectural form was not exhausted by its function or structure—as it was for his more famous Constructivist contemporaries, many of whom also taught at Vkhutemas. Rather, architectural form had an agency of its own and was grounded in timeless and scientifically verifiable properties, which the Rationalist movement he founded, sought to define and articulate.
The notion of “architectural rationality,” Ladovsky wrote, “is based on economic principles just as is technical rationality. The difference is that technical rationality is to be found in the economy of labor and material, while architectural rationality is in the economy of psychic energy.” For Ladovsky, engendering rationality meant conditioning and even controlling perception through shaping form and space. Together with his affiliates, the architects Vladimir Krinsky and Nikolay Dokuchaev, Ladovsky aimed to apply the principles of technical rationality championed in Soviet economics to the perceptual experience of architectural form. The synthesis of these two rationalities—the technical one, based on Taylorist principles of scientific management, and the formal one, based on perceptual psychology—in one building is what Ladovsky called ratsio-arkhitektura (ratio-architecture). The goal was to recast the “intuitive individual approach” typically practiced in design into objective terms in order to develop an “architectural science.”
At Vkhutemas, Ladovsky harnessed and directed the immense creative energy of the post-revolutionary period through this rational lens. The progressive design methodology of the core course Prostranstvo (Space), taught by him and other Rationalists, served as an icebreaker for Soviet avant-garde architecture. The Space assignments were conceived in such a way as to provoke new ways to solve three-dimensional geometrical problems, and while Ladovsky’s ability to bring out creative potential in every student should not be underestimated, neither should the importance of standardizing the methodology itself. The challenge of educating several hundred students a year, while coming up with new way of thinking about the field itself, required a coherent and well-designed program, where every exercise would strategically prepare for the next.
The Space course offered one of the first alternatives to the classical academic atelier and apprenticeship models of architectural training. Instead of copying existing classical models and recycling ready-made design solutions, students would be asked to develop entirely their own three-dimensional responses. Most of the core exercises in Ladovsky’s course addressed the articulation of abstract form produced as a result of mechanical deformation. This pedagogy was a consequence of the Soviet mass educational mandate and the large numbers of students, who could no longer be trained in the traditional one-on-one method, and also a response to a new modernist paradigm to take “a step into the unknown.” Originally developed for architects, the course quickly became mandatory for all Vkhutemas students regardless of specialization. By 1923, together with three other foundational courses—Volume, Color, and Graphics, taught by Constructivists—it formed a core curriculum for the school. In 1925 Osnovnoe Otdelenie (Core Division) counted close to 500 students, most of whom were young men and women of proletarian descent with no previous academic training.
Ladovsky’s pedagogical task was not only to train hundreds of students but also to account for their wide diversity, and in fact the high number of students in his classes was critical for Ladovsky’s methodology. Education and experimentation were closely intertwined at Vkhutemas—students themselves inadvertently served as subjects for “psychotechnical” research. Ladovsky and his colleagues tested the professional fitness of students, especially their aptitude for spatial assessment, which they deemed critical for future architects. At the same time, they studied properties of space and form based on student responses in order to develop objective criteria for “a theory of architecture as a realm of science.”
The Psychotechnical Laboratory at Vkhutemas presents a compelling case of adapting the Taylorist philosophy of exacting industrial production to architecture, a field that ostensibly lies outside of measure. The Rationalists developed a set of instruments to further this ambition, which measured attention, memory, eye accuracy, spatial sensibility, spatial coordination, orientation, imagination, ability for spatial combination, and motor skills. Testing was done with the help of questionnaires and by using didactic instruments made by Ladovsky and his colleagues. These included the Liglazometr (line-eye-meter), Uglazometr (corner-eye-meter), Ploglazometr (plane-eye-meter), Oglazometr (volume-eye-meter) and Prostrometr (space-eye-meter). The students simultaneously served as the testing subjects and the data providers for the Space instructors. It is a case of curious inversion—where the subjects of the study, the students, become both the principal agents and experts in defining the object of investigating the architectural form. The psychotechnical research, in a way analogous to the Taylorist selection process, measured whether a student had the capacity for the visual reading of form. At the same time students were trained in visual precision, a skill allowing them to coordinate both objective and subjectively perceived qualities of form.
The development of the Space course can be divided into two distinct phases, first at OBMAS (an acronym for Ob’edinennie Masterskie, translated as United Left Studios) and then at the Core Division. Given its role as a mandatory interdisciplinary course and a part of the core curriculum (as opposed to a specialized architecture course), Space had to accommodate a number of new requirements. A series of new abstract exercises, exploring surface and texture, for instance, were added in order to accommodate the students of Painting and Textile departments.
The first exercise on the articulation of abstract form Ladovsky assigned at OBMAS in the fall of 1920 was followed by a series of assignments exploring other “elements of architecture.” The assignments, initially free from any practical or programmatic requirements, allowed students to explore form on its own without typical architectural constraints. The assignments progressed from abstract to pragmatic concerns, allowing students to start by focusing on form in and of itself. Once an abstract (otvlechennoe) exercise was complete and had an identifiable formal approach, it was followed by a production (proizvodstvennoe) exercise with a program—for example, site and scale in the case of architecture students—bringing the abstract into direct connection with reality. Starting with a series of explorations with surface, students gradually moved into three dimensions.
The first year offered two categories of spatial and volumetric exercises, the first based on embodied force, such as weight, rotation, or tension, and the second based on meter and rhythm. During the second year, students worked through the same themes by means of concrete productive tasks, with the consideration of each of the student’s future specialization. The programs of study for the abstract assignments in the Space course gradually became more precise and new themes and exercises were added. Towards the end of the first phase of the Core Department, when the course comprised two years of the curriculum, a general framework for executing both abstract and applied exercises was established, consisting of: “Articulation of a Flat Surface, Articulation of Volume, Articulation of Mass and Weight, Articulation of an Enclosed Space.”
Ladovsky’s Space course was based on the study of perception and experience as a framework for a new syntax of plastic form. This objective—or, as he called it, “psychoanalytical” methodology—was based on four types of formal properties: geometrical, physical, mechanical, and logical. These properties were then developed into assignments on the articulation of form, space, volume, rhythm, structure, balance, mass, and weight.
Ladovsky encouraged his students to use the study model as both a design tool and a didactic device. While model making was already an integral part of academic architectural training, it was usually based on an existing design. The method used in the “Space” course challenged students to think spatially and work directly in three dimensions, invoking an Aristotelean notion of learning by doing. When starting a model, students were not to be aware of its final outcome; the result was formed as part of the experience of making. The models initially had no scale or function and, in that respect, were not unlike the Constructivists’ “laboratory constructions.”
The architectural core training did not simply offer an introductory overview but provided a systematic, concise description of a subject or a field of knowledge in its entirety. It was a “kitchen of architecture,” both a teaching method and a set of general abstract principles. It guided students through the rules of composition and provided approaches to thinking about space and form, becoming such an approach itself. Ladovsky’s psychoanalytical method was not just a pedagogy for the course Space, but constituted the core of Rationalism as an artistic movement and a theoretical doctrine. Short of being scientifically proven, these approaches offered a set of guidelines for the new aesthetics, eventually crystallizing into a well-defined design language.
P.S. Nikolay Ladovsky died in 1941 in Moscow under unknown circumstances. His archives allegedly disappeared in the turmoil of World War II. Two years later Alexandr Rodchenko wrote in his diary:
The projects Ladovsky did in plywood, which used to be in his studio, are now getting wet on his balcony. And he was a name in architecture after all. Everything is turning to dust… My paintings will get wet too, be burned in a stove…
Art… Is it worth living for you? Who needs it? What’s needed, apparently, is only war, bread and lard.
The poor dreamer Ladovsky died. His whole life, he intended to build his own, “the new…”
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