Vkhutemas to Open This Spring and Will be Complemented by Additional Framing Materials and Public Programming

POSTED ON: February 6, 2023

On January 25, The Cooper Union made the difficult decision to provisionally postpone the opening of Vkhutemas: Laboratory of the Avant-Garde, 1920-1930, an exhibition organized by The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture and co-curated by Anna Bokov and Steven Hillyer, scheduled to open later that day. The exhibition grew out of two seminars and a workshop led by Assistant Professor Adjunct Bokov, starting in 2019, that explored the legacy and learnings of a little-known design school that was shut down by Stalin in the 1930s for its progressive ideas.

The Cooper Union fielded questions, both privately and publicly, when the exhibition was first announced in early January, with individuals expressing anger over what was perceived as a celebration of Russia’s contribution to architecture and the timing in light of Russia’s ongoing brutal invasion of Ukraine. The groundswell of uncertainty and distress that occurred in advance of the public opening made it clear that more time was needed to listen and assess before moving forward with this presentation.

As a result, over the past twelve days, President Laura Sparks, Acting Dean Hayley Eber, and Exhibitions Committee Chair Alexander Tochilovsky have conducted a series of individual and group discussions with the exhibition’s co-curators, the students who contributed work to the exhibition, the School of Architecture Faculty, and Ukrainian members of The Cooper Union community. Leadership also carefully reviewed letters and fielded outreach from colleagues, peers, and individuals from throughout our community. These conversations have been important and instructive, and have underscored both the significance of this exhibition and the need to frame this work within the broader geopolitical context, both then and now.

At its core, The Cooper Union has always been a forum for public discourse and dialogue addressing the challenges and opportunities of our time. The School of Architecture encourages students to investigate the role of the architect and the societal, environmental, and political implications of their work and, in doing so, reinforces the notion that design and building are not just the end point of set ideas, but can often themselves prompt constructive debate and critical discourse.

It is in this spirit that, together with the exhibition’s co-curators, The Cooper Union will open the exhibition later this spring, supported by additional contextualizing material that will provide different frameworks for understanding these issues and the exhibition’s original pedagogical research and intent. The School will also host a series of sessions with Cooper Union students as well as a public roundtable in conjunction with the exhibition’s opening to unpack the multidimensional issues relating to the exhibition and its presentation—including the importance of uncovering a history lost to political suppression and an exploration of how histories can be instrumentalized for political gain today. Details and dates will be shared in the coming weeks as they are finalized.

Thank you to all those who have offered constructive feedback, engaged in critical discourse, and offered suggestions as the School has crafted an approach for moving forward.

Laura Sparks, President

Hayley Eber, Acting Dean

Alexander Tochilovsky, Exhibition Committee Chair

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