At Cooper Union, a Russian design fair caught in the political crossfire

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, concerts, exhibitions and performances have been cancelled, often involving high-profile Russian artists with ties to President Vladimir V. Putin’s government. But the latest event to be postponed and debated was somewhat different: an architecture exhibit at New York’s Cooper Union.

On January 25, hours before the opening of a student exhibition titled “Vkhutemas: Laboratory of the Avant-Garde, 1920-1930,” — a modest one-gallery exhibition on a limited and seemingly apolitical subject — the Cooper Union abruptly postponed the exhibition, without guaranteeing its reinstatement. On Monday, after hundreds of signatures on a protest letter from academics and students, the school reversed its position.

For three years, the students led by Anna Bokov, a Harvard-educated architect and adjunct assistant professor, had spent hundreds of hours preparing the much-anticipated exhibit about Russia’s match with the Bauhaus, a radically innovative school that invented a century ago new dynamic architectures. forms for the post-revolutionary country.

But the Cooper Union is in downtown’s “Little Ukraine” and with the ongoing war and the origin of the Vkhutemas as a Russian institution, some have questioned the timing of the exhibit, saying the he school was culturally insensitive to its Ukrainian neighbors.

Four days before the postponement was announced, an op-ed entitled “The Cooper Union promotes Russian architecture. Why?” appeared on the online forum Archinect, written by New York University history of science professor Peder Anker. “I think the Cooper Union should end this exhibit and pause its courses in Soviet and Russian architecture,” Anker wrote. “To hide war crimes, Russian acolytes in New York do their best to shine their nation as home to a scholarly culture.” He added : “This is called ‘soft power'”.

In an announcement on Cooper Union’s website about the show’s postponement, Hayley Eber, acting dean of Cooper Union’s School of Architecture, said the institution needs “time and space to make “an informed decision about the future”. It is important to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and members of our own Ukrainian community as we thoughtfully explore our next steps.

But Eber affirmed the importance of Vkhutemas, noting that the tuition-free Moscow school was the “first major attempt to democratize design education” and that its “universal teaching methods” were based on scientific discovery and artistic experimentation – a parallel mission. that of Cooper Union. Vkhutemas (an acronym, pronounced v-who-temaas) was dismantled by Stalin.

The postponement sparked a firestorm of debate over cultural cancellation in the wider university community, with more than 750 scholars, teachers and students signing a letter of protest addressed to Cooper Union President Laura Sparks and Eber. The letter, published on the Art & Education website, affirmed its “full solidarity” with the Ukrainian people and its opposition to the “unwarranted and brutal invasion of Russia”. But he then called the Archinect article “an intellectually questionable article” and criticized the “last-minute decision to postpone the opening of the exhibition indefinitely”. (It was signed by Rem Koolhaas, the architect, Deborah Berke, dean of Yale University’s School of Architecture, and Beatriz Colomina, professor of architecture at Princeton University, among others.)

In an interview, Anker said that he hadn’t seen the show and didn’t really know what was in it, and that he brought up the subject of the show over a casual lunch with neighbors associated with Ukraine at Cooper Union Square. The week before. He said their concern led to the article.

“Try to sit next to Cooper Union neighbors in the Ukrainian village,” he wrote in an email. “Feel their outrage and their emotional pain.”

Andrij Dobriansky, director of communications for the Ukrainian American Congress Committee, which has tens of thousands of members, said he received about 10 messages related to the show before the opening date, and expressed his concern to the Cooper Union.

“We would ask that during an act of genocide, the organizers of the exhibition have a modicum of decency and say, ‘Maybe we don’t do it now,'” he said during a telephone interview. Like Anker, he said he was unfamiliar with the show’s content, but his perspective is “Russian-centric” and therefore necessarily presents “art and ideals through a Russian colonial and imperial perspective”. cause of the current war.

Jean-Louis Cohen, a New York University professor and architectural historian who has written about the Vkhutemas since 1978 — he was Bokov’s thesis supervisor — disputes the show’s involvement in Soviet imperialism.

“I don’t think you can make any connection between this version of the avant-garde and Russian imperialism,” he said in a telephone interview. He noted that Stalin’s regime was also repressive of independent national movements and free-thinking institutions like Vkhutemas. Its teachers and students were ostracized, with scores sent to the gulags. Some have been executed. The Soviet state deregistered Vkhutemas.

“So you’re taking Pushkin out of the libraries?” Are you canceling Tschaikovsky’s concerts? You don’t play Chekhov? Cohen asked. “It’s a dogmatic and rigid position that I personally don’t share.”

Cohen added that the design school was not strictly Russian: there were many Ukrainian students and teachers at Vkhutemas, as well as Jews, Armenians, Tartars and other ethnic groups.

Anker’s original opinion piece linked the show to Putin himself – via Bokov, the daughter of a prominent Moscow architect. Anker claimed – wrongly, as it turned out – that Bokov’s father, Andrey Bokov, was “a renowned Putin insider who wields enormous influence”. In the article and a subsequent telephone interview, Anker claimed that the curator’s 2021 book, “Avant-Garde as Method: Vkhutemas and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930” benefited from his privileged access to Russian archives due to of his father’s position in the Russian power structure. (Now retired, he has been the head of several professional organizations).

Shortly after his essay was published, a member of the Bokov family threatened to sue the publication and the writer for false and defamatory statements. Subsequently, Archinect added an editor’s note stating that it had removed “claims that the curator of this exhibit, Anna Bokov, is associated with Vladimir Putin.” The note goes on to say, “Nor was it disclosed, prior to publication, that the author knows the curator personally, which could have led to intentional or unintentional bias.”

Bokov, who curated the exhibit with Steven Hillyer, director of the Architecture Archive, said 95% of his research was done at Yale Libraries in open sources.

Cathy Popkin, professor emeritus of Russian at Columbia University, also questioned the motives of the opinion piece. an email.

Cohen, who saw the exhibit installed, described its contents as “a collection of models reconstructed by students from photographs documenting the educational experience at Vkhutemas between 1922 and 1928”.

The works, he said, represented “a radical culture suppressed by Stalin – and now, ironically, another suppression, because somehow they are seen as part of Putin’s Russia. “. Referring to Vkhutemas, he said: “I don’t see why these people should be punished twice.

On Monday, after a negotiated settlement between co-curators, students, faculty and members of the Ukrainian and Cooper Union communities, Cooper Union announced it was reinstating the show. In April, the same models and exhibits will be reinstalled in the gallery, but reframed with statements telling the same story from different perspectives, such as Rashomon, “to frame this work in the larger geopolitical context, both of yesterday and today”. according to a statement released by the Cooper Union.

After two weeks of academic skirmishes, “a difficult process,” the curator wrote in an email, “I am pleased with the resolution. Students, both those from Cooper Union and those from there a century in Vkhutemas, will now have an audience for their groundbreaking work. This is an important learning moment for all of us.


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