At Cooper Union, a Russian Design Show Caught in a Political Crossfire

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many concerts, exhibitions and performances have been canceled, often featuring prominent Russian artists with ties to the government of President Vladimir V. Putin. But the latest postponed and controversial event is slightly different: an architecture exhibit at the Cooper Union in New York.

On January 25, a few hours before the opening of the student exhibition titled “Vkhutemas: The Pioneer Laboratory, 1920-1930,” — a modest exhibition in a single gallery on a limited, seemingly apolitical subject — Cooper Union abruptly postponed the exhibition without securing its restoration. By Monday, after hundreds of signatures on a protest letter from academics and students, the school had reversed its stance.

For three years, students are led by Anna Bokov, a Harvard-trained architect and assistant professor who spent hundreds of hours preparing the much-anticipated exhibition of Russia’s match with the Bauhaus, an innovative school radical that a century ago invented dynamic new architectural forms for the post-revolutionary country.

But cooperative alliances located in the “Little Ukraine” of the city center, and with the war going on and Vkhutemas’ origins as a Russian institution, some have questioned the timing of the exhibition, saying the school is insensitive. culturally with neighboring Ukraine.

Four days before the postponement notice, an opinion essay, titled “Cooper Alliance Promoting Russian Architecture. Why?” appeared on the online forum Archinect, written by Peder Anker, a professor of historical sciences at New York University. courses in Soviet and Russian architecture,” writes Anker. “In order to conceal war crimes, Russian members in New York do their best to make their country shine as a receptacle. knowledge culture.” “It’s called ‘soft power’,” he added.

In one notice on the Cooper Union website about the postponement of the show, Hayley Eber, acting dean of Cooper Union’s school of architecture, said the school needed “time and space” to make “an informed decision about moving forward. It is important to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and members of our Ukrainian community as we consider our next steps.”

But Eber affirms the importance of Vkhutemas, noting that the Moscow school, which charges no tuition, is “the first major attempt to democratize design education” and its “universal teaching method” based on scientific discovery and artistic experimentation – a parallel mission to that of the Cooper Union.” Vkhutemas (an acronym, pronounced v-who-temaas) was dismantled by Stalin.

The postponement has sparked a storm of debate about de-culture in the larger academic community, with more than 750 academics, teachers and students having signed off on an agreement. protest letter to Laura Sparks, president of Cooper Union, and to Eber. The letter, posted on the Art & Education website, states “full solidarity” with the Ukrainian people and opposes “Russia’s brutal and unjustified invasion”. But it went on to call Archinect’s work “an intellectually questionable article” and criticized the “last-minute decision to indefinitely postpone the opening of the exhibition.” (It was signed by Rem Koolhaas, architect, Deborah Berke, dean of the Yale 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 theme of the show during a casual lunch meeting with fellow musicians. pro-Ukrainian neighbor in Cooper Union Square. last week. He said their concerns led to the article.

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

Andrij Dobriansky, The communications director of the U.S. Ukrainian Congressional Committee, which has tens of thousands of members, said he had received about 10 messages related to the show before the opening day and expressed concern to Cooper Union.

“We would ask that in an act of genocide, the organizers of the exhibition would have a little courtesy and say, ‘Maybe we don’t do this right away,’” he said in a phone interview. Now’. Like Anker, he says he doesn’t know the content of the show, but that its point of view is “Russian-centered” and so necessarily presents “art and ideals through the point of view of the Russians.” colonial Russian empire” on the roots of the current war.

Jean-Louis Cohen, a New York University professor and architectural historian who has been writing about Vkhutemas since 1978 – he was a thesis advisor to Bokov – opposes the program’s involvement with neoliberalism. Soviet empire.

“I don’t think you can establish any connection between this version of Avant-Garde and Russian imperialism,” he said in a phone interview. He noted that Stalin’s regime was equally repressive against independent nationalist movements and liberal-minded organizations such as Vkhutemas. Its professors and students were ostracized, with grades sent to hard labor camps. Some were executed. The Soviet state expelled Vkhutemas.

“So you take Pushkin out of the library? You cancel the Tschaikovsky concert? You do not perform Chekhov? Cohen asked. “It’s a rigid, dogmatic view that I personally don’t share.”

Cohen adds that the design school is not entirely Russian: There are many Ukrainian students and teachers in Vkhutemas, along with Jews, Armenians, Tartars and other ethnic groups.

Anker’s initial comments tied the show to Putin himself – through Bokov, the daughter of a prominent Moscow architect. Anker claimed – which turned out to be incorrect – that Bokov’s father, Andrey Bokov, was “a well-known Putin insider who had enormous influence.” In the article and a subsequent phone interview, Anker asserts that the curator’s 2021 book, “Avant-Garde as Method: Vkhutemas and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930” has benefited from privileged access to the Russian archives because of her father’s position in the Russian power structure. (Now retired, he heads several professional organizations.)

Shortly after the publication of his essay, a member of the Bokov family threatened to sue the publisher and writer for false and defamatory statements. Archinect later added an editor’s note saying it had removed “the claim that the curator of this exhibition, Anna Bokov, has contacts with Vladimir Putin.” The note goes on to say, “Prior to publication, the author must also not disclose that the author knows the curator personally, which could lead to intentional or unintentional bias.”

Bokov, who curated the program along with Steven Hillyer, director of the Architecture Archive, says that 95 percent of her research is done in open-source Yale libraries.

Cathy Popkin, professor emeritus of Russian at Columbia University, also questioned the motive of opinion. “The smear campaign waged against the faculty member who links her to Putin and Putin’s fight in this charged environment is nothing short of sinister,” she said in an email.

Cohen, who viewed the installation, described its contents as “a collection of models reconstructed by students from photographs documenting their pedagogical experience at Vkhutemas from 1922 to 1928 .”

The works, he said, represent “a radical culture persecuted by Stalin — and ironically, now another persecution, because they are somehow seen as part of the country.” Putin’s Russia.” Referring to Vkhutemas, he said, “I don’t understand why these people have to be punished twice.”

On Monday, after negotiating an agreement between co-curators, students, faculty, and members of the Ukrainian community and Cooper Union, Cooper Union announced that it is reinstating the program. In April, the same models and exhibits will be re-installed in the gallery, but rearranged with sentences that tell the same story from different perspectives, such as Rashomon, “to frame the work this product in the broader geopolitical context, both then and now,” according to a Cooper Union statement.

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


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