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

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

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

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

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

Four days before the postponement was announced, an opinion essay, titled “The Cooper Union Promotes Russian Architecture. Why?” had appeared in the online forum Archinect, written by Peder Anker, a history of science professor at New York University. “I believe the Cooper Union should terminate this exhibition and put a pause on its courses on Soviet and Russian architecture,” Anker wrote. “To hide war crimes, Russian acolytes in New York try their best to make their nation shine as harboring highbrow culture.” He added, “it’s called ‘soft power.’”

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

But Eber affirmed the importance of Vkhutemas, noting that the Moscow school, without tuition, was the “first major attempt to democratize design education,” and that its “universal teaching methods” were based on scientific discovery and artistic experimentation — a mission that parallels that of Cooper Union.” Vkhutemas (an acronym, pronounced v-who-temaas) was dismantled by Stalin.

Photographs from Vkhutemas, c. 1927, an avant garde design school in Moscow known for its freethinking experimentation on form and space. Shown, student work for an exercise on the “Expression of Mass and Weight.”Credit…Museum of the Moscow Architectural Institute

The postponement set off a storm of debate about cultural cancellation in the larger academic community, with over 750 scholars, teachers and students signing a letter of protest addressed to Laura Sparks, president of the Cooper Union, and to Eber. The letter, published on the website Art & Education, stated its “full solidarity” with the people of Ukraine and opposition to “Russia’s unjustified and brutal invasion.” But it went on to call the Archinect piece “an intellectually questionable article” and criticized the “last-minute decision to postpone indefinitely the opening of the exhibition.” (It has been signed by Rem Koolhaas, the architect, Deborah Berke, the dean of Yale University 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 actually know what was in it, and that he had brought up the subject of the show in a casual lunch encounter with Ukraine-associated neighbors in Cooper Union Square the week before. He said their concern led to the article.

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

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

“We would ask that during an act of genocide, the organizers of the exhibition would have a modicum of decency and say, ‘Maybe we don’t do this right now,’” he said in a phone interview. Like Anker, he said he didn’t know the contents of the show, but that its perspective is “Russian-centric” and so necessarily presents “art and ideals through a colonizing, imperial Russian perspective” at the root of the current war.

Jean-Louis Cohen, a New York University professor and an architecture historian who has written on the Vkhutemas since 1978 — he was a thesis adviser to Bokov — disputes the show’s involvement with Soviet imperialism.

“I don’t think you can establish any connection between this version of the Avant-Garde and Russian imperialism,” he said in a phone interview. He noted that Stalin’s regime was equally repressive to independent national movements and to freethinking institutions like Vkhutemas. Its professors and students were ostracized, with scores sent to the gulags. Some were executed. The Soviet state expunged Vkhutemas.

“So you take Pushkin out of the libraries? You cancel Tschaikovsky concerts? You don’t perform Chekhov?” Cohen asked. “That’s a dogmatic, rigid position which I personally don’t share.”

Students with models at Vkhutemas, c. 1927, for an exercise on the “Expression of Vertical Rhythm.”Credit…Museum of the Moscow Architectural Institute

Cohen added that the design school was not strictly Russian: There were many Ukrainian students and teachers in Vkhutemas, along with Jews, Armenians, Tartars and other ethnic groups.

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

Soon after publication of his essay, a member of the Bokov family threatened to sue the publication and writer for false and defamatory statements. Subsequently, Archinect added an editor’s note that said it had removed “claims that the curator of this exhibition, Anna Bokov, is associated with Vladimir Putin.” The note went on to say, “It was also not disclosed, prior to publication, that the author knows the curator personally, which could have led to intentional or unintentional bias.”

Bokov, who curated the show with Steven Hillyer, director of the Architecture Archive, says that 95 percent of her research was done in Yale libraries in open sources.

Cathy Popkin, professor emerita of Russian at Columbia University, also questioned the motives of the opinion piece.“The smear campaign conducted against the faculty member associating her with Putin and Putin’s war in this charged environment is nothing short of sinister,” she said in an email.

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

Architectural design by Rachel Smolenskaya, a student at Vkhutemas, circa 1928. Credit…Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

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

On Monday, after an entente negotiated among the co-curators, students, faculty, and members of the Ukrainian and Cooper Union communities, Cooper Union announced that it was reinstating the show. In April the same models and exhibits will be re-installed in the gallery, but reframed with statements telling the same story from different points of view, like Rashomon, “to frame this work within the broader geopolitical context, both then and now,” according to a statement issued by the Cooper Union.

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

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