Anna Bokov

Anna Bokov

Teaching Architecture to the Masses: Vkhutemas and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930 (2017)

My dissertation explores the mass character of early twentieth century design education in Soviet Russia as an essential condition for the modernist paradigm. The Higher Art and Technical Studios in Moscow, known as Vkhutemas (Russian: BxyтeMac, acronym for Vysshiye Khudozhestvenno-Tekhnicheskiye Masterskive) adopted the “objective method” in order to facilitate instruction on a mass scale. The objective method translated contemporary scientific knowledge and abstract visual language into modern design pedagogy. The central figures in this undertaking—the architects and pedagogues Nikolay Ladovsky, Vladimir Krinsky, and Nikolay Dokuchaev—called themselves “Rationalists,” believing that they had devised a “rational” knowledge of form and space based on universal principles and the laws of perceptual psychology. Their colleagues, Vasily Kandinsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Lazar Lissitzky, and Moisey Ginzburg, contributed to shaping the Rationalist doctrine through their theorization, teaching, design, and critiques.

The core curriculum at Vkhutemas was the first venture of its kind to implement an accessible mass design education. It combined nascent industrialized and long-standing academic methods to initiate a new type of pedagogy, which I call universalist. A significant condition of this educational agenda was that the subject itself was deductive and stripped of historicized embellishment, as the principal elements explored in the core curriculum—space, volume, color, plane, and line—were a priori abstract. Since modernism as a sphere of knowledge, was untested at the time, all of the established conventions of existing design education had to be reexamined.

As opposed to the classical training that required knowledge of historical canons, the universalist approach was explorative in nature and built around a continuous feedback between assignments and solutions. The top down academic instruction was recast into a model of open mass education based on active exchange between students and teachers. The thesis examines the way in which the Vkhutemas core curriculum exercises challenged the established canons of academic tradition by replacing it with an open- ended inquiry into abstract form and traces how the resultant architectonic experiments were articulated into architectural and urban projects within the framework of the school’s advanced studios. This universalist educational model is explored through four separate channels—the institution, its research, its pedagogy, and its practice—each grounded in a different set of historical sites. The first chapter of the dissertation focuses on the institution, from its immediate context to its international outreach; the second is grounded within the research organizations and laboratories of Vkhutemas, contextualizing these through the theoretical doctrines and scientific achievements of its time; the third looks inside the classrooms, focusing on the methods and materials of the core curriculum; while the fourth addresses the pedagogy and practice of architecture, shifting its focus to the city itself—whether to its streets or the sky above it.


Anna Bokov is an architect, urban designer, educator, and historian. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University, a Master’s degree in Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from Syracuse University. She has taught at the Cooper Union, Yale School of Art, Northeastern University School of Architecture, the Moscow Architectural Institute, and Strelka Institute.

Anna has worked as an architect and urban designer with Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam; NBBJ in Moscow; Gluckman Mayner Architects and Polshek Partnership (Ennead) in New York; and the City of Somerville Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development in Somerville, Massachusetts. She has served as an editor for the Project Russia magazine, a leading architectural periodical in Russia. Her work has been presented at the Walker Art Center, Venice Biennale, Moscow Architectural Biennale, and AIA New York.