Over and Done With

The air in which the manifold facsimiles and translations were suspended was stale.

I imagine Masha Gessen mouthing the name of the website with mild bemusement. Aarch-nekt? Aark-net? In a recent interview with the New Yorker about mounting Russophobia, the journalist and New Yorker columnist explained their resignation from the board of a prominent free-speech nonprofit after it bungled the arrangements for a literary festival at which Russian and Ukrainian writers would be present. (Complaints from the latter led the organization to disinvite the former, including Gessen.) Cultural programmers in the West, evidently fearful of becoming unwitting marks of Russian soft power, have derailed forgatherings of the international literati, performances of Tchaikovsky operas, and now, unassuming gallery shows about Soviet architecture. Gessen referred to the incident in which Cooper Union administrators kneecapped an exhibition about “a revolutionary art movement crushed by Stalin” organized by its own faculty, following the appearance of “a couple of articles in architecture newsletters that criticized the show, including one which accused the curator, completely unfairly, of being a Putinite.”

A few observations: Archinect (AAR-KUH-NEKT), the outlet that published the risible op-ed around which the controversy seemed to turn, isn’t a newsletter, though what it is isn’t easy to pin down; Vkhutemas, the architecture and design institute that was the actual subject of the Cooper show, was less concerned with art than with the transformation of life in accordance with socialist revolution; and by the time the New Yorker published its article the same show had already come and gone, and Gessen, a clarifying editorial note suggests, was none the wiser. A forgivable oversight: after a postponement of three months, Cooper elected to hang the exhibition for just ten days in early May. The production, which was based on Anna Bokov’s assiduous 2021 study Avant-Garde as Method: Vkhutemas and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920–1930, was student-grade, proudly so. Models, partly assembled from 3D-printed pieces, were on the level of the school’s renowned end-of-year pageant—in that they transcended basic university competency, if not always effortlessly—and an amply enumerated timeline kept me preoccupied for the better part of an hour. But the air in which the manifold facsimiles and translations were suspended was, regrettably, stale. In their original graphite guises, designs such as Viktor Pashkov’s 1927 proposal for a Lenin library and Lydia Komarova’s 1929 headquarters for the Comintern pulse and ache and fracture. One can almost hear these putative buildings emerge from the firmament, ready to storm heaven. Yet, reanimated as they were here—in the dull uniform material of congealed synthetic goo and in disconsolate three dimensions—they were mute, even anonymous. By vacating all politics from Vkhutemas (politics that are anathema to Russia’s current order), the organizers hoped that thematics of pedagogy would suffice as a terrain of engagement. This strikes me as a narrowing and precisely the opposite of the aims of Vkhutemas, which, after all, wanted not just creative freedom but the whole world.