Anna Bokov: The “Science” of Archi­tecture at Vkhutemas

The Lab Test series critically examines case studies of architectural institutions inspired by scientific movements, and the projects and ideas produced by them. It accompanies the exhibition Lab Cult: An unorthodox history of interchanges between science and architecture.

In 1927 a group of Soviet Rationalist architects established a “psychotechnical laboratory” at the Higher Art and Technical Studios in Moscow, an interdisciplinary design school known as Vkhutemas (Вхутемас). The goal was to develop “scientific” and “experimentally verified” approaches to architectural pedagogy and design in tandem with Nikolay Ladovsky’s foundational course Space. The laboratory was filled with instruments to test the spatial and visual aptitude of the future architects; its walls, floor, and ceiling were painted black. The testing methods deployed at Vkhutemas aimed to respond to the Soviet Union’s need for rapid industrial development and were influenced by theories of psychology, perception, and industrial optimization developed by scientists such as Hugo Münsterberg at the Harvard Experimental Psychology Laboratory and others. Looking at this confluence of scientific and “scientistic” interests, and its translation through time, space, and politicized cultures, offers a case study of an influential encounter between science and architecture.