Shukhov Tower: The Eiffel of the East
- 9 April 2014
- From the section Magazine
The proposed demolition of a rusting Soviet radio tower in Moscow has ignited a passionate, international conservation campaign. Why?
The slender, steel frame of the Shabolovka Tower rises above the rooftops of Moscow. At 160m (525ft) high, it is a single exclamation mark in an otherwise dense urban landscape. Its filigree design gives it a delicate and ephemeral quality, but the radio tower has been a fixture of the skyline since 1922.
Commissioned by Lenin in 1919, the tower is commonly referred to as the Shukhov Tower after its designer - leading engineer Vladimir Shukhov, whose pioneering architectural vision first brought news of the modern world to the Soviet people.
"Communication and radio was the new thing, the latest technology at the time. Shukhov's tower was spreading the word of the new age," says Richard Pare, who first photographed the tower in 1993.
"It is a transcendent structure. The sensation of standing underneath it is so uplifting, it makes you feel weightless. It soars upwards."
Pare is the co-author of an open letter to President Vladimir Putin, signed by a number of renowned architects, urging that the tower be preserved. But in February, Russia's State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting declared the structure unsound and proposed to dismantle it. Campaigners now await an official decision.
"In terms of its engineering, its symbolic significance, the urban landscape - it would be such a catastrophic loss," Pare says.
For architects and conservationists, the 1920s tower is an important historical monument of post-revolutionary Russia, a reminder of an age of optimism in which the country embraced new engineering techniques and mass communication.
The project was visionary - to design a radio mast so high that it could serve far Soviet territories. It was originally conceived as a huge structure that would dominate the city at 350m high - which would have made it the tallest building in the world at the time, and a powerful tool for spreading propaganda.
And the design was no less revolutionary - a steel latticework frame which echoes Gustave Eiffel's tower and The Crystal Palace in London but is also said to have inspired elements of Lord Foster's "Gherkin" building in London. The new "hyperboloid" architecture was pioneered by Shukhov himself - a geometric design which he had employed in the building of water tanks, electrical pylons and lighthouses. The resulting structure was strong and completely wind-resistant - but with a slim and delicate appearance.
The advantage of the design is that more can be done with less material, says Russian cultural historian, Prof Ian Christie: "The tower is very slender - with a low mass. This was vital at the time, because Russia was blockaded by the West after the revolution, so materials were in very short supply."
In the event, the tower only reached 160m because of a shortage of steel. But had it been built to its proposed height, its mass would have been a mere third of the Eiffel Tower's.
Shukhov's tower was unusual, even at the time, remarks Christie: "It was a major Constructivist monument which actually got built - unlike other grand projects of the post-revolutionary period. The Tatlin monument - another amazing structure which exists in many models - was never made."
The tower was built in a decade when Russia played host to the flourishing Constructivist movement - in which industrial design and engineering techniques were used to express artistic and social ideas. But the form effectively withered in the 1930s under Stalin, who disliked the avant-garde and promoted a neo-historical ("Stalinist") style of architecture.
Successive generations have witnessed the gradual decay of many Constructivist monuments in the city - and the attitude towards buildings of the Soviet era remains ambivalent, says historian Prof Catherine Merridale.
"In the 1920s and 30s, engineering was regarded as an honourable profession. It used to mean you were a Communist, a good person - and probably a man," she says.
"Now, the profession has a drab feeling to it - it's been tainted by the greyness of 1970s Soviet Russia. Young Russians today want to work in the media and in glamorous, money-making jobs. They like talking, reading and fashion. They are less interested in engineering and communications towers."
And there is another external pressure on the Shukhov Tower. It sits on valuable real estate, and a building regulation loophole means its demolition could pave the way for a new development of equal height.
One proposal put forward by Russia's Television and Radio Broadcasting committee is to dismantle the tower and reconstruct it elsewhere. Local media has reported officials suggesting Samara - the location for the 2018 World Cup - and Sevastopol in the newly annexed Crimea as alternative locations.
But a faithful reconstruction would be practically impossible, says Natalia Dushkina of The Moscow Architectural Institute. The riveted design makes it a "single, organic structure," she says. "Shukhov himself oversaw its construction. If it is rebuilt, it will never be made in the same material."
And it is true to its surroundings, says Dushkina. "There is a specific logic to the way the buildings were designed together. It is in the centre of the Constructivist residential area. Compositionally, spiritually - this tower is part of the whole structure of the territory."
A landmark that has long helped Muscovites navigate their city, the imminent threat to the tower has struck a public nerve, says Moscow-based photographer Natalia Melikova. "Once, the public attitude would have been indifference. But the events of the past two months have proven that if people didn't spend much time thinking about the tower before, then most likely they have some opinion about it now. "
Melikova's Constructivist Project website is dedicated to Russia's avant-garde architecture and she is involved in the efforts to protect the Shukhov Tower. She is hopeful that another solution will emerge - to develop the Shabolovka area into a cultural quarter.
Melikova's photographs document recent activities by campaigners to raise awareness about the tower. They have been conducting historical tours and collecting public signatures in support of their cause. "It's hard to think of another building that would cause so many people to actively protest against its destruction," says Melikova.
"Shukhov Tower is their tower."