In a country of once-futuristic relics, Moscow's Shukhov Radio Tower stands alone, and it stands taller than nearly anything else. A 50-story conical structure of steel latticework designed by the legendary engineer Vladimir Shukhov, the tower looks like a giant collapsable telescope, a cross between the fantastic visions of Dr. Seuss and the avant-garde geometry of Malevich.
But it's days as a signal tower and a defining icon of Soviet modernism are numbered. Over nine decades after it opened, on March 19, 1922, concerns that the aging, long-neglected relic is unstable have led to plans to demolish it. Last month, after years of back and forth, the Russian State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting agreed to the dismantling of the tower with the hope of possibly reconstructing it elsewhere.
At 160 meters, the Shukhov Tower presides over the neighborhood of Shabolovka. Photos: Top: Sergey Norin. Bottom: Natalia Melikova / The Constructivist Project
Opponents of the demolition have come out in force to decry the plan as a threat to an architectural treasure and a cynical bid to redevelop the area, in a residential part of the bustling neighborhood of Shabolovka. The architect’s great-grandson, also named Vladimir Shukhov, has led a campaign to suggest an alternate method of restoration that would leave the tower intact, reinforcing points of structural weakness without tearing it down. Even if the tower were to be moved, architects have said that that would ruin essential details in Shukhov's original design.
The Russian Ministry of Culture has also agreed that demolition would violate the tower's protected status as a cultural monument. "The government’s actions just show the law isn’t important in Russia," Shukhov's great-grandson says, according to The Calvert Journal, a Russian cultural magazine.
Historian Jean-Louis Cohen and photographer Richard Pare, who have extensively documented the Soviet Union's architectural modernism, have also drafted a petition to Vladimir Putin calling for the structure's preservation, with signatures from a number of elite international architects, including Rem Koolhaas, Liz Diller, and Norman Foster. The latter, whose lattice-clad Gherkin building in London bears echoes of the tower, has called it a "structure of dazzling brilliance and great historical importance." (The petition can be signed at Change.org.)
Shukhov's drawing of the original design for a 360 meter-tall tower, which was abandoned due to material shortages.
Shukhov, a polymath engineer and architect, died in 1939 at the age of 85, having lived through a number of political innovations, from the Tsar to Stalin, and technological ones too. As an engineer, he seized upon steel as a robust and versatile material, and his experiments with it gave him a reputation not unlike that of Thomas Edison in the U.S. By February 1919, Shukhov was confident that his innovative steelwork could build a structure taller than the Eiffel Tower—at 360 meters compared to Eiffel's 324—and with a quarter of the Eiffel's material.
But material shortages in bankrupt post-Revolution Russia forced him to revise his initial blueprint: there weren't 2,200 tons of steel readily available. Consequently, by decree of Lenin, the tower reached only 180 meters, or about two-thirds of the height of the Eiffel. But like other iconic transmission towers around the world, it left a soaring, forward-looking impression on its city. When the German critic Walter Benjamin visited Moscow in 1928, he marveled in his diary about "the enormous Moscow radio transmitter, whose shape is different from any other I have seen.”
Echoes of Shukhov's tower can be seen in these masts for electrical lines in Dzerzhinsk. After one was illegally scrapped for metal in May 2005, only one of the 128-meter pylons remains.
The Shukhov remains a model of constructivism, a period that grew out of cubism and Russian Futurism, and that aimed for a more progressive approach to art. Its proponents urged that art could be more than just painting, sculpture, or photography, but an extension of reality, imbued with a kinetic sense of industrialization, technological innovation, and a striving toward new Utopian social systems.
A few years after it opened, Shukhov's spectacular tower played midwife to another towering vision of the Soviet future. The year that Benjamin visited Moscow, another constructivist architect, Vladimir Tatlin, proposed an even taller construction, the Monument to the Third International. Also relying upon ultramodern materials like steel and increasingly narrow concentric circles rising up the structure, Tatlin’s tower was designed to spiral at a tilt, in a twin helix shooting up to 400 meters—about the height of a 100-storey building.
Tatlin's Monument to the Third International
A radical kind of ziggurat, it paid homage to the fervor of Communist revolution and challenged the logic of European modernism. There were plans to include lecture halls, an information center, a gigantic screen along the outside, and a projector at the top that would cast messages across the clouds.
But the tower was never built—there wasn't enough steel, and it wasn't clear it could be built—and Shukhov's remained the sole structure of its kind in Moscow, a kind of Russian answer to Paris' famous tower.
A diagram of Shukhov's tower. Graphic: RIA Novosti
The tower's elegant simplicity from afar belies its complex geometry up close. Shukhov had conducted groundbreaking research on hyperboloids, a non-Euclidian geometric surface that can produce structures that are both lightweight and strong.
Rather than relying on more costly curved beams, a hyperboloid structure achieves greater strength using straight beams arranged in a lattice. Touch any point on the surface of a two sheet hyperboloid structure, and you'll find two straight lines that compose that surface and pass through that point. (The animated GIF here shows a one-sheet hyperboloid.)
Shukhov designed the tower, the apotheosis of his engineering work, by stacking hyperboloids of diminishing size on top of each other. Each steel beam comes to rest at one of a few increasingly smaller rings that rise along the tower at regular intervals. That approach to a tower, which Shukhov used to design water towers and electricity masts, would subsequently take flight across architecture. Le Corbusier, Gaudí, Eduardo Torroja, Oscar Niemeyer and Ieoh Ming Pei have used the hyperboloid to build towers.
Shukhov's engineering feats were famous. In addition to bridges, barges, buildings and boilers, he designed the Russian Empire's first oil pipeline and its first seaworthy oil tanker. In the early 20th century, the US Navy acquired Shukhov’s patents to build lattice masts on its battle ships. You can see his fingerprints on the 1918 dreadnought USS Louisiana.
Ninety two years since it was finished, the tower still inspires architecture in the digital age, and it still broadcasts television and radio signals.
"With his tower, it’s like Shukhov sent a letter from the end of the 19th century to the 21st century," the architect's grandson said. "His techniques in architecture are still being taught to architecture students around the world. Now the people learning his technique can see the work in practice. It would be a great loss if the tower was dismantled and moved.”
Guard at the Shukhov Tower. Photo: Alexander Rodchenko, 1929. Collection of the Moscow House of Photography / W. Stepanova Archive
"We are trying to get as much attention on this situation as possible," the photographer Natalia Melikova, who runs an architectural heritage website called The Constructivist Project, wrote by email. Ahead of a press conference on Wednesday in Moscow, Melikova said she had hoped to gather more statements of support from architects, preservationists and design-lovers overseas. The potential weight that foreign opinion carries, she said, could help convince the authorities "that the tower should stay in its historical place and be restored without dismantling. Take the tower apart and they won't put it back together."
Protesters gathered in a demonstration in Moscow today, ahead of a possible discussion in Parliament next week. The tower's defenders insist that the city of Moscow could decide to halt demolition, or that Putin could authorize the rezoning of the neighborhood in order to prevent construction of a large tower. They've also asked UNESCO to designate the structure a cultural heritage site.
No date has been set for the dismantling of the tower—a plan estimated to cost 119 million rubles ($3.4 million)—but a final decision by Russian authorities is expected by March 24.