Moscow weighs the fate of historic Shukhov radio tower
19 March 2014
The Shabolovka Street radio tower in Moscow, the first structure to be built by the new Soviet government between 1919 and 1922, is now threatened with demolition because of a boom in real estate speculation in central Moscow. From the time the workers state emerged from desperate conditions produced by the First World War, the civil war within Russia and the wars of imperialist intervention, the Shukhov Tower, as it is known in honor of its designer, has stood as a prominent symbol of the historic achievements of the October 1917 Revolution.
Rising from a modest circular trench footing, it seemingly springs into the air to rise 150 meters. The tower was designed to be more than twice its current height and would have surpassed the Eiffel Tower as the tallest structure in the world, had it not been for the acute scarcity of metal in the isolated workers state. A marvel of mathematical and engineering science, the taller structure would have required only one quarter of the material contained in its Parisian counterpart.
Shukhov tower has been the subject of controversy for a number of years, as it suffered from official neglect. In 2009 Russian President Vladimir Putin approved funds for its restoration, but nothing was done. Vladimir Shukhov, the great-grandson of the tower’s designer of the same name, is leading an international campaign to prevent the tower’s dismemberment. He explained to the World Socialist Web Site that because of laws governing height restrictions for development in Moscow, the site is especially coveted by wealthy speculators.
Instead of being limited to nine stories, or 35 meters, a building replacing the Shukhov Tower could bypass legal obstacles and rise to the height of the structure it replaces. Leading architects, engineers and academics from throughout the world have signed a petition to preserve the tower, and a demonstration has been organized to protest imminent moves to dismantle it. No date has been set for demolition, but a final decision by the Russian authorities may come as soon as the beginning of next week.
The Moscow Times carried a short announcement on February 12, 2014 entitled, “1920’s Soviet Radio Tower to Be Dismantled.” In a mix of cynicism and misrepresentation, Nikolai Nikiforov, the minister of communications who exercises jurisdiction over the site, told the paper, “The only possible option for a solution to the problem is a two-stage reconstruction and renovation of the radio tower, which stipulates in the first stage its dismantling for the conservation and preservation of elements for later restoration.”
A photo montage commemorating completion of the tower in 1922 shows the full crew required for construction.
While the structure is in sore need of maintenance, it is, contrary to the minister’s assertion, in no danger of imminent collapse. The appropriate approach to restoration would be to replace individual parts, in situ, as part of a program of regular maintenance. Its position on a rise of ground not far from the Kremlin is itself of historic importance.
The tower was built to replace the secrecy and deceit of the czarist regime and capitalist governments around the world with the free flow of information from the center of the new workers state. Initiating construction in July 1919, a Resolution of the Council of Workers and Peasants Defense signed by V. Ulianov (Lenin), stated: “In order to secure reliable and constant communication for the center of the republic with western states and with the republic’s outlying areas, the people’s commissar of mails and telegraphs is entrusted with the task of installing extremely urgently in Moscow a radio station with the most modern instruments and machines with the power for realizing said task.”
Vladimir Shukhov, born in 1853 in the small town of Grayvoron near the border of Ukraine, was the foremost engineer of his time. He refused lucrative offers to emigrate in the aftermath of the revolution, opting instead to pursue his work in the land of the soviets, adopting the motto: “We should work independently from politics. Our buildings, boilers and beams will be needed and so will we.”
Independent of its profound political significance, the intellectual tradition and specific technical innovations without which the tower would have been impossible would be reason enough to preserve it as a cultural treasure.
Shukhov was a polymath and had developed the ability to advance the work of Nikolai Lobachevskii in defining non-Euclidian surfaces of negative double curvature mathematically. He had a unique capacity, moreover, for taking theoretical advances into technical applications. Early in his professional work, he had produced calculations for structural membranes on flexible foundations. This enabled him to design uniquely efficient oil storage tanks, pipelines, oil barges, water systems and the first ocean-going oil tanker.
When he directed these achievements to the emerging science of steel construction, he was able to create lightweight structures, “metal lace” as he called them, that could efficiently span great distances in buildings, bridges and towers.
The radio tower was his crowning achievement and represents a pivotal moment in scientific, architectural, political and cultural history. It combines simple steel members to create forms known as paraboloids of revolution. These exploit the great strengths of the new material to resist both tension and compression in such a way as to overcome its weakness, which is the tendency of extended members to buckle.
He wrote that he had first thought of the possibility of such structures when watching the action of a woven basket supporting a heavy object. Before the October Revolution he had designed and built more than two hundred paraboloid towers to support water tanks. Much smaller than the radio tower, each one was unique.
Richard Pare, the photographer, architectural historian and specialist on the Soviet avant-garde, told the WSWS, “That’s why it is so important. It’s the biggest one ever erected. It was put up when it was. It heralded the revolution‚ the clarion of the new age, spreading the word. The whole structure is about openness and transparency, which is a metaphor for the ideals of the revolution as it was in its beginnings. There it is. It is one of the symbols of Moscow. It is an amazing and very important structure.”
Pare went on to denounce the plan to dismantle the tower, saying, “It would be a huge loss for the whole history of engineering and sense of the focus in the city and of Russian history in general. You can go on and on. It’s just unthinkable that it should be dismantled. In the evolution of radio as a form of communications, it was right in the vanguard, an incredibly optimistic, forward-looking thing.”
In a comment emailed to the New York Times last week, Pare noted that “The impression when you stand beneath it [the Shukhov Tower] is unforgettable … The elements surge upwards, creating a rush of optimism and elation.” His email to the Times went on to contrast the radio tower with the Lenin Mausoleum, constructed by the Stalinist regime in 1929-30, “a space that stands at the opposite pole to the brilliance of Shukhov’s masterpiece … From light to dark in eight years.”