Moscow Shukhov Tower, global or local affair?

By | Art & Design
Shukhov Radio Tower

The recent dispute around the future of the Shukov Tower in Moscow, seems to be the perfect chance for Russian government to reconsider and improve the legislation with regard to conservation of modern architecture in the country.

Shukhov Tower, Picture Igor Palmin

Shukhov Tower, Picture Igor Palmin

The ex-broadcasting tower,  a masterpiece of the avant-garde era (completed in 1922) signed by Vladimir Grigorievich Shukhov, is an outstanding 160 metre-tall, steel latticework structure, composed of six hyperboloid sections (each of 25m height) of decreasing diameter from the bottom to the top.  The building, besides its technological qualities outstanding for the time of its construction, is certainly a milestone in the history of architecture and design. As an essential step in the development of modern architecture, it stands between the achievements of the 19th Century architecture of engineers and the conceptual artistic research pursued by the historical avant-garde internationally and locally; the project emulates the iconic power of its contemporary alter ego, Tatlin’s unbuilt Constructivist project of the Monument to the Third International (1920, which was meant to be a mass-communication centre with a radio station for propaganda). Combining modern utopia and technical achievements, the tower has become a definitive model for subsequent architectural design projects, as Norman Foster’s design of the Gherkin in London demonstrates.

On February 25th of this year, the Russian State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting agreed to the dismantling of the tower, with the claim that its compromised conservation state might cause the building to collapse. Following the Committee proposal, a letter signed by prominent figures in the field of architectural design and history, including: Rem Koolhaas, Elizabeth Diller, Tadao Ando, Jean-Louis Cohen and Nicholas Serota,  was sent to President Vladimir Putin in order to prevent the tower’s demolition. The main points presented in favour of the conservation of the Shukhov Tower were:

  • Although the surface of the structure presents the effects of inadequate maintenance over the years, the building seems to maintain structural integrity.
  • The fact that the Committee decision weighed the land market value against the building’s historical and cultural one; in fact, its demolition would allow the construction of a high-rise building of 50 storeys, due to the current regulation allowing the height of the new construction to match the existing one (even though, usually in Central Moscow, the height of buildings is restricted to 9 storeys).
  • The fact that, even considering the option of dismantling and reconstructing the tower elsewhere, the nature of the existing area of the city would be compromised and a piece of Moscow’s historical heritage would be gone.

It is interesting to observe that each of these facts highlight different and valid aspects in favour of the conservation of the tower; one technical, one economical and one cultural. What seems more striking is the fact that the letter, signed by an international crew of professionals, is appealing to the “global rights” of the building, mentioning also its nomination into the UNESCO World Heritage List.

View of Moscow from the tower, image Andrey Llyin

As Natalia Dushkina observed (see article: Heritage at Risk: The Fate of Modernist Buildings in Russia, 2008), in the past two decades Russia – as other countries where the state has, for a long time, owned all forms of property, including historical building lands – has experienced the effects of an uncoordinated building practice on one side, along with weak legislation and measures in matter of conservation and restoration of existing buildings of the 20th Century. Recently the question emerged as a global challenge in the context of the International Scientific Conference Heritage at Risk: Preservation of Twentieth-Century Architecture and World Heritage in April 2006, where the importance of the Russian avant-garde in the international framework was pointed out.

Torn down the Berlin wall, along with the boundaries between nation states a part of the world (or at least Western) cultural heritage is fading away; therefore to make sure that a piece of history of modern architecture and engineering like the Shukhov Tower will be preserved, architects gathered from different parts of the globe in defence of Moscow’s landmark, and the decision about the tower’s future has officially entered the domain of a worldwide community. That said, it is clear that the debate about the contended architectural masterpiece is a great occasion both to raise awareness around the conservation policy and destiny of modern architecture in Russia and to question the global power of intervention on similar cases.

Why is the debate around the Shukhov Tower’s future so prominent at the moment and what is the impact it can have on the conservation of modern buildings?


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