There are countless striking images that come to mind when we think about Russia’s tumultuous years during the first half of the 20th century. Many come from the progressive art of the early, optimistic years – films, sculptures and photography. One monumental piece of engineering (you could also call it architecture) would be the Shukhov Tower.
The Shukhov Tower is not a name that is commonly heard, yet it should be. It is often referred to as the Eiffel Tower of the East, but probably due to its utilitarian function (and geographic location) it suffers in comparison – yet it can be argued that, in terms of engineering, it is a superior structure. It should have as much fame and as much written about it as Buckminster-Fuller‘s geodesic dome – that would be nice for a change!
It is Hyperboloid in form, which means that although it is a curved structure it can be made from straight beams (it’s stronger than using curved beams), it is also stronger than typical upright structures against outside forces. For these reasons it’s lattice-work construction has very low wind resistance, but at the same time it’s shape limits the useable space within the structure. Hyperbolic geometry in construction was first demonstrated by Vladimir Shukhov – he designed and built 37 meter tall water tower at the All-Russian Exposition at Nizhny Novogrod in 1896. The Shukhov Tower, in the Shabolovka district of Moscow, is a direct descendant of the water tower. As a side point – the water tower still exists, it was bought after the exposition and moved to Polibino in Lipetsk Oblast.
Built between 1920 and 1922 as a radio transmission tower for Moscow, the Shukhov Tower soon became the symbol of television and radio broadcasts. At 160 meters tall, the tower was originally intended to be 350 meters tall (50 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower and using less than a quarter of the material) but unfortunately, probably due to the Russian Civil War, that amount of steel was not available.
Unfortunately the Shukhov Tower is under imminent threat of demolition and this elegant and historic structure could be lost. It should be put on the UNESCO World Heritage List and a letter has been sent to Vladimir Putin, with signatories including Rem Koolhaas, Tadao Ando and Sir Nicholas Serota in order to try to save the structure on its original site (you can read the letter here). An alternative solution is to dismantle it and reconstruct it else were – this option a very dubious one. Apart from losing its historical context as a feature of the Moscow skyline, the chance of it being reconstructed exactly as before, if not ‘lost’ altogether, is significantly high.
I came across the tower through the angular photography of Alexander Rodchenko. It is a striking and graceful structure which, although it is not a tourist attraction, it really should be – why not make a memorial museum to the work of Vladimir Shukhov at its base!
Where so many great structures of the early 2oth century were proposed yet not actually built (Tatlin’s Tower comes to mind), or built and subsequently disappeared, this one still exists and it should be preserved as a memorial to the engineering, architectural dreaming and optimism of the era.