Part 2: The Fall
After the Shukhov Tower’s completion, Shukhov was hailed as a hero. Awarded the Order of Lenin and declared a Hero of Labor, his efficient, austere, modern looking towers were embraced by the Soviet regime as a symbol for their new order. More than 200 hyperboloid structures were constructed across the Soviet Union, the most impressive of which (other than the Moscow tower) were two 400 foot tall transmission towers built along the Oka River. Together they towered over the outskirts of Nizhny Novgorod where, 30 years before, Shukhov built his first tower.
And, as the excitement of the Revolution gave way into the drab, gray paranoia of Stalinism, Shukhov—unlike Eisenstein or Kharms—never fell from grace. He retired peacefully. He died peacefully in 1939. In 1963, the USSR even put him and his tower on a stamp. Moreover, his design has gone on to both practical and aesthetic architectural greatness. Used in cathedrals, football stadiums, and skyscrapers the hyperboloid has become a fixture of modern architecture. Sometimes that influence is obvious, like with the Canton Tower or London’s decidedly phallic 30 St. Mary Axe:
Other times though you’d hardly notice it. Like, for example, those beautiful nuclear cooling towers everyone loves to have near their homes? Those are hyperboloids. Those are only possible thanks to the practical-minded work of Vladimir Shukhov.
Shukhov’s towers were designed to be ultra-minimal, ultra-efficient structures that used the least amount of resources possible. Here’s the thing about ultra-minimal, ultra-efficient structures that use the least amount of resources possible—they’re frequently rather ugly. Grim, gray, and more than a little reminiscent of an artificial Christmas tree skeleton made from chicken wire, what appeal the Shukhov Tower had it had because it was revolutionary. Once that revolutionary glow wore off, once the lithe experimentalism of the early years of the Soviet Union gave way to the morose monoliths of Stalinism, the Shukhov tower became less and less of a triumph and more and more just what it was—a radio tower.
Radio towers, no matter how tall or bold, just aren’t great national monuments. The Eiffel Tower may broadcast radio signals too, but no one thinks about it that way when they look at it. All they see is a massive, intricate, romantic iron ziggurat at the heart of one of the most beautiful cities on earth. The Shukhov Tower couldn’t even come close to pulling that off. It was built, after all, by an engineer famous for his boilers, pipelines, and water-mains. It’s off in a middling, residential part of the city. There’s nowhere for tourists to visit. No observation platforms. No high altitude restaurants. Not even a park around its base. You weren’t even really allowed anywhere near the thing for fear you might be a saboteur intent on damaging Soviet communications. The minute the Soviet Union had new, more exciting, more ostentatious achievements to celebrate (like winning World War II), it wanted more ostentatious monuments. It wanted the Seven Sisters skyscrapers. It wanted the gargantuan, neo-classical, utterly insane Palace of the Soviets:
In the wake of all that, the Shukhov Tower faded into the background. The Soviet Union had moved on. By the 1960s, when that stamp was issued celebrating Vladimir Shukhov and his work, the Shukhov Tower had been become exactly the sort of national monument that always ends up on a commemorative stamp—the kind that everyone—even the people who saw it every single day—had forgotten existed. In 2002, the Russian Communications Ministry turned off the last radio transponder still broadcasting from the tower, and the the crown jewel of Russia’s initial revolutionary energy was reduced to being just a rusted and dilapidated thing in the middle of some old, ugly buildings.
The future for dilapidated things in the middle of some old buildings is never bright.
Presently, the Russian government is considering tearing the Shukhov Tower down. Russia’s new capitalist elite see the building as an eyesore. Real estate developers see the tower as a loophole that would let them build a skyscraper in the middle of the city’s valuable, height restricted old city. The people who live under it are scared that after 90 years without renovations and minimal maintenance it’s going to collapse on them. All of these groups have been pressuring the Ministry of Communications, who are in charge of the tower’s existence, to finally tear this relic down. And at first it seemed like the tower would go quietly, like so much of the Soviet Union, to the scrap heap. What few protestations there were from Moscow locals mostly centered on how the building was a visual landmark that helped them navigate their neighborhood. That’s not exactly the most compelling case in the world for keeping the tower alive.
As word of the pending decision by the Communications Ministry on the tower’s fate spread, however, an international effort formed to try and save the tower as an engineering wonder. A whole slew of famous architects and engineers including Rem Koolhas and Vladimir Shukhov’s grandson have been lobbying Vladimir Putin to turn the structure over to the Ministry of Culture or the City of Moscow for preservation as a tourist destination. Their efforts, though, seem like a long shot. What nostalgia Putin’s Russia has for the Soviet Union is for the Soviet Union of Stalin, for the years when Russia, in the form of the USSR, dominated huge swathes of the earth. Putin wants a strong Russia, a powerful Russia, a dominant Russia. The Shukhov Tower is a relic from the weakest moment in Russian history since the arrival of the Mongolian Golden Horde. It’s a monument to hope. Hope against weakness, hope against poverty, hope against tyranny, hope for the infinite possibilities of the future. Who looks at the new Russia and feels hope? Strength maybe, fear maybe, greed maybe, but not hope. Instead, what seems most likely, is that the structure will be torn down and moved, possibly to the recently annexed Crimea.