MOSCOW, Russia — The Soviet-era Shukhov radio tower rises from the shabby apartment blocks of southern Moscow and is visible for miles around. It has long inspired architects and engineers around the world but now stands neglected, cut off from visitors.
Citing the danger that its disrepair could cause it to fall down, Russia’s communications ministry on March 7 proposed moving the tower to another location, which would require it to be taken down and rebuilt. Experts say that would spell a death sentence for the world famous landmark.
An international campaign was launched earlier this month to save the 150-meter-high tower, which was built in 1922 by Vladimir Shukhov, one of Russia’s most famous and prolific engineers.
Some of the world’s best known architects and engineers, including Rem Koolhaas, Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, sent a letter to Russian president Vladimir Putin that called the tower “one of the emblems of Moscow, and one of the superlative engineering feats of the twentieth century.” They asked to keep the tower in its place and to put it on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
At the same time, a local tour group called Moscow Walks launched up a selfie contest called “The Shukhov Tower is cooler than the Eiffel Tower” to draw attention to the tower’s plight, using the hashtag #шухов.
“It was the first major structure built after the revolution,” said photographer Richard Pare, who helped organize the letter and who traced the history of post-Soviet architecture in his book The Lost Vanguard: Russian Modernist Architecture 1922-1932.
The tower was built after the Bolshevik revolution, when Russia’s industrial base collapsed, and Shukhov used a minimal amount of metal to create a structure as iconic as the Eiffel Tower.
“It’s extraordinary in its efficiency, let alone any kind of engineering magic that went into it,” Pare said.
Shukhov, born in 1853, was already a world famous architect when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. He designed Russia’s first oil pipeline in Azerbaijan and the first seaworthy oil tanker, and had already used the innovative hyperboloid structure, which looks like an upside down telescope, that would be used in the signal tower and in numerous other structures such as water towers.
He was no fan of the Bolsheviks, whom he described as “ignorant people.” His house in central Moscow was hit by a missile as the Bolsheviks fought for control of Moscow, and he and his family were later evicted by the revolutionaries. Despite offers of work in the U.S. and Germany, he stayed in Russia.
“We should work independent of politics. Towers, boilers and beams will be needed and so would will we,” he said at the time.
On July 30, 1919, Vladimir Lenin signed a decree creating a radio station to broadcast propaganda both to the West and to the rest of Russia. The workers set to build the tower were freed from serving in the army, but guaranteed Red Army rations — a big deal in this time of unrest, poverty and hunger.
Shukhov kept a diary, full of short entries, during construction. “No Iron” read the entry for Sept. 20, 1920, and again on Oct. 1.
Shukhov’s mother died during the course of the construction of the tower, and he wrote, “Poor mama: she loved to live life extravagantly, but died in the poorest circumstances.”
A poem appeared in the Bolshevik newspaper Plamya in honor of the tower that shows its significance: “The tower of the joyful epoch will defeat the dark chaos.”
Construction was not without its calamities. In June 1921 a cable broke as one of the sections of the tower was being raised, destroying virtually all the work that had been done.
Shukhov was called before a commission and told that the tower had to be built or else. In his diary he wrote: “Provisional verdict: death by shooting.”
“They told him that for what you have done you should be shot on the spot and your family as enemies of the people,” Shukhov’s grandson Vladimir said. “But you have one chance.”
Eight months later, the tower was finished.
“He built it with a gun to his head … But I don’t think he built it because he was scared of death. It was a different story, ambition. ‘They think I won’t build it,’ so he built it.”
Today, the tower is not used anymore for broadcasting and few ever get access to it.
Vladimir Shukhov, who now heads a foundation named after his grandfather, has long lobbied for the tower to be restored. Many campaigners believe the campaign to move the tower is just part of another grab for Moscow’s valuable land.
Alexei Volin, deputy communications minister, said in an email that the tower could “fall to pieces” and that “its present location is useless.” “It would be a shame if it fell,” he said.
When asked if something would be built in its spot, he wrote: “The land will be placed in service of the Government. The spot is too small to build there something substantial.”
Pare, the architecture expert, said: “It’s an appalling symbol of the rampant blind greed that seems to be driving everything in Moscow. It’s impossible to find out who is manipulating things behind the scenes, but it’s almost certain that there is someone who has their eye on the prize because it is such a desirable part of the city.”
Pare first saw the tower when he came to Moscow in 1993. “The sight of the diaphanous, almost weightless structure rising into the sky was unforgettable,” he said. Five years later, he was able to tour it. “That experience was unforgettable, the emotional effect of standing beneath giving a sense of exhilaration and optimism, and contributed to a sense of weightlessness in me,” he said. “The other thing I remember was the sound of someone with an angle grinder cutting metal. In retrospect, it now seems like an omen.”