The politics of preservation: Shukhov radio tower in Moscow, 1920-1922

Originally published by Metropolis
magazine back in March 2014.

Moscow’s Shukhov radio tower, an iconic work of early Soviet constructivism, has lately become a subject of intense debate within Russia, involving several government ministries and independent civil society organizations. Erected between 1920 and 1922, the structure today faces either disassembly or potential collapse, resulting from lack of proper upkeep and decades of neglect. Once a symbol of revolutionary optimism and progress, Vladimir Shukhov’s masterpiece of light engineering now takes on an aspect of fragility. Its steel frame stands as a material reminder of the extraordinary experiment once underway in that part of the world, another delicate relic of a bygone age.

According to Russia’s Federal Ministry of Communications and Mass Media, the aging tower has fallen into such irrevocable disrepair that the only hope for salvaging it is to dismantle it immediately so that the original pieces can be put back together at a future date. “The only possible solution to the problem is a two-stage reconstruction and renovation of the station, which stipulates…its dismemberment for the conservation and preservation of elements for later restoration,” an unnamed spokesperson told The Moscow Times last month. Failing this, ministry officials warn, the radio tower will sooner or later succumb to decay, the latticework no longer able to resist the force of gravity pulling it down to earth. In their view, it must be removed at least for the time being. Some have even raised the possibility of permanent relocation to another, yet-to-be-determined site, a still more controversial prospect.

rodchenko-shukhov-transmission-tower-1919Башня радио-станции %22Большой Коминтерн%22 1927

Not everyone agrees with this dire forecast, however. Opponents of this proposal — which include the Russian Ministry of Culture as well as the architect’s great-grandson, also named Vladimir Shukhov — acknowledge the seriousness of the situation, but suggest a method of restoration that would leave the building intact for the duration. With careful precision, they contend, it would be possible to reinforce points of structural weakness without tearing the tower down. Moreover, there is some question as to the legality of such a motion, were it to take place, especially given the Shukhov tower’s protected status as a cultural monument. The Calvert Journal reports the sense of dismay felt by many enthusiasts of the Soviet avant-garde upon learning of the government’s flagrant disregard for its own prior legislation. Shukhov’s living descendent remarked disparagingly that “[t]he government’s actions just show the law isn’t important in Russia.” Continue reading