Shukhov’s tower

It watched over the revolutionary turmoil of 1920s Russia, the dictatorship of Stalin, the Nazi advance to the borders of the Moscow, the long years of Soviet decline and eventual collapse, and the rise of a new Russian autocracy under Vladimir Putin.

Now, nearly 100 years after its first broadcast in 1922, the Shabolovka Radio Tower, better known as the Shukhov Tower in tribute to the visionary engineer who pioneered its radical design, may finally be deconstructed.

The tower is an icon of early 20th century modernist design. Its delicate lattice structure, assembled of five interlocking 'hyperboloids', allows it to raise the heavy radio apparatus it supports to a great height - 160 metres - with assurance that it will withstand the buffeting of strong winds.

Historic image of Shukhov's Tower over Moscow

It is the best known of the transmission towers designed by Vladimir Shukhov during the first decades of the last century, and was the template for the design of the countless steel lattice structures now used across the world: water towers, lighthouses, masts of warships, pylons, and overhead covers for large open spaces.

The design is celebrated for its beauty as well as its efficient practicality: the mathematical poetry of its patterns, a rational grid inscribed upon the shifting cloudscape, stands as an enduring symbol of the power of the engineering imagination. The tower's elemental aesthetic power has been referenced in the work of many contemporary architects: here in Britain, for example, Sir Norman Foster acknowledged Shukhov's influence on the design of the British Museum dome and 30 St Mary Axe (better known as the Gherkin).

British Museum dome | Image: Wikipedia

St Mary Axe (The Gherkin) | Image: Wikipedia

The tower continued to broadcast for 90 years before its signal was finally switched off in 2002. The Russian Communications Ministry has since recommended that it be disassembled to make way for a property development.

Putin has the power to block the decision, and is due to announce tomorrow on the tower's future. The Shukhov Foundation, supported by many of the world's leading architects, has urged consideration of a counterproposal to preserve the tower, give it UNESCO status, and open a visitors centre at its foot.

There is hope that the President will be persuaded to preserve the tower on patriotic grounds, as an emblem of the sophistication of early Soviet engineering. It's more important than that: this is a building for the world, not just for Russia. But whatever the motivation, I hope that in this case, at least, he makes the right decision.

The masthead image above is a crop of a 1920s photo of the tower by Alexander Rodchenko.

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