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Disappearing Towers. Vladimir Shukhov was one of the most prolific and innovative architects in early 20th-century Russia. But today his legacy is endangered.
By Kevin O'Flynn
The Shukhov television tower on Ulitsa Shabolovka is one of Moscow's most famous structures. A symbol of the Russian avant-garde, it was a major architectural feat when it was built 85 years ago according to a design by pioneering architect Vladimir Shukhov.
Today, it is cut off from visitors, surrounded by buildings that are certainly no architectural feats and spoiled by a concrete base.
Vladimir Shukhov, the architect's great-grandson, wants to change that. He launched an appeal this month to restore the tower -— which, he says, has not been properly repaired since it was built -— and to open it to the public. In a news conference, he talked about the plans of his Shukhov Tower Foundation, which aims to turn the tower and the surrounding area into a cultural center.
"The tower at Shabolovka has not been repaired, and other Shukhov buildings have been simply wiped from the face of the earth," he told reporters at the Shchusev Architecture Museum.
Born in 1853, Shukhov was an engineering polymath who played an integral part in the vast expansion of Russia's oil industry at the turn of the 20th century. His designs were used for more than 1,600 kilometers of oil pipelines, including Russia's first oil pipeline, a project for the Nobel brothers that went to Baku. Shukhov designed the world's first hyperboloid tower -— an innovative type of structure that was widely copied -— and used a similar design for more than 200 steel towers around Russia. He also designed more than 500 steel bridges and 10,000 oil tanks.
But today fewer than 30 of his structures are still standing.
Shukhov's grand, inspiring train shed at Kievsky Station was dismantled and replaced by a newer copy in 2004. His tram depot on Shabolovka is also gone.
There used to be a lot of Shukhov towers. Until recently, there was a pair of Shukhov-designed electricity pylons on the Oka River near Nizhny Novgorod; one was gutted by raiders for scrap metal, while preservationists are fighting to save the other one. Shukhov's first tower, built in 1896, now stands corroding on a ruined estate in the Lipetsk region.
Yaroslavl, Kolomna, Podolsk and Krasnodar used to have water towers similar to the Moscow television tower, but they have all been dismantled.
The Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage on Ulitsa Obraztsova in Moscow has been partly destroyed in reconstruction. The building was designed together with the famed Constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov. Melnikov's granddaughter Yekaterina joined Shukhov at the news conference to offer her support for the tower project.
Shukhov estimates that $2.5 million is needed to repair the tower on Shabolovka. The structure is suffering from severe corrosion, said Vadim Oreshnikov, deputy engineer at the Moscow section of the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System, which is in charge of the tower.
Thanks to its hyperbolic shape, which twists and turns up to a height of 150 meters, the tower has fascinated Muscovites and visitors alike since 1922. Although it looks like a roller coaster of curves, the tower is actually made of straight metal strips that give the impression of curves.
Originally, Shukhov wanted to build a tower 350 meters tall -— topping the Eiffel Tower, which is 324 meters high -— but finding enough metal was impossible in the midst of the Russian Civil War. The tower's height was reduced to 150 meters.
Building a metal tower was put forward after one of three wooden towers previously used for transmitting radio signals collapsed when a plane delivering mail slammed into it in 1919. Twenty years later, a small plane crashed into the Shukhov tower, too. But the plane suffered more than the tower.
The tower's unique hyperbolic shape was constructed like a telescope in reverse: First the base, and then the next sections, were pulled up by blocks and pulleys.
Unlike the Eiffel Tower, part of the Shukhov tower's genius is its sturdiness despite the use of so little material. It weighs 240 tons compared to the 7,300 tons of the Parisian landmark.
Shukhov's admirers include LUKoil, which has agreed to help erect a monument to him in Moscow, and President Vladimir Putin, who praises him on the web site of the Shukhov Tower Foundation. "[Shukhov's] technical ideas brought world recognition to the Russian school of engineering and stay current to this day," Putin is quoted as saying.
Last year, the participants of Heritage at Risk, an international conference on the preservation of 20th-century Russian architecture, declared the tower, along with six other modernist structures, part of the world's cultural heritage.The tower was first used for transmitting Comintern propaganda to the world at a time when the Bolsheviks still believed that world revolution was not far off. Shukhov is said to have slept by the tower as it was built, fearing that he would pay with his head if it turned out to be a failure.
It later became a symbol of Soviet television. Regular television broadcasting began in 1939, with the first program being about the 18th Congress of the Communist Party.
In the 1960s, the newly built Ostankino tower took over broadcasting television, although the Shukhov tower was called out of retirement in 2000 after the Ostankino tower fire.
The Shukhov tower is now a federal monument, but the government is not yet ready to stump up for its repairs. The Moscow city government has floated an idea to turn it into a tourist attraction with access to the top, but nothing ever came of the plan. The view from the top of the Shukhov tower, Oreshnikov noted, far outshines that from Ostankino. "You can see the Kremlin," he said, "and the curve of the river."
05.03.2007 Den Antrag des Prof. Dr. Rainer Graefe auf die Notwendigkeit der Wiederherstellung des Suchovs Turmes
12.09.2006 The international expertise of preservation and protection of constructions by V.G. Shukhov in Nizhniy Novgorod region
21.05.2006 3D Models of the Shukhov towers
28.03.2006 Norman Foster's skyscraper in Moscow
03.02.2006 A Towering Genius
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