95 years of the Shukhov Tower

From the avant-garde early years of Shabolovka to the mid-life crisis.

Collage form the AA AA Visiting School Moscow workshop / source: Facebook

“It was a beautiful sight watching this tower being built: whole sections — 25 metres in height and weighing 49 tons — suddenly appearing among the clouds without any assistance from workers and attracting the attention of every Muscovite. No cranes or scaffolding” — this is how Galankin, the production manager, remembered the construction work in Shablovka. 95 years ago today the first ever hyperboloid was completed, and around its 160 metre axis began the story of a brand new district.


Tatyana Vinogradova, historian, professor at the UNESCO faculty of Nizhny Novgorod State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering

Aleksandra Selivanova, professor of architecture, curator at “Na Shabolovke” gallery.

Aleksandra Chechjotkina, architect, director of AA Visiting School Moscow

Ayrat Bagautdinov, engineering historian, founder of the “Moscow through the eyes of an engineer” project


If you were to compare a city district to a human personality, hard-working, charitable and mild-tempered would be among the traits you could ascribe to Shablovka at the beginning of the 20th century. It had low-rise houses, vegetable gardens, the Donskoy and Danilov monasteries, factories and various charitable institutions. Among them were the Varvarinsky orphanage, which also gave its name to one of the streets, the Arnoldovskoe school for the deaf and mute and the Nechaevskaya workhouse. The latter was built with funds from the industrialist Yury Nechaev-Maltsev. As it happens, he was also the one who helped preserve the first ever hyperboloid structure designed by Vladimir Shukhov.

This was a water tower that also functioned as an observation platform, built in 1896 for the All-Russia Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod. Nechaev-Maltsev purchased the structure, transported it to his estate, and ordered his peasants to re-assemble the tower under Shukhov’s strict supervision. Despite the workers’ lack of engineering work experience, it was completed in a month and has remained in its location to this day. Which is, of course, a true testament to the virtues of Shukhov’s invention. “Despite its height of only 32 metres, in its ideology and structural layout it’s just as outstanding as the Eiffel Tower,” says historian Tatyana Vinogradova. “The main thing is that on the sides its surface is a one-sheet hyperboloid. A beautiful nonlinear surface, but constructed using upright rods. It was very important to position the rods correctly, maintaining a pre-defined tilt angle, and to choose the right positions for the rivets — that way the tower could be assembled quickly and easily. The final structure ended up being incredibly light, low-cost and also very elegant.” For the radio tower in Moscow, Shukhov intentionally increased the margin of safety, proposing to double the number of rods that constituted the structure. The planned height was 350 metres, surpassing that of the Eiffel tower (305 metres). But due to the metal shortage at the time, it had to be decreased to 160 metres. Construction in Shabolovka began on 14 March 1919.

The reason for choosing this principle for the construction of a new radio tower in Moscow in 1919 came as no surprise, even though it was initially supposed to consist of 6 hyperboloids mounted on top of each other. Aleksandra Selivanova explains why Shabolovka was chosen as the location: “It was the highest area of Moscow, after the Sparrow Hills, but unlike them it was located much closer to the city centre. Moreover, it had several large wastelands and on one of them foundations for the future radio base of the State Radio Factories had already been laid. Antennas were standing along Sirotskiy lane, and you can still come across their “anchor shoes” — concrete blocks that the bracings were attached to. The new Shukhov Tower was to become a part of this radio complex”.

1920s style life cycle: from a kindergarten to a crematorium

The tower was built not only in the highest area of Moscow, but also in the territory of the so-called “Red Moscow”. In the 1920s all districts that were located roughly along the Kamer-Kollezhsky rampart (contemporary Serpukhovsky, Zemlyanoy, Sokolnichesky Val etc.) were starting to be built up with residential blocks and infrastructure fit for the “new order of life”. Shabolovka proved to be the perfect location with its big factories and the radio tower — the first iconic building created by the new regime and a symbol of progress. Gradually, the whole district became an example of innovation in both design and lifestyle.

Photo source: pastvu.com

In 1926 the construction of the first house-commune in Moscow began right across the street from Shukhovskaya tower. It was commissioned by a local construction cooperative of transport industry workers and created by a duo of architects — Georgy Volfenzon and Samuil Ayzikovich. They came up with the idea for a “Д”-shaped building with public areas in the middle and residential areas on the sides, even before joining the Shabolovka project. But it was here that the concept acquired the unique features that inspired admiration-filled newspaper articles. The main axis of the building was intentionally oriented to the hyperboloid, thus creating the visual illusion of a whole composition. “Even unfinished, this gigantic building already appears to be incredibly grand and beautiful. Behind it is the latticed tower of the Comintern radio station puncturing the sky. It appears to be as a whole — the house, the tower, the blue sky. You can just stand there looking at it as if in a gallery or in a museum,” wrote the “Vechernyaya Moskva” newspaper.

Photo source: pastvu.com

The building provided 230 single residential units and 40 family flats. It also offered on-site facilities to satisfy the needs of 600 people — from gyms and running tracks, to a nursery and a canteen. There were restrictions too: icons and other religious symbols were completely banned there.

In the neighbouring block a different social experiment was taking place: the Havsko-Shabolovsky residential complex. The Association of New Archiects was commissioned to develop a project for a compact, cheap, but visually striking residential block, while using the standard sections approved by the Mossovet. You can see that the architects excelled at their task just by quickly glancing at the plan for the complex.They positioned 13 buildings at 90-degree angles to each other and at a 45-degree angle to the main streets of the block. This gave the complex its unusual shape, as well as additional light and a network of small inner yards. Balconies, living rooms and bedrooms were overlooking the southern facade, while bathrooms and kitchens, which did not require much natural light, were positioned on the northern facade. Colour also contributed to the visual impact of the complex: some of the surfaces were covered with plaster, others were left red-brick. This made it easier to navigate the area, and also recalled suprematist compositions.

Photo source: pastvu.com
Photo source: pastvu.com
Photo source: pastvu.com

“Among the locals both, of these complexes were referred to as ‘communes’ which is quite symbolic. All the buildings constituting the Havsko-Shabolovsky residential block were listed as number 11 with the building specified,” explains Aleksandra Selivanova. “Two buildings on Havskaya street were called ‘The Commune Gates’, and the whole thing was perceived as a part of the Shukhov tower complex. Not just experimental housing, but also several constructivist schools were built in Shabolovka. The American company Longacre was even commissioned to design one of them: Soviet architects wanted to learn the skills for rapid construction from them.”

Soon, a kind of a campus emerged in Shabolovka, formed by three student accommodation blocks belonging to the Textile Institute. One of them, created by architect Ivan Nikolaev, was truly revolutionary in terms of its vision for the lifestyle and habits of the future. Students were allowed to have only the minimal amount of personal belongings. They slept in small 6-metre cabins, woke up together, and did their morning ablutions in a shared “hygiene wing”, stored books and stationery in library lockers, and relaxed and communicated with each other in specially designated areas. As it turned out, not everyone was prepared to comply with this new format of living: some of Nikolaev’s ideas didn’t stand the test of time, but the building itself remains a significant monument of its era.

The new experimental district in Shabolovka was created with the implication that a person could live there their whole life without any complaints. It already had a nursery, a kindergarten, schools, shops, an institute, and a factory with just one element to complete the cycle of life missing. It was added later when the Donskoy monastery was converted into a crematorium equipped with a columbarium. It was opened on 12 January 1927, honouring the final will of Fyodor Soloviev — a manager at a pump-house somewhere in Mytishchi — who wished to be buried in this innovative way. This establishment was considered exemplary; some even say that tours of the building were conducted. Thanks to all these experiments Shabolovka is now often called the “open air museum of the avant-garde” — that’s how varied both in shape and type are the buildings that are found there.

The birthplace of television

Once the architectural character of the surrounding district was formed, the tower became its symbolic centre, and this is where the history of Moscow television started. Two more wings were added to the former Varvarinsky orphanage, which was already being used for the purposes of the radio. A studio, control room, transmitters and other equipment were all housed there. The first experimental black and white transmission took place on 9 March 1937. Sixteen years later the first experimental colour TV studio was created there. That’s also when an additional tower that operated for nearly 30 years appeared alongside the Shukhov Tower.

During the Second World War, the strategically important tower was covered with aerostats, and even though it suffered no damage from the bombings, a shell fell right into the bomb-shelter, resulting in a communal grave. In autumn 1941 when the Germans were closely approaching Moscow, the hyperboloid was mined with the intention of blowing it up. The television historian Vladimir Hodak remembers his colleague Shchetinin’s story — the latter was responsible for making the decision to push or not push the red button that detonated the mines, under threat of being shot by the officials. Fortunately, he couldn’t bring himself to destroy the structure. On 7 March the first post-war colour broadcast was transmitted from here. On that day the tradition of “Radio Day” celebrations began in Russia.

Photo source: pastvu.com

Almost everyone in the country was familiar with the famous TV station’s address — Shabolovka street, 37 — and had seen the tower’s outline in the “Little Blue Light” variety show. Famous Soviet newscaster Igor Kirillov remembers this ritual: “We had this little superstition, just before a programme, especially if it was something major. I would go around the building, approach the tower and touch it, just like the students who touch the dog statue at the Ploshad Revolutsii metro station. And only after that would I go back into the studio”. Once the first Soviet fighter plane was brought here to feature in a programme. Aviation journalist Evgeni Ryabchikov wanted to show the new aircraft on television, but it proved technically impossible to transport all of the equipment to the airfield. So instead, the TV crew persuaded chief engineer Mikoyan to bring the MiG-15 to the studio: in the middle of the night, the winged machine with its consoles taken off and accompanied by motorcyclists was whisked through Moscow to Shabolovka. Due to its size, it couldn’t go inside the pavilion and had to be parked in the studio yard right under the lattice-work tower. A canvas with the image of the airfield on it was stretched on the fence in front of the aircraft.

In the 1960s the first TV-centre had to pass the baton to a new one built in Ostankino. Only two programmes of the Central Television remained at the old address. In 1991 the territory was passed on to the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company. Meanwhile the tower came under the management of the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Network.

How to re-open the tower: an amphitheatre and a reflection in the mirror

“The Shukhov tower made its journey from an functional engineering structure to a piece of cultural heritage. This structure is unique: no other monument — either in the Kremlin or located on any central street of Moscow — enjoys such a personal connection with people’s lives,” argues Aleksandra Selivanova. “It is standing right in the middle of a residential district, and not only acts as a symbol of the city, but also plays an important role in the life of the Shabolovka local community. No other engineering structure has ever produced in people such warm and personal emotions. But, despite its high status as a monument, the tower cannot be accessed. And this in turn motivates people to search for opportunities to re-open it”.

Not only local residents but also architects from all around the world are trying to find a solution to this issue. In 2016 London’s Architectural Association (AA) conducted one of its AA Visiting School workshops in Shabolovka. Alexandra Chechjotkina, director of AA Visiting School Moscow explains why she picked Shabolovka: “Perfect location, plenty of green zones, good connections to the city, historical heritage — these are some of the advantages of this district, which could allow it to grow in importance in the city-wide context. The concept of a self-sufficient system that informed the creation of Shabolovka in the 1920s is once again relevant today. But for one reason or another this area is currently lacking vibrancy or what could be called ‘urbanity’. The much-discussed constructivist heritage remains in quite a poor state here. The Shukhov tower may be alive, but it’s not living. That is why we wanted to study the area and the connections between its parts, and also try and imagine its future and the role of architectural heritage in it. The goal of this school was not to provide certain answers, but to raise important questions and show the ways in which we could approach them”.

AA Visiting School Moscow workshop / source: Facebook
AA Visiting School Moscow workshop / source: Facebook
AA Visiting School Moscow workshop / source: Facebook

Many of the workshop ideas were related to the dubious status of the Shukhov tower: not partaking in the active life of the area and gradually deteriorating, it remains a symbol of local identity and local history. Participants offered various solutions for highlighting the presence of the monument in Shabolovka. Some of them were quite unusual: to make the house-communes on Lesteva street transparent, and that way increase the visibility of the tower, or to install glass surfaces that would reflect it in various locations. But more obvious proposals to re-open the tower also came up. One participant suggested creating an amphitheatre in the basement, as well as a tourist and cultural centre around the tower with improved links to the nearest underground station and Havskaya street.

It comes as no surprise that the Architectural Association decided to continue its study of Shabolovka in 2017. This time, participants will be focusing on how small-scale interventions could affect the everyday life of the district. The result of this work will be a big information pavilion dedicated to the various aspects of life in Shabolovka.

THE FATE OF OTHER SHUKHOV HYPERBOLOIDS

It’s quite interesting to compare the location of the tower in Shabolovka with others of Shukhov’s hyperboloids. According to Ayrat Bagautdinov, today there are 17 known structures of this kind. Most of them are water towers built at the end of the 1920s-beginning of the 1930s, and three of them (Kukmor, Petoushki and Nikolina Gora) are still in use. The Polibino structure — the electric transmission support located close to the town of Dzerzhinsk — is probably the most unique, and also the most elegant of all of Shukhov’s towers. The materials used here were of much better quality than in Shabolovka, so Shukhov could freely apply his experience of creating multi-tiered hyperboloid structures here. The fire towers on the KIMa street in Nizhny Novgorod and in Lyakhovo village are also great examples.

Most of these monuments, Shabolovka included, have no tourist or recreational infrastructure. Although, according to Bagautdinov in some cities there have been attempts at creating it. “In Krasnodar the tower stands next to a shopping mall and is perceived as a piece of public art. The Polibino hyperboloid was renovated a couple of years ago and the idea of creating a touristic cluster around the Nechaev-Maltsev estate also came up. A renovation project is being developed for the tower in Vyksa: even today you can contact the local museum and arrange to see it, even though it is located on the private property of the plant. A year ago the plant in Kukmor started conducting guided tours of its production and Shukhov’s tower is always mentioned”.

Tatyana Vinogradova offered several other examples from Nizhegordskaya oblast. After Shukhov’s hyperboloid — a fire tower — had been discovered in Lyakhovo, local residents decided to paint it with the colours of the Russian flag and installed a children’s playground nearby. The towers near Dzerzhinsk are also quite exceptional. “Until recently there existed only three multi-tiered hyperboloids in the world — the Shabolovka tower and two electric transmission supports on the Oka river,” says Vinogradova. “In 2005 one of them was secretly and brutally destroyed, the second nearly missed the same fate: several rods in the lower section of the tower were already cut out— Shukhov’s referred to them as ‘legs’. Whoever did it expected the structure to collapse after that, but it persisted. As part of a large project organised by the UNESCO faculty of Nizhny Novgorod State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering, together with several international colleagues, the tower was saved and re-created rods were installed in place of the ones that were cut out. In addition to that, reinforcement work was done on the Oka river bank.”

Text: Svetlana Kondratyeva
Translation: Alexandra Tumarkina