Moscow Landscapes: Shukhov’s Radio Tower & the Roof of GUM
Text and photos Ross Hunter
Many of Moscow’s most fascinating sights are also the cheapest. Amid a rapidly changing skyline, the Shabolovskaya radio tower stands as a beacon of an earlier time of hope and an optimistic future. Once the highest construction in Moscow, it still astonishes and delights. It is slender and graceful, functional and pleasing to the eye, a part of history and astonishingly modern, and a set of curves … made from straight lines. The same architect’s earlier glass roof atop GUM is far more interesting, and cheaper than the shops it protects.
Vladimir Shukhov (1853-1939) was one of Russia’s most prolific and revolutionary architects, with an astonishing range of achievements. He was a leading part of that amazing period, the first quarter of the 20th century, when Russia exploded in a wealth of artistic and scientific innovation, switching from following the West to being years or decades ahead of it. The Russian avantgarde is aptly named.
Shukhov was always striving to get the most out of materials and to find elegant solutions to interesting problems. As always, true functionality creates its own elegance of form. One such example is the water tower, which must support a very heavy top weight on an otherwise not very useful substructure. When approaching the problem of the water tower, Shukhov, rather than using mere mass and weight (and therefore cost), instead knitted a lattice of thin, straight steel stems into a gentle, complex curve (of the sort now familiar from the better types of power station cooling towers, albeit in concrete). This is harder to replicate than it looks — try it with cocktail sticks!
Among hundreds of towers of different purposes and shapes, Shukhov’s 1922 radio tower in Moscow is both the tallest and best known. It stands at 160 meters, half the height of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Although Eiffel’s oeuvre is a model of efficient, sparing engineering, Shukhov’s design weighs only one-third of the French construction per meter of height. Despite this economy, the fledgling Soviet Union in the middle of civil war could not scrape together enough steel to make Shukhov’s masterpiece its intended 350 meters tall. Nevertheless, it was built and has functioned for the eight decades since.
Six sections of 25 meters apiece rise effortlessly from the base, each curving gently with a subtle waisting despite being made only of straight strips. Each segment is sealed by a circular ring. The open lattice saves weight and reduces the stresses from wind, the major problem for tall slender structures. Further, as the tower is hollow, Shukhov managed to build each successive layer on the ground within the cage and to lift and lever it into place without the need for scaffolding or external aids — another economy of time and materials.
The whole tower, whether seen from below or from afar, has the unity and poise of natural anatomy rather than built edifice. The tower is near the Shabalovskaya metro station, on the Orange Line, south of the river. Entry is not officially allowed, but a nice smile at the doorkeeper should allow a decent view. Alternatively, it can be seen from all over Moscow, with especially good views from any of the Seven Sisters skyscrapers, the top of Swissotel or from the cruise boats that ply the river. Go and see it soon, as it is aging fast and needs — and deserves — conservation.
The roof of GUM is another of Shukhov’s fine works, equally elegant, functional, and even more accessible. When the old market “lanes” were consolidated into one solid, and fireproof, building between 1889 and 1894, Shukhov was a natural choice for the roof. As one explores the retail arcades, marveling perhaps at the stonework of the walls or maybe admiring the splendid granites on the floor, it is easy to miss the roof. It is so tall, and so obviously exactly right that it becomes invisible. But take a while to gasp in awe above. Three matching barrels of glass are stunningly impressive whether seen from below, reflected in the many shopping mirrors, or seen along their length from the top floor. The semicircular curves are reminiscent of the great Victorian railway stations (St. Pancras, for example) and lend a similar, Cathedral-like reverence, fitting as steam power and consumerism became the gods of the age.
Helpfully, the panes are labeled, and some elementary arithmetic gets an estimate close to 22,000 pieces of glass. Stand at the bottom, maybe near the central fountain, look up, and turn and turn round. The effect is staggering, and the roof makes its own sky and horizon. Marvel at this clear umbrella, again predating Western mall design by decades.
Vladimir Shukhov has left us two easily accessible and inspiring monuments in central Moscow. His roof over GUM and the radio tower are very different but share modernity, efficiency, and elegance. One is well ahead of the temples of consumerism in the West, the other is even further advanced than the similar (engineers, please forgive me for the reductionism here) geodesic innovations that we associate with the much later genius of Barnes Wallis and Buckminster Fuller. Shukhov’s other works, in bridges, the oil industry, and marine design, are equally advanced, if not as easily visible. There is vibrant debate as to whether and when Russian or Western design and invention is in the ascendant. The canon of Shukhov’s work is a solid and enduring testament to an astonishing period of creativity that spans the end of the Russian Empire and the formative years of the Soviet Union.