By Alexandra Novozhenova
  • Alexandra Novozhenova

Oh, no, not the Shukhov tower! In Moscow, where demolition decisions are always made to the surprise and shock of city residents and the architectural community, you never know what is next on the list. It is a tough task to be emotionally attached to a city where there is something of a farewell about each stroll through its streets, as the orgy of development that we have seen over the past twenty-five years threatens anything that an old-timer muscovite could possibly cling to. The latest Moscow government initiative, which alarmed not only architecture lovers but also thousands of regular city dwellers, is to dismantle the famous Shukhov radio tower, a unique 1922 construction designed and built by the engineer Vladimir Shukhov—probably the most important monument of early Soviet modernization located far outside the Garden Ring that surrounds the old city center, a proud memory of the enormous postrevolutionary effort to master modern engineering in the backward agricultural country that Russia was at that time.

Over the last several decades we got used to mourning ‘our’ sweet and precious nineteenth-century Pushkin-era mansions, some boyar’s palaty [a medieval aristocratic manor], or the early twentieth-century Art Nouveau houses now being razed to the ground so as to make space for a generic business center, or, even worse, an ‘exact’ copy of the building’s former self, now accommodating some shady private bank under the guard of unwelcoming security. These barbaric demolitions and pseudo-restorations in Moscow’s city center (of which there is really not much left, especially in comparison to Saint Petersburg) were mostly associated with the wild primary accumulation of capital in the 1990s–2000s, which coincided with mayor Yury Luzhkov’s tenure. Although outrageous, and very much still in play, this destructive policy no longer brings about mass campaigns of any significant visibility in defense of the buildings. Now, however, something has changed—thousands have raised their voices to protect an old radio tower that has been out of commission for quite some time.

In the last couple of years (basically since the beginning of Putin’s third presidential administration) the appetite for protest has grown, and has now reached the most intense peak in the entire post-Soviet period. At the same time, the space for political expression and action has been (and still is) narrowing drastically with every passing day. Major federal politicians’ statements have become increasingly reactionary. On top of everything, the country has become a territorialist military aggressor, while simultaneously strengthening its internal nationalist-conservative rhetoric, expressed, inter alia, through the questioning of the modernist legacy. For example, there is energetic and public dispute over whether Malevich’s Black Square (1915) can be considered a Russian work of art.

On a local level, however, there is a feeling that the municipal authorities’ task is to compensate for the frustration caused by the continued deprivation of leisurely city life. Although distinctly neoliberal, their policies pretend to be culturally enlightened—a moderate enlightenment of neo-conservatism, of approving everything effective and technologically contemporary, and understanding culture as a purely utilitarian tool for managing the citizenry’s temper. This attitude became especially noticeable when Sergei Kapkov, ex-deputy governor of Chukotka (the far-east autonomous district and remotest part of Russia’s territory), was appointed the director of Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure. His famous motto—“Culture is the best cure for the appetite for protest”—pretty much sums up the new cultural order in the city, which emerged as a result of his activities. Gorky Park is situated in the center of Moscow and is associated with the 1930s–1950s new Soviet petit-bourgeois lifestyle, which replaced the early Soviet avant-garde utopianism of the 1920s of which the Shukhov tower is a symbol. After the fall of the USSR, and until recently, the park was neglected, relegated to a romantic vestige of Stalinist neo-classicism with some unorganized spots of 1990s wild capitalism. But this neglect came to an end when the cultural center Garage—run by billionaire Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend Dasha Zhukova—decided to move into one of the park’s pavilions. Oligarch Abramovich became the main sponsor of the park’s renovation, and appointed Kapkov, his crony, as park director, before moving him on to the position of head of the Culture Department of the City of Moscow. Under Kapkov’s leadership, the huge park, now referred to as “Kapkovland,” was filled with all sorts of ‘content’: fashionable cafes, green lawns, chaises longues, an open-air cinema, and, of course, exhibition spaces. The wrong café owners were banished, the suitable café owners were recruited, and within two years this taste-driven policy proved its effectiveness—the previously empty park was now overcrowded. At last in Russia there appeared a perfect space (although quite restricted) where everything looked just fine.

But what about all the fuss around the Shukhov tower? The plan presented by the authorities was to renovate it and move it to some other, more ‘visible’ place (maybe Gorky Park?), making it a part of the tourist routes and integrating it into Kapkov’s new remapping of leisurely city life. But there were several problems with this idea. The tower is literally built into its historical environment, with the whole district—a Constructivist social housing project of 1920s—oriented toward the tower as an architectural marker. The dismantling, refashioning, and resituating of this metal lattice tower would be an actual destruction of the original monument; it would become a decontextualized copy. In a grand show of bad faith, it became clear that moving the tower to some other setting could pave the way for the full redevelopment of the Constructivist-designed neighborhood. The reason for the appeal of this plan, however, belied another motive.

There is a regulation in Moscow prohibiting the construction of skyscrapers inside the part of the city where the tower is located, and yet, a law exists stipulating that the height of a new building can match the height of a building that stood on the same site previously. So, moving a 150-meter-tall tower to some other place—like Gorky Park—paves the way to build an otherwise impossible building, worth millions of dollars. This ostensible dupe seemed too cynical for the activists, local residents, and architecture community, who were fed up with being radically cut off from any possibility of participating in the governing process on both federal and local levels. Being a symbol of the utopian socialist modernization that in reality was never completed, the tower gave rise to a protest against the nationalist, anti-modernist rhetoric, but also against ‘enlightened’ neoliberal city politics veiling the conservative aggression of the state. This rather ascetic tower construction definitely lacks the cuteness of the empire mansions from the old city center and the cheerful expression of Gorky Park associated with revamped clichés of a Stalinist ‘happy childhood.’ Nevertheless, the threat of the tower’s ‘renovation’ brought about a unifying mobilization of architecture activists, new leftists, liberal intelligentsia, precarious workers of all sorts, and local residents. It became clear that today, following Putin’s invasion of Crimea—which is being accompanied by a massive flow of nationalistic media propaganda—and in the wake of the most severe conservative turn in post-Soviet history, we are almost being forced to formulate our own way of handling the remnants of Soviet architectural modernism, be it the early Constructivist buildings or the much less valued monuments of the second modernization wave of the 1960s and 1970s. This heritage is considered the most unlucky as it is usually not of the best construction quality: Constructivist houses were erected in the toughest times using experimental materials that were usually of a very poor quality; the architecture of the 1960s and 1970s was not much improved. To somehow incentivize a difficult and expensive preservation of this heritage would require political, historical, and aesthetic motivation. In previous years there existed a limited community of connoisseurs who reveled in their ability to appreciate these unobvious masterpieces. Today there is an increasing number of amateurs studying Soviet-era architecture, as well as self-organized guided tours through the social housing districts and sightseeing in the remote, modernist outskirts of the city, all demonstrating not only aesthetic enthusiasm, but also an interest in history. It is definitely not about the ‘beauty’ of modernism, which some experts try to promote as a self-sufficient value. The history of socialist urban planning, social housing projects, workers’ boroughs, and so forth still bears unrealized democratic potential. Gradually we start to remember that architecture indeed was and still is a public affair.

In the West an important and well-known tradition of re-contextualizing the modernist architectural project started in the late 1970s. But it is only now that the democratic potential of discredited modernist architecture (and the whole socialist project) begins to reach its potential in post-Soviet Russia—and the tower campaign shows it vividly. It is also important that this process is happening not at the level of high-brow theoretical reflection, but rather as a platform for a broad mobilization, including: petitions, media activity, letter signing, and also a new mixed genre of a half guided tour / half political meeting concerning the fate of the site. It could be said that this all actually functions as a sublimation of an urge for real political change. The state, which is unresponsive on the federal level, is here forced to react locally, in the city spaces where people are gathering. The unifying potential of architectural activism that is emerging in the physical space of the city, fueled by the graphic/symbolic visibility of a particular monument, the Shukhov tower, creates what may only be an illusion, but exists nonetheless, that something is being negotiated.