Size Matters... to Monumental Architects
Text and photos Ross Hunter
The monumental architecture of a country, or a period, speaks volumes about its society. Moscow is no exception, as we shall see. Medieval cathedrals — Cologne, Milan, Chartres — that took centuries of perfectionism reflect the priorities of the age, as do the Victorian railway termini in their proud industrial splendor and confidence. The biggest, and especially the tallest, constructions have boasted the dreams, but inadvertently also laid bare the psyche, of their creators.
Until the atheist Revolution of 1917, Moscow’s greatest and highest edifices were all the great cathedrals. Moscow, like London, is built on sand and mud, which do not invite height, so expensive skyscrapers came late to both cities. Further, both were restricted for centuries by edicts that gave religious creations a monopoly on the right to reach nearest to the heavens.
The Bolsheviks set about changing all this. The first and newest highest edifice of the new order was the Shukhov radio tower in 1922 (see Passport of September 2008). Tall, graceful, elegant, lean, it was full of optimism and confi dence in the future, literally broadcasting the latest technology – as well as being an essential propagandist vehicle for the still highly insecure new republic. And it remained the pinnacle of Soviet construction until after World War II.
Having not only survived — just barely — but triumphed against near- impossible odds and at a still incomprehensible cost in 1945, the Soviet Union’s triumph needed new symbols. A direct imitation of its erstwhile-ally-turned competitor was the unusually candid tactic: a ring of New York-style skyscrapers saluting the Kremlin was immediately commissioned. The “Seven Sisters” were completed just as Stalin took his last breath in 1953, and crowned by the 240-meter Moscow State University, they topped the central skyline for the next part of the Soviet era.
But with the new technologies of the 1960s, and with the USSR treading an increasingly precarious path between triumph (Sputnik, Gagarin, nuclear technology) and disaster (which we would only find out about rather later), a new symbol was needed to shore up national pride.
At 540 meters, the Ostankino radio tower was briefly the world’s tallest structure, again simultaneously trumpeting the latest technology and transmitting the tiring rhetoric of the state monolith. Opened in 1967, it bears striking resemblances to London’s Post Office Tower of the same period. Similar in function, Ostankino is far bigger but far worse built: Though London’s tower is showing its age, it still works well and has the dignity of a period piece.
“Before 1917, Moscow’s tallest structures were its great cathedrals. The Bolsheviks set about changing all this.”
Ostankino reminds you that concrete is a double-edged sword: It’s wonderful stuff but can be used to create monstrosities. A great shaft (I choose my word carefully) of raw, gray-brown concrete sits upon a curious mangrove root multi-branch footprint, with ill-conceived porthole windows trying to give a space-age feel but conveying more of the feel of a beached octopus or amateur submarine. As the eye scrapes skyward, random layers of equipment of varying vintages oscillate with viewing platforms and living spaces, but still interspersed with too much cement of questionable quality. It looks tired and unloved.
I assume the satellite technology, ironically pioneered by the USSR even before this fossil-icon was erected, has rendered it passé, if not actually obsolete. Fittingly, it is closed to visitors and surrounded by barbed wire that nobody would want to pass anyway. Ostankino bears witness to a regime trying with increasing desperation to harness change for which it was poorly designed and increasingly could not afford.
Tell me if I am wrong, but I think that it looks better the further you are away from it. If taking a photo, get as much interesting foreground as possible into the frame. Oddly, this is very easy to do. It is worth going to the area, but not to savor this spiky relic — far more interesting are the idiosyncratic monorail, the splendid VDNKh exhibition grounds (see May 2008 issue of Passport), and, best of all, the space monument. Astonishingly, that structure’s graceful swoop of polished aluminium, growing from a fine set of bas-reliefs and rising to a (slightly Tin-Tin cartoon-like) rocket, was completed and finished a full three years before the bigger but clumsier TV tower.
Two fires at Ostankino (in 2000 and 2007) proved repairable, but now old age has closed the tower to the public. As a symbol of an era of shoddy construction methods and the faltering ambitions of a soon to be failing regime, its removal would not be a loss. Area residents might even be relieved (some locals worry about the carcinogenic risks of constant exposure to the tower’s emissions). In any event, Ostankino has already ceded its status of tallest working building in Moscow (as opposed to mobile phone towers) to one of the flashy but dull Moscow-City towers.
If the crown passes next to the now rising Russia Tower, advertised as a 600-meter triple obelisk in Moscow-City, we will again face the same questions: Yet another but even more machismoenhanced biznes erection, or a new ideal of an autonomous vertical city that offers everything to its inhabitants but makes no demands of its environment.