The Sky’s the Limit: Moscow’s Skyscrapers

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One of the ‘Seven Sisters,’ the former Ukraina hotel, now the Radisson, with the orange facade of Europe’s tallest building, Mercury City Tower, behind it. All pictures courtesy of my lovely Canon camera.

There are no skyscrapers in rural Limerick, in south-west Ireland, where I grew up. I used to refer to the tall brick chimney at the local creamery co-op as the ‘tower of Effin’ or the ‘Effin tower’ (not a profanity, I grew up in a place called Effin!), but it’s not exactly the same thing! However, skyscrapers have always fascinated me; as a schoolboy I used to wonder what it would be like to stand at the base of the World Trade Center in New York, or the Sears (now Willis) Tower in Chicago, and look up.

Skyscrapers impress and subconsciously terrify, and if you are afraid of heights, it can be a very conscious fear. They stand as primary symbols of modernity, capturing the vision, drive, technological ability, and no little hubris required to construct structures that push the boundaries of imagination and expand fields of vision.

Skyscrapers, in the words of the author of one of my favourite books, have ‘become a complex metaphor for all that is good and bad about contemporary life.’[1] Modernity, as students of modern history are well aware, is not all about creation and progress; rather, creation and destruction have been the two sides of its metaphorical coin. With advancements in science and technology has come greater scope for destruction. This dual tendency was emphatically underlined in New York in September 2001 when two of the great symbols of the modern world, passenger jet aircraft and skyscrapers, were used to such devastating effect.

Skyscrapers are controversial buildings. Whatever the practical reasons for their construction, they have always been envisaged as statements, even as works of art. However, they are imposed on a city and its people, and there’s nothing really ‘democratic’ about them. They are usually statements of the wealth, power, vanity and puerility of an individual or a corporation, and therefore symbols of capitalism’s might. Their eventual height, as in the case of the Empire State Building in New York, has often resulted from competition to build something taller than one’s rivals (in the case of the Empire State, taller than the Chrysler Building). When driven by political power, they are statements of a self-conscious awareness of the growing power or prestige of a city or country, and are physical embodiments of that vision. In the case of One World Trade Center in New York (still unfinished), the statement is one of resilience in the face of assault, but perhaps also (slightly cynically) a response to a shift in global economic might. This shift has resulted in a surge of skyscraper construction in Asia and the Middle East in recent years, the highest of which far outmatch those in the Western Hemisphere.

Whatever the purpose of their construction, and though there are certainly reasons for people to be angered by the imposition of supertall skyscrapers on their environment, they are nonetheless majestic structures. Like other art forms, their aesthetic value does not depend on their relation to a messy – and often very ugly – reality. In that sense, I think it’s possible to appreciate them even if one disagrees fundamentally with why and how they were built.

This is an important point to bear in mind when one considers Moscow’s skyscrapers. The skyscraper in its modern expression was originally an American architectural form, developed in Chicago and New York from the end of the nineteenth century. This form of construction was slow to catch on in other parts of the world in the first half of the twentieth-century, but was openly embraced in the Stalinist Soviet Union as a means of providing monumental form to the achievements and vision of the socialist/communist cause. In the early 1930s, construction of the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow was planned. Work was abandoned following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and the building was never resumed. The project was audacious: if built, it would have exceeded the Empire State Building in height by several hundred feet, and would still be amongst the tallest buildings in the world today. Instead, following the war, the ruling Communist Party decided to build eight skyscrapers around the city, seven of which were actually built.

There are, I think, three aspects of particular interest about the ‘Seven Sisters,’ as they are usually called. First, their style was inspired by some New York architecture. Bolsheviks were theorists of history’s dialectical resolution: the capitalist era contained within itself contradictions that would require, and had created the means of achieving, a higher, socialist, form of social organization, building on the basis of the previous historical era. These Stalinist skyscrapers would borrow in style and construction technique from the urban heart of the capitalist world, but would supposedly point to a much higher purpose. In addition, they were constructed during the early years of the Cold War, when the Soviet leadership, conscious of the central role of the Soviet people in the defeat of Nazism, wished to project the status and permanency of their country as a new power in no way inferior to the Western powers, especially the US.

Second, the Sisters are in effect cathedrals of communism. The Russian Orthodox Church projected its glory of God, and its temporal power (the Orthodox Church was the state religion of Tsarist Russia), through beautiful tall cupolas, topped with crosses; the cathedrals of communism replaced the cupolas and crosses with spires and stars of socialism. The Bolsheviks replaced one state creed with another, and Marxism-Leninism provides perhaps the foremost example of what can be considered a secular ‘political religion.’[2] Reflecting the alleged notion of the ‘binary’ nature of Russian culture,[3] the Palace of the Soviets was to have been built on the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was blown up in 1931 (and rebuilt in the mid-1990s).

Third, the buildings are truly beautiful. They were built with the labour of GULAG inmates and German prisoners-of-war, and they were built to glorify the cause of a state that had intentionally or through criminal neglect brought about the deaths of millions of its citizens in peacetime. The cause failed, but the buildings remain as testaments to the high-minded goal of the Soviet regime. This goal could have been fully embodied only in artistic form.

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The main building of Moscow State University, completed just after Stalin’s death in 1953, is the tallest and most dramatic of the ‘Seven Sisters.’ Perched atop the Sparrow Hills overlooking the city below, it stands at nearly 800 feet and was the tallest building in Europe until 1990. It remains the tallest education building in the world.
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Spire of the Ukraina.

155426_3128359136571_1838888056_nWith the collapse of the Soviet Union, the revival of capitalism, and the need for the Russian economy to ‘modernize’ and diversify, political authorities are attempting to turn Moscow into an important hub of international finance. West of the city centre is the new ‘Moscow City,’ which means new skyscrapers.

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The ‘stacked boxes’ that form the two ‘Capital city’ towers, ‘Moscow’ and ‘St. Petersburg’. ‘Moscow’ is the taller, at 990 feet.

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The Ostankino TV tower, at 1,772 feet. It’s not technically a skyscraper, as it’s not a building, but in urban centres, towers are statements as well.

 

[1] Judith Dupré, Skyscrapers. A History of the World’s Most Extraordinary Buildings, New York, 2008, p.6.

[2] On political religions theory, see especially Emilio Gentile, Politics as Religion, tr. George Staunton, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.

[3] See Iu.M. Lotman and B. A. Uspenskii, ‘The Role of Dual Models in the Dynamics of Russian Culture (Up to the end of the Eighteenth Century)’, in Iu.M. Lotman and B.A. Uspenskii, The Semiotics of Russian Culture, ed. by Ann Shukman, Ann Arbor, 1984, pp.4-5.

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