The TV tower in Riga, Latvia


tower power

installations of pride and propoganda in the eastern bloc


The proliferation of TV towers across satellites of the USSR unsurprisingly coincided with the USA and USSR space race which was at its most intense between the years of the late 1950s to mid 1970s. Indeed, it was in 1961 that the USSR beat the USA to launch the first man into space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. This was a watershed moment for the communists and the USSR: it acted as a validation of their social system that, despite the state brutality and lack of freedoms, the communist system could lead in the field of technology. To be crowned the most technologically advanced was the ultimate prize, the coveted title acting as the all-encompassing marker of success, a symbol of socio-political superiority.

The space race was the turf upon which both orders took up arms and battled each other for supremacy. It is just as well that both powers did battle in this arena than in the more traditional  military one: rather than have a punch-up, the capitalists and communists had a sort of technological dance-off instead - and Russia came out on top with Gagarin. Ideological arguments that communism sucked away ambition and replaced it with moribund inefficiency were blown out of the water in 1961. Psychologically, the Gagarin success dealt a body blow to the USA and handed the communists the biggest propaganda opportunity it had had in decades. It was inevitable that this success was to be exploited by the Politburo to permeate all outward aspects of communist life - a 'rubbing the USA face in it' if you will.


externalising the space race

The figure of the mother became immortalised in the statuesque in a propagandist bid to personify the state and to establish an emotional nexus between the average Soviet 'comrade' and a faceless Soviet politburo. In a new system where the proletariat was to own the means of production, there was a visual vacuum for a spiritual leader. After all, the men behind communism as a theory were now dead - lost in the mists of an incongruous Russian history which had lurched from one bloody crisis to the next. A replacement figurehead was required. Enter, stage far left, the statue of the Motherland. They are also a mythical creation used as a propagandists' tool to unite fractious and unrelated satellite countries. We all love our mothers, don't we? A symbol to which no one could object, surely?

The motherland myth worked on many levels as a metaphor for Soviet satellites. She helped to establish the sense that communism was under threat from external forces and required perpetual protection. Often cast holding a sword, the statues represented in visual form the notion that the Soviet way of life was fighting for survival, fermenting a paranoia and distrust of the West and crystallising in concrete the violence and bloodshed which has, and arguable still does, characterise Russian political life (think Litvinenko + poison + sushi bar).


fingering the capitalist west

The space success of 1961 spurred the Soviets on even further and architecture became a key platform through which to show off, to pronounce and reaffirm superiority. Indeed, it was not long after the communists' cosmic success that the building of the elaborate, over decorative Gothic-like Stalin palaces ceased - to be replaced by cosmic communist concrete constructions which, rather than looking back to an architectural Gothic past, firmly located communism in the future. Buildings were now to be cubist; futuristic. As well as monuments to Gagarin and his team, buildings across the Eastern Bloc also became an extension of the space race itself - a concreting, metaphorically and literally, of their cosmic achievements. Television towers became a crucial branch of this cosmic architecture - unashamedly brash and vulgar constructions designed to celebrate, commemorate and bask in cosmic glory - aimed at both a Western and, undoubtedly, domestic audience.

The proliferation of TV towers across the Eastern Bloc was born out of an urgency to shore up its crumbling social order; concrete towers and other cosmic constructions added new impetus to a way of doing things which was beginning to run out of steam. TV towers helped to prop up the communist defences against a population which was tiring of oppression and low living standards. It is no co-incidence that the Berlin TV Tower was constructed at a time when the Soviets controlled East Germany. Completed in 1969 it was a brazen attempt to show the people of West Germany that communism was alive and kicking and capable of great feats of technology and engineering. In 1969 the tower soared hundreds of metres above the Berlin Wall, an architectural 'up yours' finger to the capitalists on the opposite side. Analogising the tower as a one fingered Stalinist-style salute to the enemy works on many levels: the tower was deliberately located to impose itself on West Germany, just like swearing it was designed to be aggressive - dominating the skyline for miles around. Just like swearing, it is also a rather vulgar construction, built out of malice and attitude and, if the Soviets were honest, an inferiority complex - after all, isn't inferiority the origin of most bad attitudes? The Berlin Wall is no longer, but the tower remains in-tact as does its record as being the tallest structure in current day Germany.


a symbol of a failed system

Indeed, the TV Towers have inadvertently become a metaphor for the ideology which created them. Just like communism, the towers were vulgar, impractical, inefficient and, ultimately, pointless - superfluous follies thrown up in a fit of 'mine's bigger than yours' or 'keeping up with the Jones's' adolescent squabble. Just like Soviet communism, the towers require constant maintenance owing to their rapid and cheap construction. These towers have become emblematic of a 'grand gestures cheaply executed' way of doing things, created for outward show. The revolving floor of the Vilnius TV Tower in Lithuania groans and clatters like a broken lawnmower; the restaurant in Riga's TV Tower in Latvia is closed, its windows stained with rust. The Ostankino Tower in the district of Moscow bearing the same name caught fire in 2000 and again in 2007, the moment that a national icon of technological prowess slipped into being a national embarrassment; lack of electrical maintenance was blamed. Grand gestures masking a multitude of shortcomings.

These towers are garishly kitsch and, some would hazard, so full of hyperbole, they are an embarrassment to a modern populace likely to be more wowed by miniaturised technology. What is true is that they are certainly of an era - an architectural aberration linked to the psychological politics of the Cold War starting in the Space Race and extrapolated through the medium of architecture. Self conscious? Yes. Hyperbolic? Certainly. Fascinating? Definitely. I happen to think they are rather special.


World Towers (clockwise): Zizkov Tower in Prague; Almaty Tower in Kasakhstan; Tashkent TV Tower in Uzbekistan; Ostankino Tower in Russia; Riga Tower in Latvia; Fersehturm Tower in Germany; Vilnius TV Tower in Lithuania and the UFO Tower in Slovakia.



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