The tower and the cylinder


I recently discovered a series of renderings of a 3D model of Ivan Leonidov's Narkomtiazhprom “People’s Commisariat of Heavy Industry” proposal from 1934, published on EligoVision. This competition for Red Square in Moscow attracted 120 entries from many of the leading architects in the Soviet Union at the time, although no winner was ever appointed, and the project was cancelled in 1935 when the master plan of Moscow was changed.

Leonidov’s design for the Narkomtiazhprom (or NKTP) features three towers on a long, horizontal stepped plinth, with colonnades running the full length, with a low rise glass office wing to the rear,. As a counterpoint to the composition, a small, concave drum sits at the opposite end, like a dwarf cooling tower, designed to be a workers club, I think.



Each of the towers, though of approximately equal height, had a different plan shape, and was to be constructed in a different material. The rectangular tower, features a lattice of exposed steelwork, and suspended terraces at high level constructed of stainless steel. An external elevator is cantilevered away from the main tower. The circular tower, by contrast, is a smooth surface of glazed brick, punctuated by suspended balconies, and its translucent quality would have made it glow at night. The third tower, Y-shaped in plan with curving facades, is given a simple surface treatment of unknown material. In most of the images of the project, this tower is hidden behind the rectangular tower, because it lacks the formal tension that exists between the tower and the cylinder. The three towers were linked by a series of high-level walkways and gantries.




At lower level, Leonidov proposed that the spaces be open to the public, and with a multiplicity of functions to ensure a vibrant, multi-use piece of civic architecture, rather than an insular bureaucratic edifice. Hence the proposal calls for a ‘polyclinic', a kindergarten, a creche, mechanised canteen, a hotel and a library, as well as a number of external spaces - gardens, spectator stands for Red Square parades. Thus we see the Constructivist ideal of the 'social condenser’, the production of equitable space.





Leonidov was perhaps the archetypal Constructivist architect, obsessed with form and not so concerned about the socialist fervent of the revolution. It’s no surprise that he looked so longingly towards the skyscrapers of New York, seeking to strip away their Art Deco façadism in favour of a more industrial aesthetic, although he couldn’t resist the ‘component' flourishes, the suspended gantries and the trellises. But the NKTP was technically unbuildable in the USSR in 1934, and with the approved style of architecture veering towards the monumental classicism of Socialist Realism, stylistically unbuildable also.

Leonidov’s Constructivist stylings became increasingly out of favour:

“I consider that the architecture of the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral should be subordinate to the architecture of the Narkomtiazhprom, and that this building itself must occupy the central place in the city,” wrote Leonidov.

Narkomtiazhprom influence as a building design as a piece of visionary architecture, remains strong, Rem Koolhaas has pretty much based his whole career on it - a programmatic approach to function, the wilful approach to form, the overlaying of disparate elements to create new functional intersections

In Delirious New York, Koolhaas talks about the Needle and the Globe as pair of formal archetypes twinned together in the laboratory of the city, to be repeated throughout the history of the city, from the Worlds Fair of 1853 to the World’s Fair of 1939, via Coney Island's hybrid Globe Tower and beyond.

"In many ways, the history of Manhattanism as a separate, identifiable architecture is a dialectic between these two forms, with the needle wanting to be a globe and the globe trying, from time to time, to turn into a needle."

In Delirious Moscow, an alternative future history of Soviet Architecture, Constructivism lived on in the Soviet space programme. Here a different archetype emerged, the Tower and the Cylinder. The symbiosis of the the cylinder and the tower born at Narkomtiazhprom is reborn in the form of the space rocket and the launch pad.

The formal tension between the structurally expressive tower and the sleek cylinder is one that mirrors a space rocket and its launch tower. The tower provides a support structure for the cylinder, the cylinder provides functional meaning for the tower.


This similarity is most striking in the launch tower and craft of the N1 rocket - the Soviet answer to the Saturn V, and designed to carry cosmonauts to the moon. The cross-laticing which separates each of the main rocket stages of the N1 is remarkably similar to that at the base of the Narkomtiazhprom.


From the brilliant Russian Space Web site, Anatoly Zak describes the launch tower of the N1:

"The final design of the N1 launch pad, featured a special base ring with the outer diameter of 12 meters and internal diameter of nine meters, carrying 24 footholds on which rocket would rest before the liftoff.

A giant pit would descent five stories below the launch pad, in order to absorb raging flame from the rocket's 30 engines. The exhaust then would erupt to the surface via three exit channels radiating away from the pad at the angle of 120 degrees from each other. The underground space between three exhaust channels was filled with service galleries, containing countless support equipment. Special metal pillars held the base ring over the exhaust pit.

On the launch pad, the 105-meter N1 rocket was flanked by a cyclopean service tower, standing 145 meters tall. Nearby lightning towers reached 185 meters above the ground. Shortly before the launch, the tower would be rotated away from the rocket on a special circular rail with the outer diameter of 60 meters. The interfaces between the tower and a rocket were designed to accommodate their movements relative to each other. Tremendous pressure of wind at the altitude of 79 meters above the ground could shift the rocket and the tower as much one meter from each other. The wheels of the tower were designed to withstand 200 tons of vertical pressure and 40 tons of sideway pressure."

A visual history of the future

Published at the end of September 2014, a new report, A Visual History of the Future, commissioned by the British government, offers a remarkable overview of alternative future visions for cities.

Plug In City

There are some bizarre omissions, Wright’s Broadacre City perhaps being the most glaring. Likewise, with Okhitovich’s Red City of The Planet of Communism nowhere to be seen, there is little discussion on the idea of a disurbanised city, only of a dense urban metropolis. This seems short sighted. Only MARS 1942 plan for London and of course Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City offer any sort of urban/rural engagement.

Other important missing projects, off the top of my head, would be OMA’s Exodus proposal, nothing by Superstudio. In a section on floating cities there nothing on Krutikev, no Klucis. Khidekel, not even the more prosaic NASA visualisations that inspired Elysium. But perhaps here I’m nitpicking - a comprehensive volume of alternative city designs would be a major undertaking.

It is odd that some science-fiction cities are represented, Neo-Tokyo from Akira, the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, along with Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Neuromancer and MegaCity One are name checked. Such a light scratching of the surface of urban visions in film and literature adds little.

But as primer on the history of futuristic urban visions, it's a pretty good start.

Mariner 9

Mariner 9

Mariner 9

In its final few days at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, Mariner 9 is an installation by video artist Kelly Richardson that offers an eerie glimpse into the future of space exploration.

The installation consists of a panoramic video screen depicting the surface of Mars 200 years in the future, as viewed from the landing site of the hypothetical Mariner 9 mission to the Red Planet. The view is an unsettling one, the landscape littered with a myriad of crashed satellites, dead rovers and marooned landers, the detritus of over 2 centuries of space exploration of Mars.

Despite the sci-fi premise of scene presented, rendered using the same CGI software used by the film and game industries, it is largely devoid of action, with the odd blinking light, brief flickers of movement from a dying rover, and wisps of space dust floating across the Martian surface. Instead the piece becomes a contemplative mediation on the vicissitudes of space exploration, coupled with a sense of loss for past missions, with each new rover rendering its predecessor obsolete. There is also the powerful realisation that, although it is 140 million miles away, humans are already having an environmental impact on Mars

As with all great speculative fictions, it uses the future as a means of talking about the present. As a comment on the stalled space program, Mariner 9 could also be seen as a critique that, rather than manned missions and habitable bases, unmanned robotic landers may remain the limit of our exploration of Mars for centuries to come.

Get the London look

"I left London when I started to feel like a stranger in my own city”

London panorama

I’ve recently published a series of three articles on Medium exploring London at this moment. Moving away from London has given me a different perspective on the city, now I view it from the outside looking in rather than caught in its all consuming bubble. I am still drawn to it, but I can also see it as a city almost spinning out of control, a potential death spiral. I think I’ve been thrown clear by the centrifugal forces.

The first article, London Belongs to Me No More, explores my own separation anxiety, the sense that London is becoming a playground or an investment opportunity for a nomadic global elite.

In London Must Build Upwards or Outwards, I explore two key factors which keep the housing stock in London in such short supply, and thus so overpriced.

Finally, in London’s Secret Sprawl, I look at the legacy of trying to preserve a rural/urban divide between London and the Home Counties, and how the Green Belt has instead of preventing sprawl, engendered a different kind of urbanism.

This London Trilogy completed, I am turning my attention to my new home in The North, its ambivalent relationship with London, its own rural/urban conflicts; its own identity crises.

(Image by Flickr user Jim Crossley)

Branding the Moon

"Moscow shot for the Moon, and scored a bullseye".

Although the Americans were the first to set foot on the Moon in 1969, they were not the first to leave their mark on the lunar surface.

Lunar pennants

In a fascinating act of planetary branding, or a sophisticated piece of land-art to trump any Andy Goldsworthy, the Soviet Luna-2 mission was the first man-made object to reach the surface of the Moon, crash-landing east of Mare Imbrium, on September 14, 1959. The Universal Newsreels report called it a propaganda bonus for Krushchev, stating "Moscow shot for the Moon, and scored a bullseye".

On board the Luna-2 craft were 2 small spheres, composed on a number of pentagonal panels, like a small football. The panels were made from titanium with "thermoresistant polysiloxane enamels." Each pentagon is a pennant, printed with the USSR state seal - a wreath of grain around the hammer and sickle - or the message СССР (USSR), СЕНТЯБРЬ(September) , 1959.

Luna Sphere

The ball on display at Kansas Cosmodrome, as discussed here, is inscribed with ЯНВАРЬ (January), rather than September, so it is likely that these were also placed on the earlier Luna 1 mission which launched in January 1959. Due to a programming error, Luna 1 missed the Moon by approximately 6000km, and instead became the first man-made object to reach heliocentric object. Its orbit now lies somewhere between Earth and Mars. With typical Soviet opportunism, it was dubbed Mechta (Dream) and also referred to as the First Cosmic Rocket.

It is unclear whether the balls were fitted with an explosive charge, to be fired from the craft before impact, and scattering individual pentagonal pennants, or whether the sphere was designed to stay intact, bouncing and rolling across the lunar dust. Either way it is unclear whether they would have survived the heat generated by the impact of Luna 2, estimated at 11000°K.

This picture implies there were two different sizes of sphere. The Wikipedia article states that there was a third ball, which was located in the main part of the rocket, which crashed into the Moon 30 minutes after the Luna-2 probe.

Luna 2

As this excellent page on Soviet spacecraft pennants shows, it seems that all Soviet space craft carried metallic pennants, left to commemorate the missions. This included the various Mars probes and the Venera (Venus) missions. Later Luna missions included rectangular pennants that illustrated from whence the craft came.