Currently on exhibit at the (nicely located!) Gallery for Russian Arts and Design (GRAD) is The Shabolovka Tower Model reconstructed by Henry Milner. Here’s the irony of it: the actual tower – located south-west of the Moscow Garden Ring – is about to be taken apart, although the demolition has been put on hold so far. Several renowned architects have asked Russia to reconsider.

Vladimir G. Shukhov (1853-1939) was a brilliant engineer active in the golden age of Russian industrial and residential architecture, the three or four decades before 1917. As a young man, he turned down – in favor of structural engineering – an offer from the mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev (Tschebyscheff) to study under his tutelage. Shukhov started his career in the oil business, designing the first oil pipeline in Russia for the Nobels in 1878. He also designed high-performance barges, oil tanks, an oil pump, a furnace to process heavy fuel oil, and developed the first thermal cracking technology.

But Shukhov is best remembered for his transparent roofs and hyperboloid towers. His research into lattice structures and surfaces and his 1890s patents are still relevant – check the Canton Tower’s pedigree for one. Glass-and-iron roofs were nothing new by the 1890s but Shukhov’s shell lattices were unusually light. This piece from Afisha surveys (in Russian) ten of Shukkhov’s landmark achievements. After the 1917 revolution, the future must have looked bleak for the 64 year old engineer: the firm for which he had worked since the 1870s closed down, the new regime did not seem interested in industrial design.

But it was very much interested in global propaganda so in 1919, Shukhov was commissioned to design a radio transmission tower in Moscow. At first he suggested a 350 meter tall structure, a little higher and much lighter than the Eiffel tower, but Lenin scaled it down to 150 meters. The tower started transmitting in March 1922 and remained the country’s primary broadcasting venue until the Ostankino tower was inaugurated in 1967.

The Shabolovka tower has actually proven quite robust considering the lack of maintenance. In the late 1930s a light postal airplane hit one of the supporting cables and crashed. The crew died but the tower only sustained minor damage. There seems to be a consensus among Russian engineers that the tower only needs repairs because it has been neglected for decades, but it’s not going to trip over. One of Shukhov’s later towers even survived attacks by scrap metal thieves, who sawed off some of the support beams in the 1990s. However there are plans by Russian authorities to demolish the Shabolovka tower and erect a replica at a different location.

Opponents of the plan argue that the tower is not merely an abstract notion: its location was well chosen and the whole neighborhood around it was developed with the tower as the dominant. The land plot is also suspiciously attractive from a developer’s perspective. More details, in Russian, and more pictures here and here.


  1. What a great little post. The irony of Shukhov designing lighter latticework towers is that such a concept is utterly bereft from modern-day Russia (I have direct experience in this). The GOST and SNIP* (I forget the difference between the two, but they are the federal codes and standards which apply to any design) requires structural steelwork far larger and heavier than that which is required for similar designs in the west (by a factor of between 1.5 and 3). It is not uncommon for a bog-standard warehouse to have roof trusses a metre in depth, enormous things which would not look out of place on a Victorian railway bridge. A New Zealand engineer I worked with out there could not believe the “weight of steel” to “area covered” ratio that the Russian standards required.

    There were 2 reasons for this: firstly, the standards were written in the 1950s and hadn’t been updated, and crucially did not take into account the more efficient designs made possible by finite element modelling and advanced computerised structural calculations. Secondly, the rumour was that the Russian design codes were over-conservative to take into account the poor quality fabrication and construction, which I can readily believe.

    Interestingly, the Russians used to defend these codes, citing snow loading and earthquakes as the reasons why they couldn’t be compared with those of other countries. As if the New Zealanders and Alaskans suffer from neither. As with everything else in Russia, the resistance to change *anything* was incredible.

    *GOST = Good Old Soviet Technology
    SNIP = Suddenly, Nothing Is Possible

    • I’m glad you liked it, Tim! Thank you for the comment. It looks like some Russian architects/engineers understand the problem. In one of the links in my post, Sergei Kuznetsov, Moscow’s chief architect since 2012 (in 2005, he co-designed the new Novatek building), says the “culture of metal structures” has been lost in Russia. “The (dominant) construction doctrine has turned Russia into a land of concrete…” In the late 1990s a glass roof with a steel framework was built over the stands of the Luzhniki stadium. Kuznetsov admits, “not to offend anyone… it’s so outdated [lit. “the day before yesterday”]” even in comparison with the Shabolovka tower in terms of engineering thought and innovation.

      Another architect says that in the new mall next to Kievsky Station, Yevropeysky, “the metal structures are much more massive than those on the roof of Kievsky Station [originally designed by Shukhov in the 1910s]. Today, [Russian] designers simply cannot calculate well and use triple the amount of material required.”

      “…the rumour was that the Russian design codes were over-conservative to take into account the poor quality fabrication and construction…” I believe so, too. Still, despite all those SNiPs, there were two horrible roof collapses in the ’00s, at the Transvaal water park and Baumansky market.

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