June 9, 2014 by AK
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.