Engineering Moscow: Shukhov.
aesthetics enclosed in steel
When I was a kid, my dad was working in Moscow, and we always traveled to him in a post-soviet loud and slow train. It was getting from Chisinau to Moscow in 25 hours, going through all the North of Moldova, taking it easy and rather mindfully, crossing several borders. First Moldovan one, then Ukrainian, following all the way to Kyiv and afterwards crossing Ukrainian border once again and finally the Russian one. It was a truly long way, but as a kid I always enjoyed these trips. So did my parents – maybe it is where my unconditional love to trains arises; they inevitably bring back memories of serenity and family joy.

The train would always arrive to Kiyevsky railway station. I barely have any memories of it, but my mom referred to it as a busy and fussy station, full of people, commotion, beggars and police.

Today I am standing here as a bit of an engineer, looking at the connections and wondering about its structure. I see it now way more than just a station, and I wish I could remember my childhood memories of it, to compare it with my conscious view of today.

It is indeed special: assembled from 31 steel arches construction and creating a tremendous structure (321x47.9x28m), it was designed by one of the most influential engineers of the XX century – Vladimir Shukhov. He managed to achieve the light weight of arches and simplicity in their assembly, which allowed to set them in place without scaffolding, only connecting them at the top with the hinge. Another fascinating aspect about it is that the arches were connected only by joints and without being welded; During restoration in 2004 the situation has changed, and only 4 arches were left with the initial joints as the demonstration of the monumental value, welding all the rest (compare the one with the sign and just one of the arches).

Using only three hinges (one at each side to connect to the ground and one on top), huge arches were assembled on the ground and raised without any scaffolding (previously they were assembled at the height by small parts). This innovative idea was also introduced by Shukhov, and allowed to decrease construction times for such arches from the regular 1-1.5 years to 3 months. The Kiyevsky train station was the last one before the Soviet Union, which has already shown the bright mind of Shukhov. The whole station was built in the years of 1914-1918, whereas the platform, which is the main character of this story, was constructed in 1918.

First time I heard about him was at university during the course Statics of Structures, where the professor was telling us about the Shabolovka Radio tower in Moscow. The structure was extremely lightweight compared to the Eiffel Tower and is often treated as its Russian equivalent.
Huge steel trusses of Eiffel tower depend on bending and have to be thicker to resist it. With the use of just straight bars connected to two metal rings which later were turned with respect to each other, he managed to create a double-curved shape structure, which was one-sheet hyperboloid. It gets rid of the bending forces by the diagrid lattice of the bars, allowing to decrease the use of material and making the structure lightweight. This became a starting point and a breakthrough in the engineering world.

Initially planned as a tower of 350 meters, higher than the Eiffel one, while using just 21% of the total weight of it, its height had to be decreased to 160 m due to the lack of steel in that time. Nevertheless, even with the height of 160 meters the tower helped him gain his recognition not only in Russia but also worldwide, being considered as one of the engineering geniuses of those times.

Comparison of Shabolovka tower with the Eiffel tower
1 - The existing tower; 2 - Eiffel Tower, 3 - The initial project. Source:
An outstanding engineer and a powerful example of constructivism and Russian avant-garde, Shukhov changed the way the structures were seen. His influence can be noticed in other examples of avant-garde architecture of Russia, his name appears in Melnikov house (pictures below) and the invented concepts are still used by the famous high-tech architects.
In his interview for National Geographic Russia, Norman Foster admires Shukhov as one of his heroes, underlining the great importance of his work. Norman Foster said that the elegance and geometric complexity of the structures show his rare ability to combine engineering mastery with the structural aesthetics. Foster sees the Shabolovka tower 'as a symbol of faith in the coming age' and one of the first examples of Soviet architectural monuments.

In 2014, when the structure was about to get dismantled, world famous architects (Tadao Ando, Rem Koolhaas, Kengo Kuma, Thom Mayne) launched an urgent appeal to prevent it, and wrote an open letter to Vladimir Putin to take immediate action. The public reaction to the idea of deconstructing the tower and moving it to the new place made the responsible ones change their minds and the tower was left where it is. It is not used anymore, the fantastic structure is decaying and is strongly affected by corrosion. It is now the part of the World Monuments Fund Watch List of endangered global cultural heritage sites. Engineers say that unless the action is taken now, in several years it might collapse.

I am walking in the darkness between Moscow apartment blocks in Shabolovka. My hands are already freezing, it is -8 and I am listening to the squeaking snow. I look up and see the tower being behind one of the buildings. It feels like a line drawing on the sky, like an abandoned part of Moscow, people are hastily walking past it watching the road instead. This frustrating attitude from the government towards greatest examples of engineering and shifted priorities serve as an extra reminder to open up to the world and carefully watch it changing. I strongly believe that if people were more alert towards surroundings and tried to capture the beauty of the habitat rather than apathetically adapt it to their needs, such stories would happen way less often.
It is in the power of the architects to make the change, as we could see it from the open letter to Putin. If we, as the (future) architects, artists or engineers, bring more attention to the power of details or structures, highlighting what is truly precious, the world will take the valuable parts for the future developments. If people using the Kievsky train station would maybe stop for a second and think 'oh, now I am used to it, but it was something striking and brand new before!' or the residents of Shabolovka neighbourhood, when rushing to the metro in the morning, would simply look up – oh hi there, you structural masterpiece, I am glad I can see you that often – instead of seeing it as a weird-abandoned-tower-out-of-metal-sticks-like-a-cone, much more habitual things would be considered as a delicious treat, making us live a happier and a more fulfilling life.

When finishing this post, it turned out to include a variety of technicalities, which might get in the way of the general perception. When being tempted to change it, I started thinking: but then what am I aiming for, if not for sharing the underlying complexity of the world around us? What is this blog post if not the intention to make the readers think about how much life and history is behind each of the buildings we are surrounded with?

What is left for now is to hope that the tower (which is just one small example out of the way larger set) will get its refurbishment and well deserved attention, remaining in the Moscow skyline. What's more – open ourselves and explore, observe the concealed life even in smallest things such as steel bars, and look at this world from the upside down.

Let's learn to watch.

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