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Vladimir Shukhov, a beautiful mind

Polymath, sort of strange and beautiful word. Sounds like the name of a geometrical figure, or like some esoteric science. Actually, the word is used to refer to a person. Not an ordinary person, for sure, but one who shows outstanding talents on several different fields. Leonardo da Vinci is the favorite example that encyclopedias like to use to describe a polymath. This word has been used, with justice, to refer to this extraordinary man who is the subject of my blog article today at this humble corner of the internet: Vladimir Shukhov.

This brilliant mind was able of creating original work in diverse areas such as structural analysis and systems, architecture, mathematics, ship engineering, industrial design, chemistry industry, pipe-lining, transportation, and photography. In the structural field, in particular, he is considered the pioneer of the hyperboloid structures for towers, silos, and roofs, and also the diagrid structures for covering large areas and holding tall buildings.

You might have seen these shining examples of the architecture of Norman Foster, as shown in the following image: from left to right: the Great Court of The British Museum, 1999; then “The Gherkin” building in London, 2003, and The Hearst Tower, in New York, 2006. These projects have something in common: their structures have deep roots on the work of a man from the previous centuries: Vladimir Shukhov, a heritage that Norman Foster has recognized and has campaigned for, trying to make the public understand that the work of Shukhov must be restored and preserved. (See notes 2 and 3 below).

Not so shiny and colorful, the information about Shukhov’s work is usually in black and white, and very scarce. I tried to buy a book to read and learn more about him, as I have done for other articles (Antoni Gaudi, Felix Candela, Oscar Niiemeyer, Eladio Dieste), but I could not find any book on or by Shukhov. At least not on the internet. Everywhere I went I found those sad notes that say “out of stock” or “currently unavailable”. After searching and searching, the only place that had one book by Shukhov or about him was in Russian language. The only other book I found was in English but it was a collection of articles from Wikipedia, which I can find in the internet anyway. I wanted to buy a book written by him, translated into English, but I could not find it (and I know he wrote a book or two about structures). So, in consolation, I searched for images of his work on the internet. His name is closely associated with images of towers, more than anything else. No wonder he has some outstanding merits in the history of engineering: The first paraboloid structure of the world is attributed to him, and the first roof of double curvature and diagonal grid is his, too. Both structures still exist (I hope). The roof is in danger of demolition, though, and the tower, the first paraboloid structure in history, is at a place that does not make due merit to the historic importance of the tower. There is probably not enough light illuminating the tower at night, for something that should be bathed in lights of colors, like other more fortunate towers that have become the symbols of important cities: the Eiffel tower, Paris, the Bridge Tower, London, or the Obelisk, Buenos Aires.

Shukhov’s towers should be at the center of a central plaza, too, illuminated with big reflectors, and there should be a light at the top, and the towers should be urban landmarks in important cities, where people can gather to celebrate special moments, like a soccer championship, or the end of a year, or an independence day. Or a gathering point for protesting about something. Either one of these destinies is better for a tower than to be forgotten in a lonely, inconspicuous place.


Shukhov’s Towers

In this picture, the first tower is the “Water Tower” or the “Polibino Tower”. This is the first paraboloid structure of the world, designed and built by Shukhov as a water tower for the Panrussian Exhibition of 1896. (The height is said to be around 36 or 27 meters, depending on which source we read1 , 5 . I don’t know exactly up to what point that height is measured, though). After the fair, a rich man bought the tower and had it rebuilt at his states in Polibino, Russia, where it is now. The second tower in the picture is the “Adziogol” lighthouse, near Kherson, Ukraine, built in 1910. This tower still exists (I hope). The twin towers on the right side of the picture are the “Shukhov towers of Oka”, Russia. These towers were the first, and only, diagrid hyperbolic transmission towers in the world. Today there is only one tower. Why just one and not two?

Because one of the twin towers was illegally dismantled in 2006 for… selling the steel!

At least somebody, some day, thought that Shukhov towers should be restored and taken care of, and illuminated. The first tower in the following image is a proof of that. That one is the Shukhov Radio Tower, in Moscow, 160 meters high; the second photograph shows the same tower, from below. This tower has been in danger of demolition, too. But there is international interest on its restoration6. The other tower, on the right side of the image, is the only tower that is absolutely safe. Why? because it lives only on paper. This was Shukhov’s greatest tower project. It was supposed to be 350 meters high, which is approximately 1,148 feet. You know, every great man has an unrealized dream, like the Sagrada Familia for Gaudi, or the Mile Tower for Wright. This was for Shukhov the project that he never built.

A diagrid hyperbolic tower of 350 meters? I wanted to compare that to other towers in the world, and these are the results: Shukhov’s tower would have been slightly higher than the Tour Eiffel in Paris and higher than the level of the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York. Wow, this tower could have been the symbol of Moscow! I wish they could build it some day. If politicians and entrepreneurs need to justify its price, they could use it as a communication tower for TV, wireless networks, you name it. Or it could be a building. But, ultimately, it would be a tribute to engineering, to geometry, to mathematics, to the beautiful minds of mankind, like Shukhov’s mind.


An attempt to model the Water Tower in Revit

Well, and since this is a blog about Revit after all, let me tell you what I did. I tried to model the Water Tower. I am in 2013, I have a computer, with a parametric software, fully capable of using formulas and geometric relationships and amazing things, and even like that, I struggled to model one of these towers. A hyperbolic tower is something beautiful and mysterious, because it is an object made of straight segments, that by means of rotation give the illusion of being curved, but all the segments are straight steel sections. It is not easy, even with a computer, to find the right proportions between height vs radius at the top and radius at the base, and that versus the number of steel elements along the circles. I thought, initially, that the curve was a segment of a parabola, using y = x 2 , but I could not find the same gracious curve of the Water Tower using that formula. So, I used some more modest and humble formulas of proportion. Being H the height of the tower before the tank, I made the Radius at Top be = H / 12, and the Radius at Base be = H / 5. , and I used a number of 36 divisions of the circles. I used 36 for practical reasons. I assumed it is easier in the field to measure 10 degrees along the circles than other weird angles. Also, that number gave me the proper curvature in elevation. I also used an angle of 9 degrees from lower ring to upper ring, which, repeated 10 floors, gives me a total displacement of 90 degrees from bottom to top. So, anyway, this was the closest I got to the Water Tower:

I imagine Shukhov in Russia, in 1896, some months before the Russian Exposition, frenetically designing the tower, armed only with paper, pencil, and brains, in a time when not even the electronic calculator was around, I imagine him drawing and drawing and making calculations by hand to determine the proper angles, proper lengths, proper radii, proper heights, proportions, forces, weights, etc, etc. of the Water Tower. And, then, I imagine him at the construction site: “We will begin by making a foundation that is like a circle, and I am going to mark for you where the first steel angles are going to be anchored. Then, there will be a first ring at such meters high, of such radius, smaller than the base, and these angles will connect to that ring at an angle of such degrees. Then, we will repeat this for such number of floors, and I know all the distances, it’s all here in these drawings”. Amazing mind. He knew all the radii of all the rings, all the angles, all the heights and lengths, all figured out, drawn and engineered, with paper, pencil, and a beautiful mind.


Epilogue

There are some videos in Youtube showing the current location and condition of the Water Tower, and other works by Shukhov. From all those videos, this amateur video was the most beautiful for me: A father and his little boy on a boat, in 2010, enjoying the view of a tower that was built 100 years ago: the Adziogol lighthouse on the sea, near Kherson, Ukraine, built in 1910. I wish other generations of fathers and sons could enjoy Shukhov’s towers in the future, as this father and son are doing in this video, in 2010.

Stop demolition and vandalism to these works! This is heritage that we must preserve!

See also this other video that I made for the Planta1 channel in Youtube as a summary of this article:


Notes and credits:

  • Wikipedia article and images on Vladimir Shukhov : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Shukhov
  • Article on The Guardian, talking about Norman Foster’s initiatives to preserve Shukhov’s radio tower in Moscow: at this link
  • Sir Norman Foster, brief video in Youtube, mentioning briefly a relation between Shukhov’s work and The Gherkin tower (English/Russian), with good video description in English, at this link
  • Yuriy Shevnin: the video of a man and his son enjoying the view of Shukhov’s light house:http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=wkRKvvAPezQ
  • For the most updated information about the status of Shukhov’s works, please visit the Vladimir Shukhov Foundation’s website, at: http://www.shukhov.org/shukhov.html
  • Video: Tower of genius cries for help: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2W2xZNq_CA

  • See you in our next blog…

    2013 Planta1.com, inc. , Alfredo Medina | permission to reproduce this article is granted if the name of the author and the URL of this article receive proper credit.

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