The Hyperbolic World of Vladimir Shukhov

Vladimir Shukhov
(1853 – 1939)

On August 28, 1853, Russian engineer-polymath, scientist and architect Vladimir Grigoryevich Shukhov was born. He is renowned for his pioneering works on new methods of analysis for structural engineering that led to breakthroughs in industrial design. He was one of the most outstanding designers and constructors of the 19th and 20th century. Moreover, he is considered as one of Russia’s most important engineers.

Vladimir Shukhov was always known to be mathematically talented and soon became recognized as the Russian Thomas Edison. In school, he solved complex problems, surprising his classmates as well as teachers. Unfortunately, he was still given a bad grande since he violated the rules from textbooks. Luckily, breaking conventions was what made him famous in later years with his extraordinary hyperbolic structures. Shukhov enrolled at a technical school in Moscow, where he graduated with a gold medal and was offered to start a position as a lecturer. However, Shukhov saw himself more in industrial projects and rejected the offer.

Hyperboloid Shukhov Tower

In order to getting to know the industrial world better, Shukhov moved to Philadelphia. There, it was his task to work on the Russian pavilion and he made contact with a Russian-American entrepreneur, who taught him a lot about the industry. When he came back to Russia, he tried out several jobs, for instance at the Vienna-Warsaw railroad or the military medical school, but was never satisfied. Bari, the engineer he met in Philadelphia then convinced him to become a chief engineer in a start up company that focussed on innovative engineering projects. Shukhov joined the company and worked together with Bari on projects like ship engineering, civil engineering and for the oil industry while inventing new shapes and creating completely new styles until the October Revolution. During this period, Shukhov also invented and patented the famous thermal cracking method that is used in the processing of crude oil.

His reputation grew and Shukhov received numerous job offers, but eventually decided to remain in Russia, shaping the Soviet cities and culture. He continued working on his other major interest, photography. Shukhov paved the way for new standards in fine art photography and influenced several genres like landscapes, portraits and cities. In engineering, he became known for the slogan We should work independently from politics and soon retired surprisingly without getting arrested or prosecuted for his open critisisms.

Shukhov Roof Design
Image: Donskoy

Shukhov was not only an amazing engineer in practice. He understood the importance of great theories in order to create innovative and thought out building and objects. He was able to design completely new oil tankers and complete oil pipelines. Shukhov and Bari together built new constructions as water supply systems which were used in numerous Soviet cities, saving numerous lives since infections were still on a high rate due to water system issues. Shukhov is not only compared with Edison many times, but also with Gustav Eiffel, being an expert with metallic constructions that gave many Russian cities a whole new look.

Depite the amazing design, Vladimir Shukhov is responsible for and his major influence on beautiful and creative buildings, others did not so well in the eyes of James Kunstler. You may enjoy his TED Talk on ‘How bad architecture wrecked cities‘ at yovisto. 

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