Shukov and the Russian Avant Garde: Always Leading

The Russian Avant Garde is one of my favorite artistic and architectural movements in the history of Russian art. Famous for such artists as Natalia Goncharova, El Lissitsky and Vladimir Kandinsky, the cultural impact of this movement is visible everywhere around the capital in the form of well-known landmarks as well as lesser-known but nonetheless just as impressive buildings. Whether it’s the Shukhov Tower or the much more hidden Melnikov House, it’s possible to find gems of Russian Avant Garde Architecture practically anywhere in the city.

One of my favorite landmarks in the city is the Shukov Tower, a radio broadcasting tower designed and built in the period 1920-22 by Vladimir Shukov at the height of the Russian Civil War. The tower is well-known for its hyperboloid structure which was a revolutionary advance in structural design at the time, allowing the tower to be built with considerably less weight and quantity of materials when compared with construction methods at the time. The tower is visible on a clear day from Red Square and as it is located just outside of the central circle line just a short walk from Metro station Shabalovskaya you can easily walk to it through Gorky Park. However this isn’t the only monument in Moscow to bear Shukov’s name.

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Shukov was a pioneer designer of tensile structures and industrial engineering for the oil industry, independently inventing not only hyperboloid and thin-shell structures but also chemical processes such as a method for thermal cracking of petrochemicals that revolutionized the Russian oil industry. Shukov’s pioneering work can be found today in the sweeping thin shell designs that characterize much of constructivist and later swooping shell shaped structures that commonly appear as the centerpieces of stadiums and airport terminals in more recent years. His inventions are yet more relevant for the present day especially in the case of his contributions to the theoretical framework needed to calculate material stresses on structures such as pipelines, allowing him to design the first fuel pipeline in the Russian Empire, create effective municipal water supplies and even design the first engine designed to use bunker fuel, a then waste product of oil production which would go on to become the primary fuel source for the ships that move most of the goods consumed in our globalized economy.

Thus a statue bearing the name of Vladimir Shukov was erected in his honor of these enormous contributions by a Russian Avant Garde thinker to scientific progress in the fields of engineering, chemistry and material sciences, as well as the basic processes that allow the functioning of our modern world. The monument in Shukov’s honor stands along Sretensky Boulevard near Metro Turgenevskaya.

Shukov’s work even continues to inspire new generations of artists such as Monika Sosnowska, whose Exercises in Construction Bending which graces the central hall of the GARAGE Museum of Contemporary Art in Gorky Park. In this form Shukov’s tower (which itself collapsed during its construction) serves as the inspiration for a work which echoes history not only in the form of its structure but also in the way it is juxtaposed in the otherwise sterile and neutral modernist space of the museum atrium. The legacy of Vladimir Shukov and the tower that bears his name is an excellent example of the enormous legacy of the Russian Avant Garde movement and the overt and hidden ways in which this legacy shapes our perceptions of the modern world we live in as well as its very concrete physical realities.

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By: Nicholas Ingersoll

Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program, Moscow, Russia

Term: Spring 2020

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