You are on page 1of 16

Early Mushroom Slab Construction in Switzerland, Russia and

the U.S.A. A Study in Parallel Technological Development

Alexander Kierdorf

INTRODUCTION

Each step in technological development has its specific conditions. How to find or create the best
conditions is a permanent question for scientists, professionals, practical men as well as politicians.
In periods of rapid spread and establishment of a new technology, we often can observe parallel
developments under various conditions and relations.

A striking example for this, taken from the field of construction and structural engineering, is the
development of flat slab ceilings made from reinforced concrete. The mushroom slab system is
widely regarded as the first genuine reinforced concrete construction, avoiding beam-and-girder
systems (mostly identified with Francois Hennebique), replacing them with slabs on columns with
extended capitals. This construction was called "mushroom" in America reflecting the form of the
pillar, but also understood as "fast growing", signifying more the speed of execution than the
spreading of the system. In Western Europe, this term was also adopted, whereas the more technical
"beamless" or "downstand-beam-less ceiling" was preferred in Russia and also used in technical
literature before WW I.

The theoretical penetration of mushroom slab design is closely linked to the understanding of flat
slabs, seen as elastic elements. Its full abstract mastery was reached only in the 1920s. Until then,
stability had to be proved or at least ensured by tests and empirical data. The analysis and
understanding of moments in the composite material of reinforced concrete, by calculation and by
observation, provided a first basis for dimensioning, armature and construction details.

The advantages of an integral system of columns and slabs without beams were obvious: By
avoiding "caught" space between the beams, the same amount of usable, undivided space could be
obtained at less height of each floor; lighting and ventilation were simplified; energy transmission
and other equipment, as well as dividing walls could be installed much easier. Much expensive
formwork was saved during construction. Architectonically, as it was claimed, the mushroom
system resulted in a much more elegant, floating space with dynamic "growing" columns.

Almost at the same time mushroom ceiling construction was being designed and realized in such
different countries as Switzerland, Russia, and the United States. Claude A.P. Taylor from
Minneapolis is the first to have executed a mushroom ceiling in 1906. Artur Loleit in Moscow

1793
started to use mushroom ceilings in 1908, and Robert Maillart from Zurich, having experimented
since 1908, built his first mushroom ceiling in 1910. All three were known as innovators and
pioneers in their home countries. The conditions under which they developed their "system" were
strikingly different from each other: their personal status, their professional background, their
regular activities as well as the possibilities of application. Also the relation to scientific institutions,
the contacts and knowledge of or information about each other need closer study. In addition, it
seems helpful to have a look at the journals and publications in Germany to explore the scientific
basis and background and help make the situation more transparent and identify possible contacts
and relations.

CAP TURNER IN THE UNITED STATES

Among several competitors, Claude A. P. Turner (1869-1955) from Minneapolis in Minnesota /


USA was able to establish the most successful system of mushroom ceilings, first applied in 1906
(Gasparini 2002). Turner was a railway engineer and bridge specialist and founded his own
consulting firm in 1901. In 1904/05 his first buildings with columns, ceilings and girders in
reinforced concrete were executed and studied by him in detailed load tests. In the autumn of 1905,
he published a first drawing of beamless slab design, showing mushroom columns and a four-
direction reinforcement of the flat slab (Fig. 1). An armature detail for shear protection originally
introduced the word "mushroom", which was soon transferred to the whole system.

Although his concept was heavily criticized by established engineers, Turner the "outsider"
managed to prove its reliability in tests and had a first brochure printed in 1909. The growing
demand for a theoretical, analytical approach was only fulfilled by Eddy in 1913, when Turner had
already designed around a thousand buildings (Fig. 2). Turners first design remained the exemplar
for this type of construction and was used in several contemporary text books.

As a consulting engineer, Turner provided his method to any construction company and engineer
who was willing and ready to use it and to accept his rights. He took patents in several, mainly
English-speaking countries, and applications are even known in Australia. However, Turner never
gave full information on his design principles; based on the Grashof theory on slabs, he also drew
many of his details from empirical data. Typical for his design is the four-directional slab
reinforcement leading to a critical concentration at the crossings, especially above the columns.
Other engineers developed two-directional reinforcement and reduced the amount of steel used.

A great amount of Turner's success was due to the reduction of formwork and the use of metal
column head forms to save expensive workforce, a major commercial factor in the high-wage
American construction industry. From 1910, Turner faced heavy attacks on his patent by competing
construction companies that stopped his activities during World War I. Other systems had also
managed to conquer part of the market, obviously profiting from the confidence Turner had created.

1794
After WWI, it was noticed with astonishment in Europe that mushroom ceilings dominated the
reinforced concrete construction in America, yet still without a sufficient theoretical basis.

Figure 1. CAP Turner, details of mushroom slab construction, 1905 (Gasparini 2002, Fig. 6)

1795
Figure 2. Mushroom slab by Turner in a contemporary advertisement

ROBERT MAILLART IN SWITZERLAND AND RUSSIA

Swiss structural engineer Robert Maillart (1872-1940) is famous for his elegant and technically
individual reinforced-concrete bridges (Billington 1997). After studying structural engineering at
State Polytechnic (ETH) in Zurich, he worked for a private company. In 1902 he founded his own
business as designer and building contractor for all kinds of reinforced-concrete constructions.
Maillart's first known occupation with the mushroom system dates back to 1908 when he built an
experimental construction at his company yard in Zurich. This and a second scale model
construction enabled him to find missing data for the analytical calculations and their application to
mushroom construction. The first commission was for a warehouse in Zurich, finished in 1910.
Maillart took out a patent, ending in 1924, but did not publish his methods of calculation and
dimensioning.

Maillart's design approach has been reconstructed, showing that he used empirical methods to
develop a design method that could not be developed using the scientific knowledge of the time,
and would only first be achieved after the development of new calculation methods in the 1920s
(Fuerst/Marti 1997). In practice, his mushroom slabs were much lighter than those that could be
fully calculated at the time; only much later was it possible to provide the justifying calculations
that prove his safety margins were sufficient.

Maillart did not use the Grashof method for slab design, believing that, in important respects, it did
not reflect the needs and the reality of his constructions. This also distinguished them from the

1796
widely-published American systems which he must also have known. Furthermore he used
reinforcement in only two directions, which is clearly different from the American methods. As
Maillart did not publish his mushroom ceilings after they were complete, he took no part in the
scientific discussion of his time and his work was not reviewed. Whereas he is known for his bridge
designs, this part of his work was only seen as a demonstration of his ability to create structural
elegance.

Among the countries into which Maillart extended his activities, it was in Russia where he saw his
professional future and relocated there in 1914 (Stadelmann 2001). He had used the mushroom
system for a warehouse in St Petersburg harbour in 1912, sadly destroyed in 2001 (Fig. 3). The
construction of an enormous factory complex in Riga brought him and much of his equipment there
in 1914. The Baltic metropolis, competing with St Petersburg as a major port, was dominated by a
German-speaking elite and was home to a renowned polytechnic institute, that served as stepping-
stone for many Western business interests in Russia.

Figure 3. Warehouse of the Gerhard & Hey company, St Petersburg; Robert Maillart, 1912

While spending the summer with his family on the Baltic, Maillart got stuck there when war broke
out in August 1914. Building stopped, and many factories and institutions were transferred into the
Russian homeland to evade German occupation. Maillart followed the AEG factory equipment to
Kharkov in the East Ukraine and built a new factory for them. Nevertheless, the next commission
some buildings for the Kamenskoe Steel Mills (now Dneprodzherzhinsk) could not be finished
because of the civil war. Maillart had to flee and returned to Switzerland in 1919, totally ruined.

Only in 1926, when learning that the origin of the mushroom system was attributed exclusively to
the Turner in the U.S.A., did Maillart provide information about his early activities and revealed

1797
some of the important details. Anything else we know today has come mainly from archival
material and later tests and analyses of his buildings.

ARTUR LOLEIT IN RUSSIA

Artur Ferdinandovitch Loleit (1868-1933) studied applied mathematics at Moscow University and
started working in 1892 for a German-owned construction company in Moscow (Lopatto 1969). He
soon became their chief engineer and technical representative. He worked with the Monier system
and was responsible for all kinds of concrete constructions, especially arch bridges, and basement
and church vaults.

When the restrictions for the use of reinforced concrete in building were lifted in Russia in 1905,
Loleit started to design industrial and other buildings for Moscow and its vicinity. Inside the
technically and architecturally highly-ambitious Bogorodsk-Glukhovskoe textile factory near
Moscow, designed by ambitious Moscow architect Alexandr Kusnetsov (Nashokina 1999), Loleit
executed an experimental construction in 1907 with pillars formed like flutes and with circular
skylights between them (Figs. 4, 5). This construction was quoted in the exhibition hall of the new
wing of the Stroganoff decorative arts school (today the Moscow Architectural Institute: Marchi) in
1913-14. This was also an architectural design by Kusnetsov and the two worked together
frequently over several decades.

In March of 1912, Loleit presented "beamless" constructions at the regular meeting of cement
specialists in Moscow; his lecture is not documented. In September of 1913, he again gave a
detailed lecture on mushroom construction, this time in front of the Russian Society for Materials
Research, but it was published only in 1916. Had it been published earlier, and had the
International Conference on Materials Research planned for 1915 in St Petersburg not been
cancelled because of WWI, Loleit would certainly have presented his work to a broader public.

Figure 4. Bogorodsk-Glukhovskaya manufacture, central part, 1907 (photo 2002)

1798
Figure 5. Bogorodsk-Glukhovskaya manufacture, central part, detail of column

In his 1913 lecture, Loleit presented some mushroom slab constructions, notably the Tschitschkin
dairy from 1910, and some textile and other factories which have not yet been identified, but which
probably still exist. The construction is extremely light, fragile and wide-span; the column heads are
curved and small (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Reinforcement scheme by Loleit, published in 1913/1916

1799
His own drawings as well as photographs of construction sites show that he used a homogenous
two-direction grid for the complete slab and a additional upper-layer grid above the columns, which
could be prefabricated (Fig. 7). A second version also gives a two-direction reinforcement,
characterized by short sections (Fig. 8).

Loleit also presented a calculation approach based on the Grashof formula. He discussed the
proposals of German engineer Mayer from 1912, but he clearly insisted that he had developed his
own method beginning with the study of the column foot in a factory design.

Figure 7. Second reinforcement scheme by Loleit, published 1915 (Lopatto 1969, fig. 19)

Figure 8. Beamless ceiling by Loleit in a textile factory, ca. 1910-12

1800
Three major, later applications by Loleit are traceable in Moscow. The military department store
(1911-13, architect: S. Zaleski, destroyed in 2003) had beamless ceilings on circular columns in
some areas, combined with other construction elements.(Figs. 9, 10).

Figure 9. Military department store ("Woyentorg"), Moscow, arch. S. Zaleski, 1911-13

Figure 10. "Woyentorg" while being razed, 2003

1801
The workshop wing of the Stroganoff school, already mentioned, was built in 1913-14 and has
beamless ceilings on very thin columns (Figs. 11, 12).

Figure 11. Moscow Architectural Institute (Marchi), extension, arch. A. Kusnetsov, 1913-14

Figure 12. Marchi, extension, column without plaster on the second floor (photo 2005)

1802
The third case is a pair of multi-storey warehouses, built ca. 1914-15, one of which has beam-and-
girder, the other beamless construction (Figs. 13, 14). This might have been a comparative
demonstration, or just due to lack of time and forms.

Figure 13. Warehouse, Moscow, arch. A. Kusnetsov, ca. 1914-15 (photo 2005)

Figure 14. Warehouse, ground floor interior with beamless ceilings (photo 2005)

1803
When the joint-stock company was closed down at the beginning of WW I, Loleit started teaching
and hardly again had the chance to design an extraordinary building. American and German
theoretical approaches came into use, promoted by W. Keldysh. Loleit insisted on his "Russian"
experience and methods, but in a public discussion could no longer succeed. Around 1930, Loleit
tried to establish a completely new reinforced concrete theory, which was not accepted by the
professional and scientific elite of the time.

In the pre-revolution period, Loleit's position as a leading engineer and director of a big
construction company gave him the opportunity to experiment and realize his developments. As an
educated mathematician, he was also have been able to work seriously on solutions to the
theoretical problems. There is no hint that Loleit's developments were legally protected in Russia,
or that they were seen as the company's intellectual property. The German mother-company, the
famous AG fr Beton- und Monierbau in Berlin, probably never tried to exploit this method in
Germany, knowing that it would not satisfy German building control requirements.

There is also no hint that Loleit and Maillart knew of each other or even met. Maillart was not
integrated into the Russian society; his clients in St Petersburg and Riga where out of reach of
Loleit; their respective companies were not direct competitors. So it was possible that two
commercial pioneers of the same techniques worked in Russia without getting in touch. Although
the public lectures of Loleit coincide with the beginning of Maillart's activity in Russia, they were
certainly not evoked by Maillart's presence; nor is anything known of a patent conflict.

Loleit was almost forgotten until Soviet Russian historiography in the 1960s cold-war period
discovered him as a hero of technological development. He was without a doubt a pioneer of
reinforced concrete, but the lack of information in many areas makes it even now difficult to put
him into his rightful position on an international stage. Most of his buildings are still to be identified
and researched; the history of his company is hidden like other foreign engagements in pre-
revolutionany Russia which did not possess a large, complex technical community comparable to
Western countries.

FLAT SLABS IN GERMANY

It is an interesting question why in Germany, which was at that time not only one of the leading
industrial countries, but was also, scientifically, the most active in reinforced concrete technology,
no early mushroom ceiling constructions were executed. It was repeatedly stated that strict building
regulations and the lack of a convincing theory were the main reasons. If this is true, this would
mean that a high standard of regulation and scientific demands prevents innovation.

In fact, German specialists were rather well-informed, and there was a constant interest in the
developments in this field. The first mention of mushroom systems occur in the professional

1804
gazettes already in 1906. But immediately it was also already stated that German building
regulations did not allow such construction, which sounded like a warning to all over-ambitious
men of practice. Foreign engagement was equally limited by this situation.

From time to time, proposals regarding flat slabs were published in Germany. The first detailed
paper on mushroom construction was printed in 1912. Its author, Max Mayer, not only worked for
Wayss & Freytag, one of the first and most successful reinforced concrete construction companies,
but also took a special interest in American building methods. Although he described the practical
advantages and possible theoretical solutions of the mushroom system, he saw no chance of
application in Germany.

So the German structural engineers established their "Pilzdeckenproblem" (mushroom ceiling


problem), and began to propose calculation methods in the following years. Among these was work
by Henri Marcus, chief engineer at the HUTA cement building company in Breslau, and Victor
Lewe from Berlin. Their methods provided a basis for the most important changes in the 1925
reform of reinforced concrete regulations, concerning design calculations for flat slab and
mushroom ceilings.

But even in Germany, practical execution preceded theoretical penetration and administrative
regulation. The first applications can be reported from Straburg in 1912/13 (Zblin) and Hamburg
1914. Soon after WW I, there were more and more realizations, many under the control of Lewe or
Marcus.

Maillart seems to have been completely unknown in Germany, whereas some vague information
must have existed on the activities of Loleit, either because he informally reported on this when
attending the German "Betontag" before WW I, or by emigrated colleagues.

CONCLUSIONS

The three beginnings of mushroom ceiling construction presented in this paper can be compared in
different ways. What is common to them all is that they each took place in countries without strict
regulations in this special field, that could be interpreted as inviting freedom or challenges to the
status quo. All three protagonists seem to have been of personal independence and energy - typical
inventors, one might say. They were not bound by bureaucratic limits, but were eager to find a way
of realizing their visions, in this case a way to reliably dimension and construct mushroom ceiling
constructions.

Their achievements were also affected by their role as engineers or responsible company owners or
managers. What on the one hand enabled them to develop their ideas, on the other prevented them
from publishing their invention, earning acclaim and a degree of fame. All three sooner or later

1805
faced great problems, or even catastrophes, due to legal or military war; envy and hate also spoiled
personal achievements.

On the scientific level, the different stories illustrate the how technological developments and
theoretical solutions do not always progress together. The development of successful construction
principles without being able to understand fully has often been a strong stimulus for theoretical
developments and scientific progress.

Looking back over the entire period, it seems strange how knowledge of, and respect for the
pioneers of the mushroom slab have changed and depended on historical accident and the particular
conditions. This should lead us to question more often whether we always give credit to those who
most deserve it.

This brief history can be read as a plea for the subordination of theoretical understanding to
practical advantages, which in this case were very clear. The nature of invention is often that it
comes in its own time; but it seems that the conditions which can enable a breakthrough can also
prevent its success. More generally, increasing the level of technical development both demands
and creates the means of its communication. However, transparency and a full exchange of
knowledge are not always welcome or desired, whether for commercial reasons in capitalist, or
ideological reasons in socialist-communist societies.

Technology as an instrument of power becomes visible in the process of re-inventing or taking-over


as a method of appropriation. The biographies of many Russian scientists and engineers reveal this
situation. For a better future, the past had to be poor and stupid. Western or foreign technology is
first seen as the source of modernization; then, in a second step, it becomes a competitor in the
world-wide market.

A final aspect of parallel invention, as exemplified by the mushroom slab, is the possibility of
"chaotic" development unconstrained developments in a variety of directions that allows choice
and, sometimes, correction if forgotten ways are discovered to be the best in new sets of conditions.
So, by researching, documenting and explaining the past, the historian of technology helps create a
future resource.

REFERENCES

Billington, David P, 1997. Robert Maillart: builder, designer and artist, New York: Cambridge
University Press.

Fuerst, Armand; Marti, Peter, 1997. "Robert Maillart's Design Approach for Flat Slabs", Journal of
Structural Engineering, vol 123, no. 8 (Aug. 1997) pp. 1102-10.

1806
Gasparini, Dario A, 2002: "Contributions of CAP Turner to Development of Reinforced Concrete
Flat slabs 1905-1909", Journal of Structural Engineering, vol 128, no. 10 (Oct. 2002) pp. 1243-52.

Lopatto, Aleksandr Eduardovich, 1969. Artur Ferdinandovich Loleit. K istorii otechestvennogo


zhelezobetona (A.F. Loleit. The national history of reinforced concrete), Moscow: Literatura po
stroitelstwo.

Mayer, Max, 1912. "Die trgerlose Eisenbetondecke" (The beamless reinforced concrete slab),
Deutsche Bauzeitung, Mitteilungen ber Zement, Beton- und Eisenbetonbau, vol 46 (1912), no. 21,
pp. 162-6; no. 22, pp. 174-5.

Nashokina, Maria, 1999. Sto arkhitektorov moskowskogo moderna. Twortcheskie portreti (100
Architects of Moscow Modern. Work Portraits), Moscow: Giraf.

Stadelmann, Werner, 2001. "Ein Schweizer Ingenieur und seine Bauten in Russland" (A Swiss
engineer and his buildings in Russia), (Schweizer) Baublatt, vol 112 (2001), no. 69, pp. 30-5.

1807