We’ve talked before about how people, in general, love tall buildings. There’s something viscerally satisfying about a structure that defies gravity hundreds of meters into the air. We’ve also talked about how politicians are very much aware of this fact, and will leverage it to distract from the problems that they’re supposed to be fixing. But what happens when that little plan goes wrong? This is the story of the Warsaw Radio Mast, the tallest building in the world – until it very suddenly wasn’t.
The Eastern Bloc
Our story begins in 1945, with the end of World War 2. Germany had conquered basically every country in Eastern Europe for the duration of the war, until the Soviet Union pushed them back and suddenly found themselves occupying those same countries. Now ostensibly the USSR had promised to respect their independence, but afterwards Josef Stalin, general secretary of the Communist Party, was like, “What if I just… don’t do that?” And he installed a series of puppet governments that were allied to the Soviet Union. Jerk move, really.
Flash forward around thirty years. Stalin’s been dead for a while, and it’s becoming pretty clear to everyone involved that communism kind of sucks. One of the countries that was really down on it was Poland, which had sporadically protested against their communist government over various things ranging from economic downturn to repressive government policies. The communist government was concerned over this; if most of the people don’t like them, how can they continue to be bad at their jobs?
Now, if you, viewer, find yourself the leader of an authoritarian country where most of the people actively dislike you and your policies, and the only reason you get to stay in charge is because you have a really powerful “friend” next door, there’s a tried and tested method to get those pesky protestors off your back: distract them with a giant building.
A Giant Building
The Warsaw Radio Mast was built over the course of four years, officially being completed on May 18th, 1974. It was a triangular design of guyed steel lattices, “guy” being short for “guy-wire”, essentially a cable that attaches the structure to the ground so it doesn’t fall over. We won’t give you all of the specifications, because the Wikipedia article for this tower took a page out of Julius Caesar’s book and described every possible engineering fact in excruciating detail. So if you’re just dying to know the stuff like how the guy wires were 50 mm in diameter, head over there and read about it.
All that the rest of you need to know is that the Warsaw Radio Mast was deliberately designed to be slightly taller than the KVLY-TV Mast, at the time the tallest structure in the world located, where else, in North Dakota. The latter came in at 629m (2063 ft), while the former came in at 646m (2120 ft). That was enough to knock America’s radio mast into second place, and allow Poland to officially claim that it had the tallest structure in the world. Radio towers kind of feel like cheating, but hey, we don’t make the rules.
Like any fragile authoritarian government eager to distract from very obvious problems, the completion of the radio mast was met with much fanfare and media attention, and was slated to broadcast the “propaganda of the successes”. Because, why not. But one interesting side effect of the radio mast being so tall was that people from outside of Poland could pick up the radio waves emanating from it, allowing… basically anyone to listen to Polish radio, even in Antarctica. Of course, you’d have to speak Polish to make it worthwhile, but still.
And for seventeen years, that was the way of things. Until one day in 1991, when it all came crashing down. Literally.
Warsaw Mast is Falling Down
At around 4:00 on August 8, 1991, a “catastrophic failure” occurred with the Warsaw Radio Mast, and all 646 meters of the structure proceeded to collapse to the ground below. Given that you can’t just have the tallest structure in the world collapse without it being a bit of a downer on national pride, an investigation was immediately commissioned to determine what happened.
As it turns out, a group of workers were in the process of replacing one of the guy wires because it had started to fray. They had detached it from the tower when the wind suddenly picked up, catching the structure while it was standing loose. The tower, being made up of largely thin rods of metal, proceeded to easily sway around and – crucially – twist in the wind. This put a great deal of stress on the remaining guy wires, as well as the tower itself, and it proceeded to snap in half like a Kit Kat.
The blame was put on the workers doing the renovation, and specifically the construction coordinator and the division chief of the company were sentenced to 2.5 years in prison, although one later got their sentence reduced. Seems rather harsh for something that had no human casualties, but like we said, you don’t mess around when national pride is on the line. In fact, they were probably lucky the tower collapsed when it did, because Poland was in the midst of getting rid of its authoritarian communist government; if it hadn’t, their sentences might well have been even worse.
The government initially promised to rebuild the tower, but immediately ran into a problem in that the local residents didn’t want it rebuilt, citing radiation from the tower as a health hazard. You see, everyone? It’s not just today that people thought big towers were giving them cancer; oh no, we’ve always been this way.
Anyways, there was really nothing the government could do, because the protestors were backed by Solidarity, the powerful trade union which was basically responsible for ending communism in Poland. After a few more attempts to get the ball rolling, the government finally threw its hands up, said “forget it”, and left well enough alone. Well, actually, they decided to build a much smaller tower nearby and bribed the local residents with a bunch of money not to protest about it.
And to this day, that’s all there is to remember the tower by. The building and foundation are still around, but the site is unused and abandoned. It’s become something a tourist destination for people to pay respects to the loss of this former tallest building in the world, with one organization erecting a cross in front of the entrance. May we all pay our respects.