BUILT: Roma Agrawal’s jubilant tribute to the wonders of engineering

You can come to this website and find out all you want about a historical building in New York City — the year it was made, who designed it, who lived and worked in it. But sometimes, don’t you sometimes wonder about the truly basic stuff? How does a particular historical structure remain standing in the first place?  How can a tower like 1 World Trade Center shoot nearly two thousand feet into the sky, withstanding earthquakes and violent winds?

I admit that engineering is a discipline so very far from my grasp. I’m sometimes too embarrassed to ask some pretty basic questions — for instance, how do ancient arches manage to stand for over two millennia? — because the fundamentals of engineering are at the very heart of our physical world. We take their components for granted.


Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures
Roma Agrawal
Bloomsbury Publishing

Fortunately Roma Agrawal‘s Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures tackles many of the critical fundamentals of engineering and does so with uncommon clarity and charm. Engineers are wizards of physical matter, their profession mankind’s first alchemy, responsible for its greatest physical achievements. Celebrating the basics of this impossible magic remains a pleasure for her and one she passes to her readers.

Agrawal grew up in both America and India, but it’s London she calls home and a city she has helped changed forever as the structural engineer for The Shard (pictured below), the tallest building in Western Europe.

© Johnny Ring

Built collects the basic elements of construction, by chapter — rock, metal, clay, fire — and explains their unique placement in an engineer’s toolbox. To understand the power of a simple brick, for instance, Agrawal pursues classic examples from ancient history, pointing out its fundamental strengths in practical, sometimes whimsically illustrated examples.

But this is hardly a textbook; Agrawal’s brings a warm, infectious perspective to the material, the text gleaming with a genuine passion for her profession. She devotes an entire chapter to the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a particular emphasis on the contributions of Emily Warren Roebling, who stepped up to replace her husband Washington Roebling, paralyzed by caisson disease.

“She is an inspiration to me because, despite the monumental challenges she faced, she delivered the most advanced bridge of its time, using every skill an engineer needs — technical knowledge, the ability to communicate with laborers and persuade stakeholders, and tenacity — at a time when women were expected to be silent and inconsequential.”

I suspect Agrawal will serve as a similar inspiration to other budding young engineers.

(She’s also incredibly fun to follow on Twitter — )


Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons

Picture above by Kurt Klinner/Wikimedia Commons