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Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures

By Roma Agrawal (Bloomsbury, £20)

Reviewed by Sarah Eley

Roma Agrawal’s passion for her subject, the structures that make up the built world we live in, shines through in her book. Agrawal takes us on her journey of discovery of the wonders of structural engineering, beginning with her experience of Manhattan’s towering skyscrapers, a city she visited as a child when her engineer father took up a job in the US. Simply titled ‘Built’, Agrawal starts her book with an exploration of force and the way it flows, as this influences the form that structures take. Hand drawn illustrations, which are peppered throughout the book, keep the reader’s mind on track and help to simplify concepts.  The subsequent chapters explore the building blocks of clay, metal and rock, building up into the sky and down into the earth, tunnelling through and bridging over, and the essential delivery of clean water and the taking away of sewerage. 

Quite rightly, Agrawal puts engineers at the heart of our built environment, as without their expertise, architectural designs could not be realised: ‘Imagine, for a moment,’ she writes in her final chapter, ‘a world without engineers… what do you see? More or less nothing… Engineering is a big part of what makes us human.’ Her book is therefore as much a history of humans and the built environment that we have created from Roman to modern times, as it is an accessible introduction to structural engineering. Agrawal is keen to encourage women to work in the traditionally male dominated world of structural engineering.  She highlights the work of Emily Washington Roebling who completed the complex Brooklyn Bridge when her husband became too ill to carry on, suffering from decompression sickness, also known as ‘the bends’, a result of moving from high to low pressure environment in the construction of the caissons for the bridge piers. However while her chatty written style makes this book accessible to a wide audience, she refers too often to herself as nerdy in an almost apologetic way.  I think that she simply has curiosity and enthusiasm about the built structures around us, which is inspiring and should be celebrated. Sarah Eley is a Senior Planner at HTA Design LLP