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Built by Roma Agrawal review – the secret lives of structures

Brooklyn Bridge … Agrawal celebrates its engineer, Emily Warren Roebling.
Brooklyn Bridge … Agrawal celebrates its engineer, Emily Warren Roebling. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

You might think that cement is cement, whether it’s used to hold together the bricks in your house or mixed into the concrete of the great columns that support the Shard. So it could come as a surprise to learn that the Chinese added sticky rice to the mortar of the Great Wall, to give it extra flexibility and avoid cracking; or that the Romans added animal blood to their recipe, believing it made it more resistant to frost; or that the dome of the Taj Mahal is held together with a kitchen-cabinet mixture that included shells, gum, sugar, fruit juice and egg white.

Such diverting details are peppered throughout this lively new book by young Indian-born engineer Roma Agrawal. Unravelling the surprising stories behind our built environment, it takes readers on a global romp through the ages, from the ancient aqueducts of Nineveh to the double-stacked elevators of the Burj Khalifa. Agrawal is in a good position to tell the tale, having been involved in the engineering of the Shard at the age of 23, and travelled the world to inspect some of the great engineering wonders and meet their makers.

Writing in a chatty style (which sometimes verges on the patronising tone of a children’s TV presenter), she weaves accessible explanations of scientific principles together with engaging historical stories and personal anecdotes. Observations from her childhood growing up in Mumbai are mixed with her teenage years wowed by skyscrapers in New York and more recent experiences, such as being courted by a man who wooed her with a “Bridge of the Day” email each morning.

Chapters are themed around particular materials and techniques – from bricks, steel and concrete to high-rise construction, tunnelling and water purification. Agrawal traces each idea back to its origins, before bringing it up to date with a contemporary example, a format that allows you to dip in and out. A section devoted to her idol, Emily Warren Roebling, the under-celebrated engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, is particularly heartfelt. That Roebling’s profession remains so male-dominated, more than a century after her death, is something this timely and impassioned book will hopefully help to change.

  • Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures by Roma Agrawal (Bloomsbury, £20). To order a copy for £17, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
This article titled "Built by Roma Agrawal review – the secret lives of structures" was written by Oliver Wainwright, for The Guardian on Friday 26 January 2018 09.00am

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