By Judith Dupré
March 16, 2018
The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures
By Roma Agrawal
Illustrated. 300 pp. Bloomsbury. $28.
Once, in a younger America, architects and engineers alike were simply called “builders”: people, mostly men, who had both design and construction skills. But after the American Institute of Architects was founded in 1857, the professions split. Architects began to garner all the glory while engineers toiled in their shadows. At the 1964 dedication of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, then the world’s longest suspension bridge, Robert Moses actually seemed to forget the name of Othmar Ammann, its designer and arguably the greatest engineer of the last century, referring to him only as “a Swiss.”
Such oversights have become rarer these days in the face of societal and environmental changes that demand we use and waste less. Engineers are responding with astonishing solutions culled from multiple disciplines. Supertall buildings like One World Trade Center, Shanghai Tower and the Shard are touching new ceilings of safety, sustainability and efficiency. Mimicking nature, infrastructure can now self-diagnose and self-heal when problems arise. Uses for graphene, one atom thick and the strongest material yet, are still a twinkle in the structural imagination, but not for long. Engineers are saving the world.
If that sounds like a grand claim, it’s because engineering is so seamlessly integrated into every facet of our lives that it is all but invisible. Drawing on varied examples across centuries and continents, Roma Agrawal’s “Built” seeks to tell this untold history — for, as the author claims, the “engineered universe is a narrative full of stories and secrets.”
Agrawal is a rarity: a female structural engineer in an adamantly male profession. A self-proclaimed “geek,” she shares her discoveries far above and below ground with an enthusiasm worthy of Dora the Explorer. She will inspire young women who are considering a career in engineering.
In early chapters, Agrawal slowly builds a foundation on familiar concepts, but your patience will soon be rewarded with more esoteric investigations into “hidden engineering.” Two of the most interesting chapters — “Pure” and “Clean” — examine water and the technologies that have been developed to collect and process it.
No one cares “about poo,” a drainage engineer complains in “Clean.” Agrawal disagrees. In fact, she shines when explaining the sorts of things people might be too shy to admit they find inherently fascinating. In Japan, for instance, Agrawal tries out an amped-up toilet, itself an engineering marvel of heat, water and music. She then leaps back to the 18th century, when Japan traded in solid human waste, a valuable agricultural commodity for an island with little land and a growing population. As the “turd trade” boomed, laws were enacted that entitled landlords to their tenants’ feces (but not their urine).
Agrawal hopscotches to London and its once sewage-filled Thames, commemorated as “Monster Soup” in an 1828 etching, one of the book’s many black-and-white illustrations. The river’s stench was so rank that at last, in 1859, city officials approved Joseph Bazalgette’s proposal for a new sewage system. Nearly 20 years in the making and 1,300 miles long, that network also created space for the London Tube, the first underground railway. The sewers moved untreated effluent from central London and out to sea. Agrawal notes that “it may come as a surprise to learn that we use exactly the same system today.”
Enter the engineers. Work has begun on the Thames Tideway Tunnel. When completed in 2023, this massive infrastructure project will expand the existing system and divert waste to treatment plants before releasing it to the sea. Most of this super-sewer will run beneath the riverbed, eliminating the need to dig up city streets and the strata of foundations and utilities beneath them. Equally ingenious is their plan to use the river to transport 90 percent of construction material. The amount of wastewater into the Thames will be reduced from 62 million to 2.4 million tons annually. Economy, for engineers as well as poets, is the sum definition of beauty.