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Peter Rice (Engineer's Contribution to Architecture)
Peter Rice (Engineer's Contribution to Architecture)
by Andy Brown
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Too few books like this ..., 15 Jun 2006
The "Engineer's Contribution to Architecture" book series was published jointly by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and Thomas Telford (part of the Institution of Civil Engineers). The aim is implicit in the title - to highlight examples of modern architecture where the engineer's role is vital, and to increase recognition for the most creative engineers.

Peter Rice is an excellent example, having worked on the Sydney Opera House, Centre Pompidou, Lloyds of London building and several other key examples of the high-tech style.

This book does a good job of documenting his work, particularly his concerns for craftsmanship and his desire to act as an enabler for creative architects. Like most building engineers, and many of his colleagues at Arups, he saw his role as essentially a supporting one, however innovative his work may have got. In this respect, I find him somewhat hard to admire, especially compared to engineers in the bridge field who are far more confident about their own ability to determine structural form.

Nonetheless, the book is well-illustrated, with plenty of photos. Disappointingly, there are few technical diagrams, and the author often tries to describe in words something that could be explained far more simply with a drawing. There's little doubt that the aim is to put Rice on a pedestal in the same way as much architectural criticism deals with "hero-architects", although there is some acknowledgement of the teams that Rice was part of.

The main disappointment is that the book was written after Rice's death in 1992 - this means there are few opportunities to read what the engineer himself really thought. This is a problem with engineering literature generally, and I'd love to see more books like this written about the giants of the profession while they are still active. To a great extent this is a problem with the engineering culture - more books would be written if there was more evidence that engineers wanted to find out about and be inspired by their peers.


Bridges of the World: Their Design and Construction, with 400 Illustrations
Bridges of the World: Their Design and Construction, with 400 Illustrations
by Charles S.Whitney
Edition: Paperback

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Showing its age, 23 May 2006
First published in 1929, Whitney's book was a classic study of the history, evolution and aesthetics of bridge design up to that point.

Reading it three-quarters of a century later, it is a very interesting but very flawed work.

The book splits into two halves. The first essentially covers the history of bridge design, through the early period (mostly Roman), the dark ages, renaissance, 18th century and modern age (i.e. 19th century and early 20th century). This section commences with a chapter on the "art and science in bridge design", which proposed principles for bridge architecure. Although somewhat dated, it still contains much that is relevant to modern thinking on the conflict between architects and engineers in the design of bridges.

The second half begins with a brief chapter on the influence of material on bridge forms, and mainly consists of dozens of photos of bridges around the world, arranged by material type.

On the whole, it's fair to say that Whitney was obsessed with the development of masonry arch bridges in France, which must have seemed far more important at the time of writing than it does today. In contrast, he gives the enormous explosion in bridge technology during the 19th century considerably less attention - any number of important bridges are conspicuous by their absence (the ones that leap to mind are Brunel's bridges at Saltash and Maidenhead). More forgiveable is the limited selection of early 20th century bridges, as (for example) the bridges that Robert Maillart had built at the time did not become well known until later.

From the modern viewpoint, there is still material here that is relevant, particularly to students of historic masonry bridge design, but also beyond that. However, the author's interests are definitely very much skewed, and there are far better overviews of bridge design history now available.


The Saga of Sydney Opera House: The Dramatic Story of the Design and Construction of the Icon of Mod: The Dramatic Story of the Design and Construction of the Icon of Modern Australia
The Saga of Sydney Opera House: The Dramatic Story of the Design and Construction of the Icon of Mod: The Dramatic Story of the Design and Construction of the Icon of Modern Australia
by Peter Murray
Edition: Paperback
Price: 33.97

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How an icon was very nearly a fiasco, 3 May 2006
Peter Murray started out as an admirer of the SOH's architect Jorn Utzon, thinking, along with many others that he was the tragic hero of this famous building's tale. Uzton, the competition-winning designer who came up with the SOH's unique and iconic form, eventually resigned from the job under pressure from the Australian government, after years of argument and controversy.

Murray has interviewed many of the people involved in the project, and extensively researched the archives, to tell the true tale of how Utzon was appointed and how he eventually fell from grace. For anyone involved in the interface between architects and their clients, or between architects and engineers, it's a very informative tale.

Utzon was something of a megalomaniac, determined to control every aspect of the project down to the last detail. However, he had no experience of building projects on this scale, and little sympathy for the client's need to control costs and meet a programme. He seems very much in the tradition of architect as a romantic artist, a visionary, a genius, but someone almost entirely lacking the organisational and political skills required to actually get anything as complex as the SOH built.

The book paints a very sympathetic portrayal of the building's structural engineers, Arup, who were often the piggy-in-the-middle while the client fought to get Utzon to ever produce any working drawings.

Although the book contradicts other published accounts, it seems well-researched and certainly rings true to me. The writing style is often dry - this certainly isn't a flashy, exaggerated dramatisation of what actually happened.


Dream Bridges / Traumbrucken
Dream Bridges / Traumbrucken
by Ziesel Wolfdietrich
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wolfdietrich who?, 28 April 2006
Wolfdietrich Ziesel is hardly the best known of European bridge designers, and the reason is that he has had very few of his bridge designs actually built. So, yes, these are very much "dream bridges" and this limits both how much can be written about them and how much can be learnt.

The book includes numerous images, drawings and sketches, and these do a good job of illustrating the concepts involved. Ziesel is very much a structural engineer - most of his ideas are structural ideas, and this is refreshing in an era where bridge design has been hijacked by architectural flights of fancy. There are certainly some nice ideas here e.g. several bridges based on a lenticular (lens-shaped) truss concept.

The book is bilingual English and German, and the English translation is reasonable but doesn't always read well. It's somewhat light on text overall - it didn't take me long to read compared to books on more notable bridge engineers like Jorg Schlaich.

The lack of built examples mean this is more of a book for the bridge specialist than someone with a more general interest in architectural or engineering.


Bridge: The Architecture of Connection
Bridge: The Architecture of Connection
by Jane Rendell
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The three ages of bridges, 24 April 2006
My initial reaction to this book was one of irritation - it combines a flashy, annoying design, which favours fractured imagery over real content, with numerous factual errors (e.g. that the Forth bridge is across the Solway Firth) all of which suggest that an editor would have been welcome (none is credited).

The book is in three broad parts: the birth of bridges, focussing on Arup's Millennium footbridge; the mid-life, centred on Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge; and the death, considering Mostar's Old Bridge, destroyed in 1993. Each of these is covered by an essay by Lucy Blakstad, who made a set of three TV documentaries on the subject, and counterpointed with short pieces on other related bridges, bridge designers, bridge myths etc.

The main thrust of the book is about how bridges both connect and disconnect communities; about how they create new opportunities but also how they divide, how they create fears when dissimilar communities are brought into closer contact. Although the overall style is somewhat poetic, throwing together a series of snapshots, anecdotes and detours (often a trend with documentarists with little of their own to say), it is still thought-provoking.

Flawed, but nonetheless interesting.


The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

245 of 260 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Provocative but timely, 24 April 2006
To call this book provocative is something of an understatement - it's an attack on ideals held very dear by many, from the sanctity of religious faith through to the desirability of religious tolerance. It's also highly persuasive, and a timely wake-up call to anyone who dislikes religion but believes that private beliefs should go unchallenged.

Harris's key concern is pragmatic: there are religious fundamentalists happy to kill both themselves and others on the basis of their faith in particular holy books, and we must find the best way of stopping them. Harris's view is that the way to do so is to undermine all religion, not just that of the fundamentalists.

He notes that "religious tolerance", the liberal consensus which minimises conflict between believers and non-believers, and between moderates and radicals, allows fundamentalism to flourish because it creates a climate where only actions can be challenged, not the beliefs that cause them. Harris (with some tendency to exaggeration) downplays the political causes of terrorism which other writers focus on, and concentrates on the central absurdity that makes acts like suicide bombing possible - belief in reward in the afterlife.

Harris rarely minces words. The book is filled with quotable invective, which depending on your perspective you'll either find inspiring or apalling. As a rant, it's highly articulate and very well-argued.

Harris pours scorn particularly on Islam and Christianity, enumerating the false beliefs to be found in their holy books and devoting a chapter each to their flaws. Judaism gets off more lightly, and he clearly has more sympathy for Israel than its neighbours. Eastern mysticism such as Buddhism gets off most lightly of all, on the grounds that it is to some extent a tradition of empirical investigation, not just a compendium of antiquated superstitions.

There are very interesting chapters that discuss the philosophical arguments against faith - one on the nature of belief and another on ethics. Many of his arguments (e.g. in favour of torture under certain circumstances) are initially repellent, and some of his ideas are unfairly contradictory (particularly a support for Western bombing of civilians while criticising Islamic support for the same - although his grounds are reasonable, if you accept his argument that the West would avoid "collateral damage" if it could, while Islamic terrorists actively seek it out, he remains far from even-handed).

The flaws are hardly relevant, as there's no need to agree with everything here to get the main point - that only by challenging all irrational religious views can we hope to create a future free from murderous extremists.


To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design
To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design
by Henry Petroski
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.31

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not entirely a success story, 8 April 2006
Henry Petroski is an author of "popular engineering" books, the cousin to "popular science", which attempt to explain the process of engineering design to a non-specialist audience.
This book documents how successful engineering is a process of predicting and preventing failure. Several chapters offer a variety of viewpoints on the philosophy of design: engineering as hypothesis (this building will stand up) which is tested analytically or empirically; design as revision (if we change this bit it will stand up); success as foreseeing failure etc.
There are several good angles here, particularly where Petroski likens engineering design to the way in which children learn. For non-engineers, there is also useful material on factors of safety, failure by cracking and other basics.
Petroski's use of language is excellent, but as an engineer, I do find a lot of the book disappointing. Non-engineers might come away thinking they know why Tacoma Narrows collapsed, or what fatigue cracking is, but the technical reasons are at best alluded to, never properly explained. Petroski's paper-clip example for fatigue cracking is particularly poor, as it mixes in two generally unrelated issues (brittle failure and plastic strain hardening; although ultimate failure is indeed due to fatigue cracking). For technical matters, "Why Buildings Fall Down" by Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori is far superior, and much better illustrated with simple and easy-to-follow diagrams.
Where Petroski succeeds is in the human processes of design engineering, but even here he is somewhat weak. He's good on the philosophy but not the reality - you couldn't read this and get any grasp on how a design engineer actually spends their day, for example.
Worth reading, but let down by its fear of the technicalities.


The Art of Structural Engineering: The Work of Jorg Schlaich and His Team
The Art of Structural Engineering: The Work of Jorg Schlaich and His Team
by Alan Holgate
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hardly lightweight, 16 Mar 2006
This is a compendious and well-illustrated survey of the work of one of Europe's greatest twentieth century structural engineers. Schlaich and his firm have specialised in innovative and complex structures such as cable nets, glass grids and concrete shells, and have created some of the most inspiring and important bridges and buildings of recent times.
Holgate is a sympathetic author, who clearly understands the political, commercial and technical influences upon these designs. He's helped very much by Schlaich's own openness and willingness to acknowledge past errors.
The book has many photos, diagrams, extracts from technical drawings etc, is well-referenced, and suffers only from the lack of an index. There's plenty of inspiration here for architects and engineers alike, as well as considerable insight into the building design process.


Robert Maillart and and Art of Reinforced Concrete (Architectural History Foundation Books)
Robert Maillart and and Art of Reinforced Concrete (Architectural History Foundation Books)
by Dp Billington
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorough and inspiring, 16 Mar 2006
Maillart will be remembered as one of the greatest bridge engineers of the 20th century, certainly spoken of in the same breath as Eiffel, Roebling, Brunel or Telford from the previous century.
Many of his designs in reinforced concrete have rarely been bettered today, and this book combines great photographs with a very thorough critical text. Billington understands both the global principles behind Maillart's designs, and also the importance of the many small details.
Still an inspiration for practicing bridge engineers or anyone working in reinforced concrete design. Several of the bridges (Tavanasa, Toss, Schwandbach) are amongst the greatest works of structural engineering ever built, after all.
The references to Felix Candela, Heinz Isler, Fazlur Khan and Christian Menn in the final chapter are somewhat tacked on (and dealt with far better in Billington's "The Tower and the Bridge"). Billington's judgement isn't always impeccable (e.g. he likes the horrible cross walls on the Vessy Bridge), but is mostly spot on.


Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering
Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering
by Henry Petroski
Edition: Paperback
Price: 27.13

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Those who don't learn from history ..., 16 Mar 2006
The origin of several chapters as separate articles is clearly evident in the text, which repeats the same ideas over and over from very similar angles. But it's nonetheless a very interesting book, which takes a number of fairly simple case studies of (mostly structural) engineering failure, and illustrates how they are examples of wider tendencies towards error. My personal favourites were examples from distant history, Galileo and Vitruvius, perhaps because they were less familiar than some of the more recent accounts of bridge collapse.
The final chapter, which was written in 1994, queried whether major bridge failures run in roughly 30-year cycles (Dee, Tay, Quebec, Tacoma and Milford Haven all fitting the pattern) and wondered whether another was due in 2000. Although Petroski suggested that cable-stayed bridges might be the form that would see the next failure, the more obvious example in retrospect is that of the Millennium Footbridge in London. Eerily, even Petroski's predicted probable cause of failure - "an instability" - came true!
This also ties in with an earlier chapter, where Petroski noted that the design climate at the time of the Tacoma Narrows failure "evinced confidence in analytical techniques and a preoccupation with aesthetics". The same was very much true at the time of the Millennium Footbrige design.
Thought-provoking, especially so for bridge engineers, and let down only by the repetition.


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