Why Buildings Fall Down: Why Structures Fail Paperback – 1 Sep 1994
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The book is based on the same material as the late 1990s TV series of the same name, and having watched that series many of the incidents and issues were familiar to me. The advantage of the book is the ability to digest information at your own speed and refer back to earlier pages, but it has to be said that the TV series communicated some of the issues better, helped by animated graphics and by the better mutual support of both pictures and narrative.
Each chapter takes a topic, whether a human factor like the law, a type of construction such as the dome, or a cause of failure such as metal fatigue, and then illustrates the issues by consideration of a number of case studies, frequently including some notable successes as well as dramatic failures. In the case of failures the book always attempts to assess both the practical cause, and also any human cause, impact and implications.
The book is very well written, in an accessible style supported by some useful appendixes on structural engineering principles. However, sometimes the simple line drawings and verbal descriptions of a structure don’t manage to communicate a full understanding, and more sophisticated illustrations might have helped.
Mario Salvadori died in 1997 (at the good age of 90), and the surviving author, Matthys Levy updated the book in 2002. My feelings on the update are mixed: the chapter on terrorism, culminating with the collapse of the New York Trade Centre towers on September 11th 2001 is excellent; but why did the author not acknowledge the brilliant success of efforts to stabilise the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the late 1990s?
Overall I heartily recommend this book to anyone with a serious or lay interest in structural engineering, and the many complex human and natural issues which influence it.
The authors' have succeeded in their intention of explaining structural failures in lay language and the book should also be recommended reading for the younger structural engineer and architect. The prophecy that those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them has a definite resonance in respect of structures and it is unfortunate that advances in computing and materials technologies have not eliminated the occurrence of failures.
This book is probably best read in stages otherwise there is a danger of disaster fatigue, but I think anyone with an interest in this subject will enjoy the content and gain a better understanding of why structures fail. There are many other technical subjects that could benefit from this approach to enlightening the non-professional, but unfortunately authors such as Levy and Savadori seem few and far between.
In my opinion, `Why Structures Fall Down' deserves a five star rating as it is both enjoyable and educational.
I found this much better than it's predecessor 'Why Buildings Stand Up' which was a bit too vague for my liking. I think Salvadori hits the nail on the head with his quote from his mother in law after she read 'Why Buildings Stand Up' - "This is nice, but i would be much more interested in reading why they fall down" - And she was right.
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I bought it for my son as one of his Christmas presents. He was pleased to receive it.