Monday, June 07, 2010

Book Review: Bridges

Bridges: The science and art of the world's most inspiring structures by David Blockley
Oxford University Press, 2010
Hardcover, 288 pages

Structural engineering is a field that contributes to some of the most breathtaking and seemingly impossible structures built by humans. Without them recent buildings like Burj Dubai (PDF link) or the Bird's Nest would not exist, nor of course would most bridges, the subject of this book by David Blockley, Emeritus Professor at the University of Bristol, England. But for many -- this reviewer included -- structural engineering, fascinating for what it helps realize, is mind-numbingly boring in its detailed and complex workings. Unfortunately in Blockley's book, which seems to be aimed at a general audience, explanations of structural mathematics (the boring) accompany historical stories and more abstract descriptions of how structures work (the not-so-boring). It is clear that Blockley knows what he is talking about, and in many cases his point of view is illuminating (especially when he discusses mishaps like the wobbling of London's Millennium Bridge by Arup with Norman Foster) and his means of explaining the general concepts of the field is helpful (he relates the parts of a structure -- beams, arches, trusses, and suspensions -- to how language is structured -- paragraphs, sentences, words, and letters), but the book should either have been trimmed of its math or found a way to integrate these parts with the rest without sacrificing the flow and interest of the larger narrative.
David Blockley