How a Building Is ‘Built’

My review of Roma Agrawal's BUILT in the New York Times Book Review

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.

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