Why Buildings Fall Down
By Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori
|Value for money||7/10|
|Did it do what it said on the box?||8/10|
A clear and entertaining book
Such is our morbid fascination that this book is inevitably more attractive than one called “Why Buildings Stay Up”. That said, I think I have not only learned more about structural engineering than I would have done from a positive counterpart, but I have also learned vastly more about the other factors, human and natural, that influence the ultimate success or failure of structures.
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.