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Balancing act

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review

Masters of Structure: Engineering Today's Innovative Buildings By Sutherland Lyall. Laurence King, 2002. 224pp. £45

Masters of Structure is an eye-catching and impressive sounding title. Sutherland Lyall's book starts promisingly with an interesting essay touching on the past, present and future of structural engineering. The remainder consists of 25 colourfully illustrated case studies, of projects dating from 1992 to the present.

However, these case studies contain little more than one expects from a good magazine article, and most of these buildings have already been the subject of numerous good magazine articles.

The stories of the projects are told in a conscientious style that lays out the facts, but Lyall generally fails to provide any insights into the conflicts, personal struggles and creative breakthroughs which inform the design and construction processes. There is little revealed about the thoughts, approach or motivations of the 'masters' of the title. Some phrases are reminiscent of those minutes from design meetings, where hours of heated debate are reduced to a single, bald conclusion.

Technical drawings accompany the text, but they are more decorative than informative, and reproduced at a scale that makes them difficult to read. The illustrations are most interesting when they present the buildings during construction.

The pictures of the unclad Guggenheim Bilbao are particularly striking - they reveal the bewildering inelegance of SOM's structural frame. The engineers showed considerable determination in devising a system that could economically realise the design - but, as a piece of structure, the steelwork would make most rationalists apoplectic.

Many of the usual suspects are included - the Dome, Eden, Lord's Media Centre, and the Great Glasshouse at the National Botanic Garden ofWales. The criteria for selection are not entirely clear, and the omission of any buildings by Peter Rice or Cecil Balmond could be seen as an odd oversight.

Lyall initially reiterates Ted Happold's case that engineers need to be recognised for the artefacts they design. This is a reasonable point, but he then becomes sidetracked by the notion of celebrity in architecture. Lyall should be reminded that, in recent polls, most of the population, when able to name an architect, responded with Christopher Wren.

Celebrity architects may seem to exist in the pages of the architectural press, but to some extent it flatters the architectural profession to claim that engineers still consider themselves undervalued and anonymous in comparison. The fabricators who developed the structural solutions for the London Eye probably have an equal size chip on their shoulder, when comparing themselves to the 'celebrity' engineers lauded in this book.

Lyall highlights the lack of an academic tradition in studying the history of engineering and lack of any single comprehensive, authoritative text on the subject. There is an opportunity for someone to write such a book; and, to be compelling, its case studies should include the technical details of design development, with personal histories exploring the frustration, endeavour and resolve of those involved. Real engineering advance rarely happens in the calm, dry manner of the descriptions here.

Masters of Structure is a good title for a book which describes some of the colourful, complicated, brilliant engineers of our time. Unfortunately, this is not the book the title promises.

Alex Wright is an architect in Bath

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