Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Book review: The Great Builders

The Great Builders by Kenneth Powell.  Photo / Supplied
The Great Builders by Kenneth Powell. Photo / Supplied

The Great Builders edited by Kenneth Powell
(Thames & Hudson $65)

Work on Gustave Eiffel's Paris landmark had barely begun in 1887 when all hell broke loose in the pages of Le Temps. A group of art establishment Parisians variously described the edifice as "baroque mercantile imaginations of a machine builder", "a gigantic black factory chimney" and "like an ink splotch". Eiffel hit back: "Can one think that because we are engineers, beauty does not preoccupy us or that we do not try to build beautiful, as well as solid and long lasting structures?"

He went on to argue the tower would be beautiful because the mathematical calculations had determined it so. As an aesthetic line of reasoning it wasn't altogether convincing. But Eiffel won the day and the tower was soon regarded as a triumph of precision engineering, enshrining him as a great builder.

Eiffel's story is one of the better told in The Great Builders, edited by Kenneth Powell.

It profiles 40 canonical men (no women) and their structural legacies. Others don't fare so well, bogged down in dense biographical facts or arcane descriptions - "stalactite net pendentives", "quincunx of iron posts" - that may have some seeking the dictionary. The variation in style stems from the collection of historians, writers, academics and architects who have compiled the biographies. It can't be easy to condense the life's work of great men into five or six pages with photos and illustrations, but some contributors write with more flair and accessibility than others.

But if Builders may be hard going at the start, it's worth persevering for the wider themes that emerge - the advent of new material and technologies that change everything and the long running tension and reconciliation of the roles of architect, engineer and master builder, epitomised in philosopher-mathematician-engineer Ove Arup's making of the Sydney Opera House designed by architect Jorn Utzon.

As with all historical lists, there can be arguments about what has been left out. Where are Michelangelo, Donato Bramante and Andrea Palladio? There are surprises, too, in some of the inclusions - Francois Hennebique (reinforced concrete), James Bogardus (cast iron) and Frei Otto (tensile membrane).

But as an exploration of great building - whether it is bridges, churches, fortresses or skyscrapers; and whether the builders are supreme rulers (emperor Shah Jahan), artists (Brunelleschi), scientists (Wren), gardeners (Joseph Paxton), railway engineers (Brunel), architects (Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier) or today's starchitects (Frank Gehry, Norman Foster) - Builders provides an innovative take on 700 years of history.

Chris Barton is a Herald business writer.

- NZ Herald

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