Little India: Overseas Indian, NRI, Asian Indian, Indian American

Reaching for the Sky

Roma Agrawal

Behind the glittering skyscrapers, the famous bridges and other structural marvels that adorn the skyline of a city are architects who transform them from being mere ideas to reality. United Kingdom-based structural engineer Roma Agrawal’s debut book, titled Built, which was released earlier this month, gives readers an insight into the mysterious world of engineering — and helps them decode it.

“I had been presenting the amazing work that engineers do to design our structures for a number of years, but there’s only so many places I can visit. I realized that writing a book would be a way to pen the stories of some of my favorite structures and engineers and reach a truly global audience,” Agrawal tells Little India, talking about how she has designed bridges, skyscrapers and sculptures with signature architects over her 10-year career.

The book, Agrawal says, gave her an incentive to dig deeper into the often-forgotten stories in architecture and engineering, and weaving a narrative that included science, travel and history. She has, after all, always loved science and design, and found engineering to be a great combination of the two.

In Built, Agrawal has taken a unique look at how construction has evolved from the mud huts of our ancestors to towers of steel stretching into the sky. She describes the journey behind construction of tunnels bridging deep rivers and tells vivid tales of the pioneers behind landmark builds such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Burj Khalifa.

She has also examined from an engineering perspective tragedies like the collapse of the Twin Towers. Revealing her varied experiences in designing a building that will stand strong, Agrawal has presented anecdotal, factual and historical accounts as well as her own line drawings to illustrate points better to readers.

The 34-year old writer who was born in India, moved to the United States as an infant and moved back to India at the age of six years. She moved to London when she was 16, and that’s where she now stays.

Agrawal was 23 when she worked on the construction of London’s iconic landmark, The Shard, the glass-clad pyramid tower that redefined the city’s skyline. The engineer, who was awarded Young Structural Engineer of the Year 2011 by the Institution of Structural Engineers, explains that the idea behind the book is to explore the history and science behind structures.

“Outside work, I promote engineering, scientific and technical careers to young people and particularly to under-represented groups such as women. I also engage about these topics with our institutions and government to understand and develop an effective way forward,” she says.

“I really love what I do. It was this passion for my work and the buildings and bridges I’ve designed that led me to wanting to tell more people about it, to encourage young children to consider pursuing it as a career,” she adds.

The desire to peel the layers and to delve into how and why the world looks the way it does is what drove her to write the book. The complicated measurements and technical jargon of the engineering industry has been simplified by Agrawal in the book, making scientific principles easy to understand. “I traveled to countries like Turkey and Mexico to search out stories and also researched the amazing characters, the engineers, that came up with great innovations,” she adds.

The writer has also drawn inspiration from architectural masterpieces of ancient Indian civilizations and their techniques, such as their use of fired brick. These interesting details are peppered throughout the book. “Our world today has intricate connections to all the ancient civilizations, from the materials we use to our systems of hygiene. I also explore the Iron Pillar in Delhi, which has a very unique recipe as note even the tide of time has been able to make it rust. Indian steel and iron were world famous over two millennia ago, and mentions of it are found in Roman texts,” Agrawal says.

Transitioning to modern history, some of the biggest changes, the engineer explains, happened when computing came into the picture. “Engineers in the past built a lot of redundancy in their structures to make sure they were safe, so what we find now is that the amount of steel in the Empire State Building for example far exceeds the amount we would use in today’s equivalent tower,” she says.

For now, she hopes that people of all age groups would read her book. She is also contemplating writing a children’s book in the future. Her first love, however, will continue to be structural engineering. “I love the fact that the brick, concrete, and steel, have histories that extend into the millennia, and that they play such a key role even today,” she says.