With the rise of the 2013 Residential Demolition Program in Detroit, Michigan, or as termed by Jeff Byles, “demolition central,” the question and significance of historically significant demolition projects is increasingly important discourse. In order to get to the bottom of this subject matter, one must pose an important question as to whether the industry of urban demolition has caused a positive or negative outcome over the years, and what greater purpose it has served.
In his book, "Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition," Jeff Byles undertakes the challenging quest to deliver an answer to this million-dollar question via an ambitious yet intriguing approach. This fascinating read dwells not only into the history of dynamite and the profession of demolition but also the significance and case studies of some of the most iconic demolition projects which can be traced back to the 1666 Great Fire of London. The book in itself was not written for a specific audience in mind and can, therefore, be enjoyed by all types, whether you find yourself to be a history buff, a fellow urbanist, a demolition expert, or just an intrigued reader.
As an aspiring urban planner, what I found most intriguing about the book were the thorough discussions and examples of demolition projects, from Haussmann’s Paris to the urban clearances of Detroit. Additional topics ranged from the “American public policy gone bad” in St. Louis, Missouri, to Urban Renewal and Penn Station in New York. And of course, one cannot talk about demolition without mentioning two of its historically significant players, Baron Haussmann and Robert Moses, which Byles manages to incorporate in a cohesive way. However, the book also raises more questions than answers, such as – what was the greater impact demolition has served over time? And, whether that impact was for the better or the worse?
Specifically, in the example of modern architecture gone wrong with Pruitt-Igoe, demolition was seen as an answer once it was realized that “social ills can’t be cured by nice buildings,” but can rather be cured by destroying those “nice buildings.” On the contrary, the example of Haussmannization of Paris and “light before all else” also reminds the reader of the rare times demolition can work for the greater good - but at what cost?
Nonetheless, more often than not, demolition serves as a sad reminder of what once was, as in the case of Detroit and Moses’ Urban Renewal Expressway projects, which saw more than 250,000 people displaced, along with entire blocks of tenements, shops, and factories. All too often, significant landmarks are lost to this over-gaping industry of demolition only to be replaced by insignificant structures, as in the case of Penn Station in New York. As the books states, “This is really the great American tragedy, being played out in every major city. The growing economic obsolescence of so many of our most distinguished older buildings, the peculiar combination of higher building costs and lower architectural standards of today, a lack of vision – all these factors are making our cities uglier and more ordinary every day.”
This powerful quote brings me to a closing argument and question dealing with the current dilemma. Should private developers continue to bulldoze and overhaul land to make way for the additional contemporary real estate that is soon to become outdated in itself, or should they hold higher accountability for building better and more creative structures with community and longevity in mind; to better preserve and reinforce the social fabric of the community? For as Louis Sullivan said, “If you live long enough, you’ll see all your buildings destroyed. After all, it’s only the idea that counts.” By reciting the story of the history of demolition, "Rubble" not only manages to raise important questions, the book also encourages the reader to dig deeper into the history of this subject matter to unearth the greater impact and arrive at their own conclusions.
What demolitions have occurred in your city? Are there any buildings or communities that have been demolished that you remember? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
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