A wry history of modernity’s infatuation with “unbuilding”—and damn the costs—from the London Fire to 9/11.
Architecture critic Byles’s debut examines the under-acknowledged, atavistic social enthusiasm for “smashing things,” exploring how the once-ridiculed industry of demolition is “propelled to pop-culture status around the world as a de facto extreme sport,” thanks in part to the spectacle implosions of Las Vegas. Once, house-wreckers created crucial firebreaks during epic urban conflagrations, beginning in 17th-century Europe and continuing through the Great Chicago Fire and the London Blitz. Haussmann’s clear-cutting of entire neighborhoods in Paris provided a template for future avatars of bureaucratic destruction like New York’s Robert Moses. Prior to the Moses era, New York’s feverish construction cycles produced a 1920s cultural archetype embodied by Albert Volk, a “one-time immigrant wise guy” turned millionaire wrecking tycoon whose workers, a piratical bunch, seemed cavalier about aesthetics and safety. Yet in Volk’s time, skilled, specialized wreckers became obsolete as the industry was transformed by machinery and explosives. Byles ably depicts the bizarre postwar narrative of “urban renewal” that made demolition so culturally prominent, including the wholesale destruction of Detroit by residents and would-be developers alike and the sacking of the old Pennsylvania Station, which sparked the contemporary preservationist movement. (As the New York Times editorialized, “Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves.”) The narrative is propelled by his wonkish glee for the topic, capturing the mechanical minutiae of destructive technology beyond dynamite and “skull crackers” (wrecking balls) and the shady or thin-skinned eccentrics who populate this increasingly media-savvy industry. Mark Loizeaux, “philosopher king of deconstruction” and Discovery Channel favorite, also gets his due. Unfortunately, Byles largely refuses to acknowledge the social and historical costs of urban gentrification: His typical tactic is to cite with postmodernist awe the monstrous demolition statistics accompanying building booms in cities like Chicago, but not to depict the cheap hideousness of much new construction there.
It won’t please preservationists, but Byles offers a colorful take on this strangely upbeat blue-collar milieu.