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2006 08 09
By Gary Michael Dault
“Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash Things”
----Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From the Underground

“After all, wreckage is often more interesting than structure”.
----Robert Smithson

I took this photo last May 13. It’s one of a small suite of photos I made that day of the demolition of Crangle’s Collision, which was then at the corner of Wellington St. and Bathurst. I guess I liked the foregrounded rubble—the chaotic heap of bricks that had once been a rather beefy, hulking structure—in alarming (and thrilling) contrast to the buildings in the background, now softened by the rising mist of brick-dust.

And I liked the faustian, boyhood steam shovel, working up on there on the mountain of broken bricks, oily and hard-muscled under the sun.

But I may well have left it stacked in the archive of my hard-drive had it not been for the fact that in the course of a browse last Saturday in the Mirvish Bookstore on Markham Street, I came upon a book called Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition (New York: Harmony Books 2005) by a New York based writer named Jeff Byles. It awakened in me a fierce interest in deliberate, calculated destruction.

Byles’s book appears to be the first sustained study of the wrecking act, and, as such, it is a treasure-trove of otherwise undiscoverable nuggets: here, for example, you can locate the wrecking ball in time (and it’s much later than one would imagine; the first true wrecking ball seems to have appeared on the scene in New York City in 1936, the brainchild of one Jacob Volk, whose Jacob Volk Wrecking and Shoring Company was deemed “the most destructive force in Wall Street”, Volk’s specialty being the violent deconstruction of redundant, lower Manhattan skyscrapers). Volk, who kept a blackjack on his desk and an open bottle of whiskey next to it, came to his wrecking ball by means of a rather elegant musing on the efficient felling of buildings: Byles tracks down Volk’s granddaughter, Patricia Volk, who tells him—with genuine brio—that “Ramming had been used for razing since Mesopotamia. But ramming wasn’t effective on New York’s multi-storied buildings. How do you ram a skyscraper? On the other hand, what if you could ram in the air?”

As history, Byles book proceeds cheerfully through eons of building-breaking, limning the epic, firebreak pulling-down-of-cities during The Great Fire of London, (1666), The Great Fire of Manhattan (1835) and The Great Fire of Chicago (1871), the ever-astonishing saga (1853-1870) of “artist-demolitionist” Baron Haussmann’s “disembowelling” of Paris (which was Haussmann’s own word for Haussmannization—“the delirium tremens of demolition”). He traces the career of Alfred Nobel from his compounding of nitroglycerine in 1862 to his patenting of dynamite (a mixture of a porous German clay called kieselguhr—how deliciously onomatopoeic some German words are!—and nitroglycerine) in 1867. He recreates in exhilarating detail the blowing up of some of the most recalcitrant of the world’s doomed buildings (Penn Station, St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing development, the J.L. Hudson Co. department store in Detroit, etc.). He recounts the fall of the Berlin Wall. And dilates upon the Unbuilding process in general (is there any real future in the past?). He even tackles—in a rather sour and sometimes vulgar fashion—the destruction of The World Trade Centre as a emblem of Hubris (“The World Trade Center was deep-sixed with a horrid Vengeance….”). Deep-sixed?

Byles is good, though, at demolition in pop culture: in the movies, for example beginning with a discussion of the Lumiere brothers’ 1896 film, Demolition of a Wall.

Perhaps the most galvanizing question asked in Rubble: Unearthing The History of Demolition, is from Rem Koolhaas: “How many Buildings deserve eternal life?” he asks. The answer seems to be: not many.


Coda: I’m gazing again upon my Crangle’s Collision photo and trying to decide what I like about. And I guess it’s the anthropomorphism locked into every building—which is both released and obliterated by demolition. The photo is like one of those engravings by William Blake, showing the soul peeling up and away from the newly dead body. The fallen bricks are the building’s bones and teeth; dust rising from them is the structure’s soul, lifting like a final exhalation.

[email this story] Posted by Gary Michael Dault on 08/09 at 02:11 PM

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