Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition
According to author/journalist Jeff Byles, we can trace the modern
history of building demolition to the Great Fire of London in 1666.
With remarkable foresight, diarist Samuel Pepys declared that
"unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing
could stop the fire." Pepys then "hustled home and buried his wine
and Parmesan cheese in the garden." When the Lord Mayor ignored the
pleas of Pepys and others, citizen activists took matters into
their own hands and with "axes, crowbars, ropes and chains" they
chopped firebreaks throughout the city.
Of such fascinating bits is RUBBLE composed, a charming and
exceedingly thorough researching of the subject of purposeful
architectural destruction. In the last century, rubbling gained a
macabrely festive reputation when entrepreneurs in Las Vegas
realized that people would pay to see buildings fall. In a non-city
that continually recreates itself, "old" hotels and casinos (30
years is antiquated by Vegas standards) can attract a bigger crowd
for their collapse than they did for their opening night. The Vegas
"rubble-rousers," as Byles cleverly calls them, have brought razing
to a high art, with pyrotechnic displays and lavish pre-show
It's impossible to talk about how a building collapses (it's
referred to as "implosion," even though that is, technically
speaking, a misnomer) without remembering the World Trade Center's
twin towers, the Titanic of the late twentieth century. The towers
were skyscrapers whose demise was a sucker punch at the very notion
of progress, financial hocus-pocus and technological
mega-complexity. Eerie predictions of their ultimate fall were
early voiced, with one pundit calling them the "arrogant twins" and
another, Cassandra-like, declaring, "There are so many things about
gigantism that we don't know." Their doom seemed a foregone and
melancholy conclusion to their excess.
Another renowned teardown was the Berlin Wall, so poorly built, it
turned out, that getting rid of it was accomplished in the main by
the modern equivalent of the citizen activists of London's Great
Fire. A 6,000-pound section of it was sent intact to Ronald Reagan
for his library, undoubtedly making heavy reading.
Though there has always been demolition, it is only in recent
history that buildings are built with their destruction written
into the blueprint. Does this strike anyone as morbid, like tagging
each newborn infant with its parent's choice of ultimate disposal?
Where is Howard Roark when we need his tormented idealism? But the
practice seems logical to a civilization that no longer prides
itself on permanency. After all, demolition is a big-buck industry,
and the fashions of the city-scape change at our merest whim.
Sophisticated subject matter, archly amusing, but sad, sad,
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 23, 2011