Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

Bringing down the house: demolishing myths

Robin Hood Gardens, London, by Gili Merin

From spectacular explosions to piece-by-piece removal, the way we demolish buildings reflects the shameful loss of social ideals

It took so much stuff to get that flat there. Millennia of accreted building technology. The aggregate that was scooped out of the ground in Kent, graded, washed, moved, then mixed with the sand and cement from the factory at Tilbury Docks. The mixers, the steel, the cranes. One could read the history of architecture as a history of stuff. Of trees cut down and joined together, of clays dug up and baked, of ore mined from the earth, refined and formed. Stuff piled up or fixed together with increasing complexity. Think of the accuracy with which this stuff is now assembled. Imagine the tools rolling from production lines: the thousands of diggers a year that trundle off over the surface of the planet, the cranes and mixers moving, lifting and placing stuff into designated positions. Order formed out of entropy. The order of that stuff adds up to more than the sum of its parts. That order is architecture – a cultural act that makes the stuff mean something.

‘It is not only inappropriate to make demolition a spectacle, but we are also made uncomfortable by the remains’

There is also a secret history of architecture: the history of stuff disassembled. Demolition. Entropy out of order. Robin Hood Gardens, the Modernist megastructure, began its short life in 1972. It was built around a mound of rubble – the site’s previously demolished buildings, reshaped into a green parkland. In turn, now Robin Hood Gardens is being demolished, without dynamite, piece by piece, block by block, over two years (2017-19). That it is not being exploded and broadcast nationwide is indicative of a new attitude to demolition. Part of the flats were exhibited by the V&A at the 2018 Venice Biennale, drawing much debate. Now it is not only inappropriate to make demolition a spectacle, but we are also made uncomfortable by the remains. Demolition is a controversial subject and we’re doing it more than ever. ‘Permanent’ buildings now have shorter lifespans than at any time in history – in the US the average is 35 years, meaning some last much less. The stuff that is put together over years, with such precision and understanding, is destroyed in mere seconds.

La Barre 220, Lyon

La Barre 220, Lyon

Source: Laurent Cipriani / AP / REX / Shutterstock

La Barre 220, an apartment block in the La Duchère neighbourhood of Lyon, France, was demolished in 2010 to make way for new social housing

Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, the patron saint of creative destruction, changed the pace and aesthetic of demolition. By the late 20th century, demolition had become a public spectacle, and awestruck audiences would gather to watch concrete towers disappear. Record numbers of viewers watched televised implosions of Las Vegas casinos to make room for the ever-grander desert of dreams.

‘The implosion was perfectly choreographed’, said Tom Gerlach, the man in charge of the demolition of the Kingdome in Seattle in 2000, the largest explosive demolition of all time. After more than a year and a half of structural analysis, investigating the site conditions, understanding the impact of the adjacent property and considering all of the political and PR aspects of the project, the Kingdome went down in 16 seconds.

Earlier generations made do with demolition that was not organised on such a grand scale – during the Great Fire of London in 1666, self-deputised wreckers artfully blew apart houses with barrels of gunpowder in an attempt to stop the spread of destruction. Baron Haussmann called himself ‘artist-demolitionist’. He used destruction as moralised tool, clearing Parisian slums to make way for avenues that facilitated not only the flow of air and people but capital and civility though the city. A moment in time when we were comfortable with destruction and remains. Demolition as sanitiser.

‘Is there a bigger climax than a stiff 100m-tall tower suddenly collapsing as onlookers all exhale?’

Over the last few decades, demolitions have taken on a new tone – less spectacle, fewer explosions, piecemeal, more shame. Slower processes have replaced the sublime implosion. Why, when the technical problem is the same, has the solution changed? To understand this question, we have to look at demolition culture.

Freud speculated that the death drive counters Eros – the innate tendency towards procreation. Can we see demolition as a manifestation of the death drive? In some sense, culture depends on resisting the death drive, needing, as it does, stuff and ideas to accumulate over time. Would it be better to understand demolition as a synthesis between the two drives? Demolition, distinct from its cousin vandalism, is judicious destruction sensitive to the importance of creation. As kind of tempered aggression, demolition could be seen as a petite mort, a small death prefiguring one’s own death. Indeed, is there a bigger climax than a stiff 100m-tall tower suddenly collapsing as onlookers all exhale? Thousands of tonnes of embodied energy vaporised in seconds. Is there better erotic metaphor than the ground literally shaking beneath your feet.

Like the sexual act, demolition generates its own visual culture. The act is mediated through stills and moving images. Like porn, specific angles and techniques are favoured in its representation. Panoramic time-lapse is the preferred mode for demolition fetishists: compressing and expanding time, the temporal equivalent of the close-up money shot.

‘Demolition is a cultural act, so when culture evolves, demolition techniques change’

The visual poetry of demolition is matched by the demolishers’ vocabulary: thermic lances, munchers, water jets, wrecking balls. Thermic lances slice through 50mm steel plate, burning through solid matter at a rate that makes the material seem immaterial. In this we can start to see that un-building has as much architectural potential as building. Techniques born of the practical become elevated into something else. It is about making choices, being judicious.

In preparation for the Commonwealth Games 2014, the city of Glasgow demolished many of its Modernist buildings. The 31-storey Red Road flats were the highest in Europe at the time of building and a feature of the Glasgow skyline since 1971. It was planned to simultaneously explode the remaining towers for the opening ceremony with the footage broadcast live via large screens in the local football ground. Former MSP Carolyn Leckie denounced the plans, calling for the towers to be ‘demolished with dignity, not for entertainment’. She said ‘the image of tower blocks coming down is not a positive international spectacle’. The televised demolition was cancelled, and the flats were finally demolished the following year. This suggests that it was, in part, the poetic implications of the destruction, rather than pragmatic considerations, that informed the decision of how and when to demolish. Demolition is a cultural act, so when culture evolves, demolition techniques change.

Edinburgh flats reduced to rubble

Edinburgh flats reduced to rubble

Source: M J Richardson

Once home to 285 families, three ’60s tower blocks on the outskirts of Edinburgh were demolished in 2011 to make way for 320 new flats. The rubble following demolition is a graphic reminder of rampant redevelopment

Charles Jencks declared: ‘Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri, on July 15, 1972, at 3.32pm’. This was the moment, captured on film and broadcast nationwide, that Pruitt-Igoe, a St Louis social housing development, was exploded. This demolition represented the death of an idea as much as the end of a building; it was an attempt to underline a perceived mistake, to wipe the slate clean. But, like trying to cure depression with paracetamol, demolishing buildings does not cure social ills. This demolition was a symbolic way to tell Americans the state could never solve their problems – they had to take care of themselves.

Of course, Modernism survived its own death. Guy Debord claimed that the society of the spectacle started in 1927 (the year of the first sound film, mass TV and the rise of Stalin). Did the society of the spectacle start to disintegrate in 2019, ripped apart by its own centrifugal force? Now, rather than the spectacle of explosion, we would prefer to break up buildings bit by bit. Are we culturally exhausted? The technical problem of demolition is the same, but the solution changed because we lack the powerfully naïve conviction of the mid 20th century. We no longer really believe we can wipe the slate clean, we don’t really believe in the future. Because we’re unsure whether the flesh will regenerate, we’re pulling the plaster off slowly.

‘If we had an active attitude towards demolition, maybe we could avoid the shame and anguish of living with the remains’

Robin Hood Gardens is being demolished step by step, because an explosion would have been too violent a statement, too explicit a renunciation of the social values the building embodied. We live in a world only too aware of the symbolism of demolished social housing. The remains remind us of the old progressive narratives that have gone and not been replaced. We live in a world overshadowed by the destruction of the Twin Towers. That image persists, the dark surreal vision, the void where a skyscraper once stood, rising hundreds of metres in the air, people falling from the sky and buildings turning to dust. The world has changed: in 2018 we passed Peak Controlled Explosion. Accretion and sensitivity reign. Perhaps now the buildings of the 20th century will be viewed with the respect we have for those of previous centuries? Perhaps we will see more discreet dismantling, moving and reassembling buildings, in the manner of the V&A’s display of a section of Robin Hood Gardens at the Venice Biennale. If we had an active attitude towards demolition, maybe we could avoid the shame and anguish of living with the remains. 

This piece is featured in the AR February 2019 issue on Failure – click here to purchase your copy today