Fall/Winter 2003

Terrain Vague

The sublime art of demolition

Jeff Byles

I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?
—James Joyce, Ulysses

The Great Meltingness

Midway through a briskly paced video montage called The Art of Demolition—a ten-minute romp documenting more than seventy-five toppled high-rise towers, imploded stadiums, and fetchingly felled bridges—the jump-cuts give way to a long, low-angle shot of a tall chimney framed against cloud-scudded skies of depthless blue. Read: bucolic grandeur. Craggy low mountains crouch on the horizon—we’re outside Tulsa, maybe, or greater Billings—and the slender stack is a brilliant stroke of white with bold black stripes etching its upper half. Already a fusillade of smoke spills from the chimney’s base as the dynamite kicks in, and a full-on Homeric fall is upon us: a gallant first tilt, then a broadening arc, then it’s all pure, luscious geometry as the chimney-top scribes a perfect curve through the air. Ramrod straight to the end, the column at last dolefully smacks the earth in a welter of dust and debris. Never has smokestackdom been so lyrical, so rapturous. Stop. Rewind. Play. Great meltingness of matter: these nine seconds of videovérité get damn near to nobility.

Smuggled in between clips of a severed, plunging drawbridge and a couple of hulking natural gas tanks being crumpled like tin cans, these are perhaps not the most bankable few frames from The Art of Demolition, an in-house curriculum vitae produced by the Loizeaux family of Phoenix, Maryland, one of the world’s foremost explosive demolition teams.[1] Yet that bolt of smokestackian sublimity carries the shock of a manifesto. As the dynamite and detonating cord play out their occult magic, what you’re seeing is the unspooling of space. Stop. Rewind. Pause. Caught in mid-tumble, the death of a smokestack provokes a seductive encounter with the superreal. “At last each particle of space is meaningful,” as Louis Aragon wrote in another lifetime, “like a syllable of some dismantled word.”[2] Demolition, too, has its metaphysic, as the profession’s sage practitioners are wont to point out. Mark Loizeaux, the structural savant who helped fell Seattle’s massive Kingdome stadium in 2000, put it this way: “I just looked at it and asked myself, ‘What does the Kingdome want to do?,’” he said, explaining how he’d turn the world’s largest concrete dome to a heap of rubble in just seventeen seconds. “Basically, it’s gravity, the power of the planet that brings the structure back to grade,” he added. “The Kingdome is coming down. It wants to come down.”[3] It’s wanted to do that, he told reporters, since the day it was built.

With demolition, of course, you’re always headed back to earth, where metaphysical niceties are sometimes trampled by the industry’s pragmatists. “A lot of people would like to preserve every damn building where Millard Fillmore ever used the public convenience,” George F. McDonnell, a consultant for a large demolition company, said with refreshing candor in 1975. “There’s a lot of sentimental drivel about all that,” he added, calling it a blemish on the national heritage to go blubbering on about buildings and institutions and laws that had grown bowlegged with age. “When they don’t work anymore, they should be dismantled and the parts recycled,” he railed. “Let the wrecking ball swing![4]


“You hate to wake up to the sound of chainsaws or bulldozers,” one Los Angeles resident groused not long ago about his losing battle with the newfangled “erase-atecture.”[5] Tough luck, buddy. Like it or not, the buzz and rumble of tear-downs and cutaways has become a permanent fixture of the American landscape. In 2001, the city of sunshine and noir doled out 1,211 demolition permits for destruction as diverse as the Gilmore Bank (a 1950s relic ditched to build a shiny happy shopping mall) and the “Pink Palace” of Holmby Hills (former lair of Jayne Mansfield), prompting the Los Angeles Times to toss off this memorable riff: “Snakes shed scales. Roses drop petals. And Los Angeles levels buildings—about three per day.”[6] Indeed, what the paper called a “new sort of ghost town” of now-spectral structures is growing more jam-packed by the minute. If LA thinks it’s got rubble overload, just look at Philadelphia, where on 13 March 2003, Mayor John Street clambered behind the wheel of a backhoe and rammed a wrecking claw into a brick wall, ceremonially gouging the first of 318 vacant South Philadelphia homes. “So commenced Philadelphia’s $295 million, five-year plan to raze fourteen thousand abandoned red-brick rowhouses and dilapidated Victorian mansions. The hope is that the swaths of vacant land will attract private developers.”[7] Uh-huh. Meanwhile, Detroit has vanquished sixteen thousand buildings over the last decade, while St. Louis razed forty-three million square feet of abandoned properties in a desperate quest for urban resuscitation. Chicago? “Squandered Heritage,” blares the headline. In Vegas, they merely jest: “Is ‘Las Vegas Landmark’ an Oxymoron?” New Yorkers, having endured their own private Dresden on September 11, 2001, talk gently of “‘Beauty’ in a Moonscape of Tragedy.”

Demolition, in short, is everywhere about us. Yet beyond the shrill (if worthy) historic-preservationist rallying cries over this threatened monument or that lost masterpiece, surprisingly little comment has been made about the psycho-spatial impact of our wrecked ghost towns. When that which goes up inevitably comes down—via backhoes and pickaxes, or high-velocity charges and TNT—it leaves in its wake, I want to argue, a special sort of aura. Amid the toppling bricks and blinding dust, a new creative-destructive dialectic is born. The demolitionist credo: Tearing buildings down gives forth; building up taketh away. “Architecture, we forget at our peril, is inherently violent,” explains critic Herbert Muschamp. “It invariably subtracts from the range of available possibilities, especially the perennially attractive option of building nothing at all.”[8] Demolition, that is to say, is a profoundly generative act. Its gift of immateriality trumps all.

Montgomery Ward Headquarters, St. Paul, Minnesota. Imploded 7 January 1996. Eric Kelly, blaster. Photos Brent Blanchard.

Waste Ground

What is left over when buildings are gone? One attempt at an answer might go like this: a patch of what the French call terrain vague. Typically used to describe a city’s scroungy, scrabbly outskirts—literally a “waste ground” of desolate earth caught between town and country—terrain vague in its broader sense carries a whole sheaf of complex overtones. It is a field in flux, space that is empty yet brimming, a void blurry with anticipation. As one commentator describes this fullness-of-emptiness: “The relationship between the absence of use, of activity, and the sense of freedom, of expectancy, is fundamental to understanding the evocative potential of the city’s terrains vagues. Void, absence, yet also promise, the space of [the] possible, of expectation.”[9] This dense flicker of meanings is exceptionally well captured in Emile Zola’s 1877 novel L’Assommoir, in which a laundress and a metalworker are scaling the well-worn path up the north side of Montmartre in Paris, when they unexpectedly veer onto a terrain vague:

There, between a mechanical sawmill and a button works, was a strip of meadow still remaining, with patches of scorched yellow grass; a goat, tied to a post, walked round in circles bleating; further on a dead tree crumbled in the hot sun. … In the sky, a flock of white clouds swam past as slowly as a swan. In the corner of the field, the goat had turned in their direction and looked at them; from time to time, at regular intervals, it bleated softly. And holding hands, their eyes brimming with tenderness, they looked into the distance, lost in thought, on the pallid slopes of Montmartre, surrounded by the great forest of factory chimneys blocking out the horizon, in that chalky and desolate banlieue, where the green trees shading the cheap taverns moved them to the edge of tears.[10]

This moment gets us very close to our smokestackian sublime. Here the chimneys are still standing, yet the play between chimney and not-chimney, between the urban industrial skyline and this incomparable strip of meadow, speaks to the flood of meanings in suddenly liberated spaces. Here we have arrived at what Anthony Vidler calls “the hermeneutics of absence.”[11] We’re blinking back tears at these plots piled high with toppled masonry and wracked steel. We’re scheming to unlock the promise of this great meltingness—so much like the tenderly devastating bleat of that solitary goat.

1861: Haussmann’s Paris

“Imagine all this junk, which till now has lain spread out over the soil like a dry crust, cleaned off and carted away,” Le Corbusier wrote about the thicketed, medieval center of Paris.[12] Half a century earlier, such creative destruction was no idle reverie for Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the prefect of the Seine under Napoleon III who dubbed himself “demolition artist”[13] and spent seventeen years ramming wide, axial boulevards through the working-class neighborhoods of Paris. Officially, the project was an early sort of slum-clearance, injecting salubrious space into the festering urban core; the more pragmatic motive was to stamp out the narrow passageways so hospitable to the city’s legendary cobblestone barricades, which were mounded up against the authorities in times of insurrection (more than four thousand of them sprouted during the July Revolution of 1830). Haussmann’s transformation of Paris was, in the event, a watershed for deep thinking about “the hermeneutics of absence.” “There was thus the possibility of a picturesque of demolition,” T. J. Clark writes of the Boulevard Malesherbes as depicted under construction in an 1861 etching by A. P. Martial, “surging through the slums of Petit Pologne like a force of nature, a wave about to burst a flimsy dam, something that could make the city look sublime for a moment if engraved with the right degree of detachment.”[14] Others, less apocalyptically, declared the emergency clearance of the teeming city lanes a sort of public service work undertaken for the new fashion season: “The widening of the streets, it was said, was necessitated by the crinoline.”[15]

1963: Pennsylvania Station, New York

One of the most resonant transmutations of American civic space unfolded in 1963, when New York City’s old Pennsylvania Station succumbed to its inexorable fate as fodder for a flashy new sports arena called Madison Square Garden. As jackhammers gobbled the station’s nine acres of travertine and granite, its eighty-four Doric columns soon to be jettisoned in the Secaucus Meadowlands, the station’s sorry end would galvanize a generation of civic crusaders and bring architects such as Philip Johnson to the barricades. “We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture,” the New York Times editorial page observed at the time. “And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”[16] The station’s epochal, three-year-long disappearing act became an engrossing affair in its own right, caught in the curious camera lens of Fluxus-inspired photographer Peter Moore. His opulent images capture a terrain vague coming into being in the heart of the metropolis. A typically arresting frame carries the jolt of a Fluxus “happening”: “One of the great Corinthian columns stands decorticated of its marble fluting to reveal the steel girders that support it. The grand illusion of a classical past has been stripped away and discarded.”[17]

1972: Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis

“Modern Architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m. (or thereabouts),” wrote the architectural critic Charles Jencks, “when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite.”[18] The thirty-three-building complex once housed 2,900 families, but it lasted less than eighteen years, despite its then-revolutionary approach to creating “vertical neighborhoods.” The demolition was an exorcism not just for residents forced to scamper up its urine-soaked stairwells and submit to its terrifying, gauntlet-like gallery spaces, but for an entire social system poised on the brink of collapse. “Pruitt-Igoe also is a state of mind,” as Architectural Forum lamented. “Its notoriety, even among those who live there, has long since outstripped the facts.”[19] The complex’s heavy symbolic payload provoked unusual imagery even among those who set out to destroy it. “I think of a building as a person,” said twenty-four-year-old Mark Loizeaux, as he prepared to blast one part of the hulking structure earlier that year. “I have to find out all I can about it, searching in every corner for any secrets it might have, and then prepare my plan of attack. That building is fighting me, and I’ve got to bring her to her knees the first time.”[20]

1989: The Berlin Wall
Bales of barbed wire littered the East German border on the night of 11 November 1989, heaped aside in perhaps the most politically charged demolition act of our time. As hundreds of self-deputized rubble-rousers deliriously swung pickaxes and sledgehammers, a group took one of the first three-meter-tall bites out of the Berlin Wall. “From the East German side we could hear the sound of heavy machines,” recounted Andreas Ramos. “Every time a drill poked through, everyone cheered.” Soldiers peered out from one narrow hole, and then jubilantly reached through to shake hands. “Someone lent me a hammer and I knocked chunks of rubble from the wall, dropping several handfuls into my pocket,” Ramos recalled. “The wall was made of cheap, brittle concrete: the Russians had used too much sand and water.”[21] The brittleness of space would prove a hard-to-shake hangover from that night of rubble and revelry, however, as Germans still painfully skirted the “wall in the mind,” even as the barrier itself blipped off into the ever-fluid space of the commodity: “Most of the graffiti-covered concrete has been bulldozed, jack-hammered into rubble, sent to museums around the world, hoarded by collectors or sold as souvenirs.”[22] Demolition and democracy culminate in the tchotchke.

Buccaneer Hotel, Galveston, Texas. Imploded 1 January 1999. Tim Redyke, blaster.

1993: Dunes Hotel, Las Vegas

At 10:12 pm on 27 October 1993, an estimated 250,000 Las Vegans bid adieu to the north tower of the Dunes Hotel, a twenty-two-story monolith being leveled to make way for casino magnate Steve Wynn’s Mirage Resorts empire. This unprecedented extravaganza was, as wire reports announced, “the most spectacular show ever seen on the Las Vegas Strip,”[23] and it brought demolition to startling new heights of cultural cachet. “It was a publicity stunt, a shameless, aggressive publicity stunt,” Wynn later told the BBC, “and we gussied it up with all kinds of secondary pyrotechnic explosives so that the building looks like it was being blown up with all kinds of flashes and booms and bangs and commotion and tumult. It was wonderful. We even made a movie for television out of it.”[24] The implosion kicked off with a simulated cannonball shot fired from Wynn’s adjacent Treasure Island pirate ship, while the fireworks show was billed as “the largest ever west of the Mississippi,” requiring forty-six firing batteries, plus three hundred special-effects charges and 460 gallons of aviation fuel.[25] As flames engulfed the hotel and the cameras rolled, former Dunes employees gazed on from nearby barstools, cheering the carnage as tears coursed down their cheeks. “What they were seeing was a place that they were attached to and had worked for many years being turned into a spectacle and destroyed,” said art critic Ralph Rugoff, who had commiserated with the Vegas veterans. “But at the same time their showbiz instincts were so strong that they couldn’t help but applaud their own destruction.”[26]

Angelus Novus

There is a spectral being, we now know, who watches over these terrains vagues and is their saintly guardian. This saint was first discovered in the elaborate taxonomies of Walter Benjamin, the German thinker whose messianic Marxism was deeply engaged with notions of urban restlessness and regeneration. Benjamin spent a lifetime grappling with the after-images of our world. He “concerned himself with space, with discontinuities, with moments—fleeting or eternal,” writes the geographer Andy Merrifield. “His was a topographical imagination, passionately embracing thingness, seeing, hearing and feeling only buildings, fences, doorknobs, vistas, monuments, signboards, street names, all of which he allotted ‘a brief, shadowy existence.’[27] Benjamin, you might say, was a connoisseur of the entrances and exits of things. For a time he owned a 1920 ink-wash drawing by Paul Klee called Angelus Novus, depicting “a spindly abstract figure with a pair of wings and eyes glancing slightly over its own shoulder.”[28] This became Benjamin’s celebrated angel of history, who soars backwards into the future. “Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.” The angel would like to drop down into this wreckage, rouse the dead, and “make whole what has been smashed,” Benjamin says. “But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.”[29]

A storm blowing from Paradise: that is what washes over our vague terrains—our moments of sudden insight as architecture is hurled at our feet—and blasts them with arcs of lightning. As Benjamin elsewhere hinted, demolitionists are “destructive characters” par excellence, rustlers who alight on these terrains to be our rough-and-ready guides to the immaterial future. “The destructive character sees nothing permanent,” he writes. “But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way.” This, Benjamin continues, constitutes a radical sort of freedom. “Because he sees ways everywhere, he always stands at a crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble—not for the sake of the rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.”[30]

These ways are but vectors toward the “hermeneutics of absence.” The demolitionist sketches them out, dropping a stack here, a bridge there, then moves on to liberate the next patch of ground. It may take us some time to decipher these ways. After all, Benjamin’s great project—all those fences and doorknobs and vistas and monuments—was left unfinished at his death. Stop. Rewind. Play. As Salman Rushdie recently put it, you’ve gotta be ready for anything: “I mean, the world is not a naturalistic place. Buildings may fall down. The world is not like kitchen-sink drama; the world is this weird, operatic place.”[31] It’s what Benjamin called now-time, the world of sudden, shocking illuminations, in which the true image of the past flits by. This true image is what we briefly descry in the fatal falling of a tower.

  1. Controlled Demolition Inc. 2002 Implosion Montage: Art of Demolition. Videotape provided to the author by CDI.

  2. Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: Exact Change, 1994), p. 169.

  3. Jim Lynch, “Landmark’s Rise and Fall,” The Oregonian, 23 March 2000.

  4. Demolition Age, April/May 1975, p. 18.

  5. Christopher Reynolds, “Out With the Old: In L.A., There’s More ‘Erase-atecture’ Than Preservation,” The Los Angeles Times, 29 December 2002.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Michael Powell, “Knock-Down, Drag-Out Urban Renewal,” The Washington Post, 14 March 2003.

  8. Herbert Muschamp, “A Handsome Hunk Of a Glass Tower,” The New York Times, 2 June 2002.

  9. Ignasi de Solà-Morales Rubio, quoted at groupe-e2.com/e2-vague.htm [link defunct—Eds.]. Accessed 30 July 2012.

  10. Quoted in T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 28.

  11. See Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).

  12. Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, trans. Frederick Etchells (New York: Dover, 1987), p. 281.

  13. Quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 12.

  14. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, p. 37.

  15. Quoted in Benjamin, Arcades Project, p. 133.

  16. “Farewell to Penn Station,” The New York Times, 30 October 1963.

  17. The Destruction of Penn Station: Photographs by Peter Moore, ed. Barbara Moore (New York: D.A.P., 2000), p. 27.

  18. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1977), p. 9.

  19. “The Case History of a Failure,” Architectural Forum, December 1965, p. 24.

  20. Tom Yarbrough, “Expert’s Aim: Bring Pruitt-Igoe To Knees,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 24 February 1972.

  21. Andreas Ramos, “A Personal Account of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.” Available at <andreas.com/berlin.html>. Accessed 30 July 2012.

  22. Edmund L. Andrews, “The Wall Berlin Couldn’t Quite Demolish,” The New York Times, 13 August 2001.

  23. Tim Dahlberg, “Vegas Resort Implodes in Spectacular Demolition,” Associated Press, 28 October 1993.

  24. Interview in Virtually Las Vegas, BBC documentary, 1995.

  25. Helene Liss, Demolition (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2000), p. 76.

  26. Interview in Virtually Las Vegas.

  27. Andy Merrifield, Metromarxism (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 49–50.

  28. Ibid.

  29. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938–1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Harry Zohn (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 392.

  30. Walter Benjamin, “The Destructive Character,” trans. Edmund Jephcott in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934, ed. Howard Eiland, Michael W. Jennings, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 542.

  31. “Salman Rushdie Talks with Terry Gilliam,” The Believer, March 2003, p. 106.

Jeff Byles is a writer living in New York City. He is working on Rubble, a cultural history of demolition, for Harmony Books.

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