May 06 2013

The History of Urban Demolition: A Book Review of Jeff Byles’ Rubble

With the recent news and onset of the Residential Demolition Program in Detroit, Michigan, or as termed by Jeff Byles, “demolition central,” the question and significance of historically significant demolition projects came to mind. In order to get to the bottom of this subject matter, one must pose an important question of whether the industry of urban demolition has caused a positive or negative outcome over the years, and what greater purpose has it served.


In his book, Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition, Jeff Byles undertakes the challenging quest to deliver an answer to this million-dollar question via an ambitious yet intriguing approach. This fascinating read dwells not only into the history of dynamite and the profession of demolition, but also the significance and case studies of some of the most iconic demolition projects which can be traced back to the 1666 Great Fire of London. The book in itself was not written for a specific audience in mind and can therefore be enjoyed by all types, whether you find yourself to be a history buff, a fellow urbanist, a demolition expert, or just an intrigued reader.

As an aspiring urban planner, what I found most intriguing about the book were the thorough discussions and examples of demolition projects, from Haussmann’s Paris to the urban clearances of Detroit. Additional topics ranged from the “American public policy gone bad” in St. Louis, Missouri, to Urban Renewal and Penn Station in New York. And of course, one cannot talk about demolition without mentioning two of its historically significant players, Baron Haussmann and Robert Moses, which Byles manages to incorporate in a cohesive way. However, the book also raises more questions than answers, such as – what was the greater impact demolition has served over time? And, whether that impact was for the better or the worse?

Specifically, in the example of modern architecture gone wrong with Pruitt-Igoe, demolition was seen as an answer once it was realized that “social ills can’t be cured by nice buildings,” but can rather be cured by destroying those “nice buildings.” On the contrary, the example of Haussmannization of Paris and “light before all else” also reminds the reader of the rare times demolition can work for the greater good – but at what cost?

Pruitt - Igoe Demolition

Nonetheless, more often than not, demolition serves as a sad reminder of what once was, as in the case of Detroit and Moses’ Urban Renewal Expressway projects, which saw more than 250,000 people displaced, along with entire blocks of tenements, shops, and factories. All too often, significant landmarks are lost to this over-gaping industry of demolition only to be replaced by insignificant structures, as in the case of Penn Station in New York. As the books says, “This is really the great American tragedy, being played out in every major city. The growing economic obsolescence of so many of our most distinguished older buildings, the peculiar combination of higher building costs and lower architectural standards of today, a lack of vision – all these factors are making our cities uglier and more ordinary every day.”

This powerful quote brings me to a closing argument and question dealing with the current dilemma. Should private developers continue to bulldoze and overhaul land to make way for additional contemporary real estate that is soon to become outdated in itself, or should they hold higher accountability for building better and creative structures with community and longevity in mind to better preserve and reinforce the social fabric of the community? For as Louis Sullivan said, “If you live long enough, you’ll see all your buildings destroyed. After all, it’s only the idea that counts.” By reciting the story of history of demolition, Rubble not only manages to raise important questions, the book also encourages the reader to dig deeper into the history of this subject matter to unearth the greater impact and arrive at their own conclusions.

Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition is available from Random House in paperback for $13.95 and ebook for $9.99. The Grid is giving away four FREE copies of the book. Follow the link to Rafflecopter Giveaway to enter for a chance to win your free copy by May 13, 2013. Best of luck and happy reading!

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Jasna Hadzic

Born and raised in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but having spent most of her adult life in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A.; Jasna Hadzic has been greatly influenced by both cultures, most specifically in terms of architecture, planning, and design. The transition of living in a small European pedestrian-oriented city to a large and vehicle-oriented American city greatly influenced her interest in the field of planning. She came to appreciate the vibrant, culturally diverse and faster-pace of life, while also looking toward her native city as a paradigm of sustainable living with traditional architecture, multi-modal transportation systems, and pedestrian-friendly spaces and streets. A recent Master’s graduate in Community and Regional Planning and G.I.S from Iowa State University, Jasna’s Thesis focused on the analysis of the built environment and demographic factors that influence physical activity, while examining street connectivity and infrastructure. In addition, Jasna holds a B.E.D. in Environmental Design, with a minor in Urban Studies, from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Her most recent work experience as a Planning Research Assistant at the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, as well as volunteer work with the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity has exposed her to new city projects, as well as community engagement. Her career goal is to not only work directly on sustainable urban design projects, but to also ensure equitable and sustainable planning practices.

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