Books

Smashers: The highs and lows of the wrecking trade

Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition
By Jeff Byles
Harmony/Random House, $24

Tempus edax, homo edacior: Time is voracious, but man even more so. Or, as Victor Hugo had it, "Time is blind, man is stupid." The Latin aphorism is one Hugo coined in 1831, livid at architects' muddled attempts to renovate his beloved Notre Dame. But the phrase also hints at the astonishing tempus edax that, unbeknownst to Hugo, was soon to come—the reign of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann as toppler-rebuilder of Paris. From 1853 to 1870, Haussmann's engine of destruction chewed up the old city, flattening 27,500 houses for the airy boulevards that are now synonymous with Parisian charm. He didn't even hesitate to rip up the house where he was born.

Haussmann was voracious, but was he stupid? New York writer Jeff Byles paints him as a paragon of "creative destruction," the force by which capitalism thrives, according to economist Joseph Schumpeter. In Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition, Byles evokes Haussmann and other men (plus one woman) who have smashed and battered their way to fame. Rubble is not so much a comprehensive history of wrecking as a compilation of its finest moments—or worst excesses, depending on your perspective.

Preservationists know better than anyone the stupidity of homo edacior brandishing his pickax and an outsize ego. To get a view of the Colosseum from his office, Benito Mussolini plowed a wide road—the Via dei Fori Imperiali—through ancient Rome's priceless imperial forums. More prosaic are today's Bobs and Pattys who bulldoze old houses across America, visions of a tricked-out McMansion dancing before their eyes. Byles' focus here is on destruction carried out not for banal reasons like personal greed, but for the sake of Progress, or catharsis, or sheer exhilaration.

No one fueled the quintessentially American drive to build bigger and newer more than Jacob Volk, grandfather of the demolition industry. In 1910, this Lithuanian immigrant astonished New York by bringing down Wall Street's 22-story Gillender Building—deemed obsolete only 12 years after it was built. He constructed his own home in Brooklyn around the same time that he wrecked W.K. Vanderbilt's opulent Manhattan chateau; when asked why he didn't recycle the Vanderbilt booty, a testy Volk responded: "Listen, am I a piker? You won't see second-hand stuff in my house."

Volk's spirit lives on, with less swagger, in the Loizeaux family of Phoenix, Md., a three-generation blasting dynasty. Patriarch Jack Loizeaux pioneered a scientific way to bring down large structures with dynamite, an M.O. that his sons, Mark and Doug, and granddaughter Stacey continue to hone. They've demolished their fair share of outmoded stadiums and historic office towers, the kind of structures that preservationists lobby to save. But as Byles ably shows, demolition and preservation are sometimes strange bedfellows. When the National Park Service decided it had finally had enough of the National Tower at Gettysburg—a modern eyesore despised by preservationists—the Loizeauxs were on hand to blow it up.

The specter of September 11 haunts these pages. Byles devotes a chapter to it, and although he is good at setting out the variety of aesthetic response to the towers' fall, he does not ask the bigger questions: Has this event changed forever how Americans regard "unbuilding"? Can't the destructive impulse be purely nihilistic—as with the Luddites or Islamic extremists—rather than creative, àla Schumpeter? Throughout Rubble, Byles fails to distinguish clearly enough between the crumbling, moss-covered ruin, a sight we often savor, and the charred rubble of a fallen building or city. The suddenness with which familiar structures now disappear results in what writer Verlyn Klinkenborg has called "a crease in time," the absence of signposts to historical memory.

Byles' prose often set my teeth on edge; clichés and unrestrained alliteration ("dandy of devastation," "pantheon of pummelers") don't mix well. Overall, though, Rubble is an ebullient and informative look at a trade that lurks in the shadows. Like it or not, Americans are addicted to starting over, and John Kenneth Galbraith's prophesy continues to hold true: "The greater the wealth, the thicker will be the dirt."

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The plan to shelter Hurricane Katrina's evacuees in tens of thousands of trailers brings to mind the post-World War II housing crisis, when newly returned GIs and their families were housed in settlements of affordable, easy-to-assemble Quonset huts. Designed in 1941 to support U.S. military operations around the world, the round-roofed metal prefabs—named after their birthplace, the Navy base at Quonset Point, R.I.—were put to a remarkable number of uses in civilian life, too. Quonset-hut movie houses, restaurants, stores, schools, community centers, and churches became part of the American landscape during the 1940s and '50s.

Now the architects and designers of the Alaska Design Forum pay homage to the humble Quonset with the first-ever book on the subject, Quonset Hut: Metal Living for a Modern Age (Princeton Architectural Press, $22.95), edited by Julie Decker and Chris Chiei. Essays on the history of the hut and its influence on contemporary architecture are interspersed with period photos of Seabees (Navy builders) erecting the structures, House Beautiful magazine spreads, and cheery ads from manufacturer Stran-Steel ("There's just no limit to how handsome a Quonset hut can be!").

Although a few Quonsets across the country have won landmark designation, many more have been abandoned or demolished. It's time, the editors argue, to recognize that the Quonset hut is as much a symbol of American ingenuity as the Coke bottle or the Jeep, and that it deserves "a pat on its rounded back for being the best building it could be." —Tricia Vita

 


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