Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition

Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition

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by Jeff Byles

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From the straight boulevards that smashed their way through rambling old Paris to create the city we know today to the televised implosion of Las Vegas casinos to make room for America’s ever grander desert of dreams, demolition has long played an ambiguous role in our lives. In lively, colorful prose, Rubble rides the wrecking ball through key episodes…  See more details below


From the straight boulevards that smashed their way through rambling old Paris to create the city we know today to the televised implosion of Las Vegas casinos to make room for America’s ever grander desert of dreams, demolition has long played an ambiguous role in our lives. In lively, colorful prose, Rubble rides the wrecking ball through key episodes in the world of demolition. Stretching over more than five hundred years of razing and toppling, this story looks back to London’s Great Fire of 1666, where self-deputized wreckers artfully blew houses apart with barrels of gunpowder to halt the furious blaze, and spotlights the advent of dynamite—courtesy of demolition’s patron saint, Alfred Nobel—that would later fuel epochal feats of unbuilding such as the implosion of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis.

Rubble also delves beyond these bravura blasts to survey the world-jarring invention of the wrecking ball; the oddly stirring ruin of New York’s old Pennsylvania Station, that potent symbol of the wrecker run amok; and the ever busy bulldozers in places as diverse as Detroit, Berlin, and the British countryside. Rich with stories of demolition’s quirky impresarios—including Mark Loizeaux, the world-famous engineer of destruction who brought Seattle’s Kingdome to the ground in mere seconds—this account makes first-hand forays to implosion sites and digs extensively into wrecking’s little-known historical record.

Rubble is also an exploration of what happens when buildings fall, when monuments topple into memory, and when “destructive creativity” tears down to build again. It unearths the world of demolition for the first time and, along the way, throws a penetrating light on the role that destruction must play in our lives as a necessary prelude to renewal. Told with arresting detail and energy, this tale goes to the heart of the scientific, social, economic, and personal meaning of how we unbuild our world.

Rubble is the first-ever biography of the wrecking trade, a riveting, character-filled narrative of how the black art of demolition grew to become a multibillion-dollar business, an extreme spectator sport, and a touchstone for what we value, what we disdain, who we were, and what we wish to become.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The controlled reduction of buildings to rubble is "the black art of our time," writes Byles. In this colorful thematic history of the demolition trade (a subject he was pursuing, it should be said, before the destruction of the Twin Towers), he rightfully calls Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, "the patron saint of creative destruction." Only in the 1910s did the simple need to topple skyscrapers emerge as a fact of urban renewal. Before 1900, demolition was only sporadically used to prevent the spread of fire, and was largely an inefficient matter of pulling buildings down, not exploding or imploding them. Over time, the dangers of wrecking balls led to an increased emphasis on hydraulics and contained explosives. Today, the ostentatious annihilation of gargantuan stadia and casinos draws awestruck throngs. Byles examines this history, looking at the "clear-cutting of entire neighborhoods" in Paris by Baron Haussmann ("who called himself `artist-demolitionist' "), the "sorry end" of New York's original, monumental Pennsylvania Station (and its impact on the urban preservation movement) and the destruction of the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. With brio, Byles ably and pungently excavates the shadowy crannies of this underappreciated art, summarized by one practitioner as "a little dynamite, judiciously placed." 25 b&w photos. Agent, Michelle Tessler. (Dec.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Byles, an accomplished urban studies scholar, chronicles the previously unexplored history of demolition as experienced in Europe and the United States from the 17th century to the present. As architectural trends altered both the outward appearance and the interior structure of buildings, demolition practices adapted to include powerful new innovations such as the wrecking ball and dynamite. Byles details specific demolition projects, including the large-scale initiative led by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann in Paris to alter the 19th-century city's layout and the 20th-century destruction of public housing projects in Detroit. Byles includes quotes from a large number of personal accounts of various demolition projects. But while he seeks to place the practice of demolition in a larger social and economic context, he offers little analysis beyond the personal accounts and no comprehensive understanding of the larger phenomenon; the reader is left to interpret events independently. Still, this work is a timely beginning of the exploration of the history of demolition. Recommended for public libraries.-Kristin Whitehair, Kansas State Univ., Manhattan Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A wry history of modernity's infatuation with "unbuilding"-and damn the costs-from the London Fire to 9/11. Architecture critic Byles's debut examines the under-acknowledged, atavistic social enthusiasm for "smashing things," exploring how the once-ridiculed industry of demolition is "propelled to pop-culture status around the world as a de facto extreme sport," thanks in part to the spectacle implosions of Las Vegas. Once, house-wreckers created crucial firebreaks during epic urban conflagrations, beginning in 17th-century Europe and continuing through the Great Chicago Fire and the London Blitz. Haussmann's clear-cutting of entire neighborhoods in Paris provided a template for future avatars of bureaucratic destruction like New York's Robert Moses. Prior to the Moses era, New York's feverish construction cycles produced a 1920s cultural archetype embodied by Albert Volk, a "one-time immigrant wise guy" turned millionaire wrecking tycoon whose workers, a piratical bunch, seemed cavalier about aesthetics and safety. Yet in Volk's time, skilled, specialized wreckers became obsolete as the industry was transformed by machinery and explosives. Byles ably depicts the bizarre postwar narrative of "urban renewal" that made demolition so culturally prominent, including the wholesale destruction of Detroit by residents and would-be developers alike and the sacking of the old Pennsylvania Station, which sparked the contemporary preservationist movement. (As the New York Times editorialized, "Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves.") The narrative is propelled by his wonkish glee for the topic, capturing the mechanical minutiae of destructive technology beyonddynamite and "skull crackers" (wrecking balls) and the shady or thin-skinned eccentrics who populate this increasingly media-savvy industry. Mark Loizeaux, "philosopher king of deconstruction" and Discovery Channel favorite, also gets his due. Unfortunately, Byles largely refuses to acknowledge the social and historical costs of urban gentrification: His typical tactic is to cite with postmodernist awe the monstrous demolition statistics accompanying building booms in cities like Chicago, but not to depict the cheap hideousness of much new construction there. It won't please preservationists, but Byles offers a colorful take on this strangely upbeat blue-collar milieu. Agent: Michelle Tessler/Tessler Literary Agency
From the Publisher
“Wonderfully illuminating . . . Byles has built a fabulous work from centuries of tearing down.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Engaging.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A live-wire, multilevel study . . . the demolition of buildings inspires complex emotions—shock, horror, even awe—and those responses are well worth thinking about.” —Time Out New York

“Urban design, it turns out, is as much about subtraction as addition. With matchless wit, Jeff Byles explores the American obsession with demolishing our architectural past. He’s the poet laureate of those unsung heroes: the ‘unbuilders.’” —Mike Davis, author of Dead Cities

Product Details

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Meet the Author

Jeff Byles has written feature articles and critical reviews about architecture, urbanism, and culture for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Metropolis, NY Arts, and other publications. He lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was 12 years ago when the disease broke out... at first it was just another bug, no big deal, and then people began changing... their skin bubbled, they began to morph, growing strange body parts and turning black... and they became monsters. You're best friend would have a cough one day, and be a raving beast the next, ready to tear you limb from limb. We quarantined ourselves in this facility, holding off their never ending attacks... waiting for a sign... for it to be over... that was 12 years ago today... and we've held off the invasion. I'm Cale Fox, and Im the commander here. Welcome to the rubble. (We live in a compound composed of 5 parts. The meeting halls (Post something there when you join) RES 2 The quarters RES 3 The courtyard RES 4 and the wall RES 5. Everything beyond that is ruins of Las Vegas, a desolate and deadly place)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*He sits down*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have a group of trained killers. :3