Traditionally, the conclusion of building projects has drawn people together to celebrate
cultural progress. Thousands toured the Crystal Palace during and after its construction in
mid-19th-century London; in 1937, 200,000 pedestrians each paid a nickel to cross the
newly opened Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; in 1974 the topping-out of the Sears
Tower with a special white beam signed by 12,000 workers was covered by a throng of
Just as historically, and also in the name of progress, building demolition has
emphasized the symbolic role of buildings by calling attention to changes in cultural
values and temporal powers as the old is swept away in favor of the new. The destruction
of Persepolis in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great indicated the triumph of Hellenistic
culture over the Mesopotamians; the order by Pope Julius II to condemn Constantine’s
basilica and thereby make way for a new St. Peter’s epitomized the papal desire to link
itself with an interpretation of Roman antiquity specific to Renaissance values. In both
cases, an idea of advancement lay behind the destruction. In the former, an enemy was
specifically and violently obliterated to establish the superiority of the victor; in the latter,
progress was manifest through a new architectural expression replacing one considered
outmoded. Rarely is building demolition a purely pragmatic act; at its theoretical base,
demolition is the antithesis of memorial building.
The notion of progress has taken many forms across the 20th century alone. Often
associated with the midcentury idea of clearing historic downtowns to make way for
modernist projects, such architectural improvements have also worn the dress of
classicism. Decades before the first Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne
(CIAM)-inspired demolitions, dozens of buildings were scrubbed from Philadelphia’s
17th-century grid to make room for the diagonal sweep of the Benjamin Franklin
Parkway (1909–19). The City Beautiful boulevard and its associated Beaux-Arts
buildings suggested a new decorum and civility for the modern city. Such classically
draped progress was usually carried out in small parcels compared with the urban
renewal of midcentury, when acres of urban fabric were razed.
A particularly focused and infamous example, the 1974 Urban and Rural
Systemization Law enacted under the Ceausescu regime inaugurated a period of mass
demolition in Romania. With the ultimate goal of consolidating 7,000 towns and villages
(over half of those extant in the countryside) with 500 agro-industrial centers, building
demolition became a tool in the formation of a more perfect Communist state by leveling
the differences among ethnic identities and variations between standards of living in town
and country along with the country’s architectural heritage. At least 29 towns had been
almost totally razed by the end of 1989, when the destruction came to an end with the
overthrow of Ceausescu.
Most mid-century demolition carried out under the banner of urban renewal was a
combination of social engineering and also a principle that older buildings, representing
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an outmoded way of life, were simply obsolete. Displaced by the construction of malls
and the rising use of online shopping, the Sears Mail Order Center in Kansas City (1925)
was demolished in 1997, and in the following year the 23-story Hudson Department Store
(1911), the tallest department store in the country, was felled in Detroit. By indicating an
adjustment in cultural relevance, the planned demolition of these buildings illustrates the
concerns of the 1990s just as their construction revealed the values of a century ago.
More infamously, the destruction of hundreds of housing projects, starting in the
1970s, sounded the coda for one of the Modern movement’s greatest efforts, the
provision of efficient, low-cost public housing. Iconic photographs from 1972 of Pruitt-
Igoe (St. Louis, 1952–55) crumbling in a cloud of smoke are as potent symbolically of
the demise of modernism as well-known detail images of the Gallerie des Machines are
of its rise. The news coverage of such demolitions and reconstruction of mixed-income,
19th-century-style town homes on many of their sites (most ironically exemplified in
Baltimore, where new row houses replace the towers, which themselves replaced 19thcentury
townhouses) illustrate the cycle of urban housing planning values in America.
The loss of particular monuments has often been a catalyst to energize groups, which
have lobbied for the protection of whole neighborhoods and districts in addition to single
buildings. Ironically, the preservationists have also been to blame for the destruction of
scores of historic industrial and vernacular buildings in their efforts to present a tidy
historical vignette. Scores of dependency buildings that sheltered the lives of slaves were
demolished at Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s; 30 years later the creation of
Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia demanded the demolition of
significant mid-19th-century buildings; both projects used demolition to clear distasteful
mistakes of history for a sanitized image of Colonial life.
Across the 20th century, methods of demolition have differed from project to project,
depending on the particular building’s structural material, scale, environment, and
accessibility to the site. Techniques range from the simplest procedure of pulling down
by hand or with wire rope, to the use of demolition balls and pusher arm machinery, to
the planning for explosives and the use of “bursters,” steel cylinders inserted into
predrilled holes that “burst” concrete by means of either hydraulic power or gas
As methods changed in precision and predictability they transformed the nature of
demolition from the brute, droning labor of the wrecking ball to a quick and dramatic
event that is often enhanced with the marching bands and fireworks displays once
reserved for ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Especially in the last decades of the 20th century,
as the work of demolition began to resemble entertainment, demonstrators against the
destruction of particular buildings were joined at the contested sites by growing
audiences seeking entertainment. Most famously, Controlled Demolition Incorporated
(CDI) has raised the destruction of buildings to spectator sport. Between 1950 and 2000
the firm was responsible for the destruction of some 7,000 structures worldwide, often
employing the technique of implosion. This high-tech method has been coupled with
pyrotechnics and new communications technologies to draw worldwide audiences
numbering in the millions of spectators via satellite.
The captivating nature of this entertainment is shown by the inclusion of CDI’s 1994
demolition of Las Vegas’ Landmark Hotel in a movie, while still shots of other imploded
buildings were collected for calendars. For all their 20th-century popularity, these
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theatrics may not find such widespread draw in the 21st. Perhaps indicating a new mood,
on the heels of the September 11 terror attacks, the implosion of the Desert Inn (Las
Vegas, October 2001) was a low-key event, carried out in the middle of the night and
without fanfare. The collapse of the World Trade Center towers, captured on film and
replayed innumerable times, has likely squelched the enthusiasm once held for this kind
of destructive entertainment.
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