City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Jeff Byles

Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here

Not surprisingly perhaps, despite our attempt at a fairly wide peripheral view, most talks at Postopolis! centred on the creation of buildings, places and landscapes. But in reading from his book ‘Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition’, on the demolition industry, Jeff Byles draws our attention to the other end of buildings life-span.

Sounding somewhat like a younger Bruce Sterling, Byles’s delivery is martini-dry, sardonic and witty as he runs through some “demolition high points”. There are some great quotes littered throughout his reading, and his book looks well worth picking up.

For instance, the notion that “New York is a sutured city … (that) like all great cities, it’s a tapestry of time.” Byles starts with a focus on NYC, searching back through a history of ‘wreckers’, such as the infamous Jake Volk. Throughout the rapidly reconstructing Lower East Side, Volk was known as “the dandy of devastation”, and Byles paints his picture in the “full heroic mode of the 1920s”. Volk personified the glorious age of wrecking, and Byles shows some amazing early photographs of the defenestrated city, including that of the remains of the 22-story Gillander building, which was only 12 years old at the time. It indicates the delirious pace at this time. Byles says, “New York was the new Rome, and it was all guilt free”

They’re wonderful pictures, if a little laden with nostalgia in this context. His delivery undercuts this slightly, and it’s also clear he’s fascinated by the people whose job it was to destroy – like “modern day saboteurs”.

Jeff Byles

We are talked through the destruction of the Hudson Department Store in Detroit, Penn Station in New York, and of Hausmann’s main “surgical operations”. Byles then relates the advance of technology throughout this sector, making demolition easier, safer, and yet somehow less interesting. There’s an astonishing picture of Seattle’s Kingdome stadium, dynamited in 2000 in “a tempest of dust and debris”. There’s a love of the process in Byles’s voice when he relates the observation of one of the contractors on site, noting that the remains of the building were: “so compact and origami-like, it looks like a pressed flower”.

Technology has advanced such that now buildings “seem to disappear into the ground, unseen, mutely.” But is this invisibility a good thing? Surely, he asks, “We are going to want to know what it means again to destroy our past.”

He then shows some beautiful images from Danny Lyon’s 1969 book ‘The Destruction of Lower Manhattan’. (I managed to pick up this book in a sale once, and it’s one of the most treasured street photography books I have.) In 1966, when Lyon moved downtown, 60 acres of mostly nineteenth-century buildings were slated for demolition, all below Canal Street. Swathes of Lower Manhattan were cleared at this point, to make room for the Twin Towers, a new ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge, the expansion of Pace University, the removal of Washington Market, and so on. The place was torn apart. As Lyon said, “what mattered to me was they were about to be destroyed,” not their particular architectural significance.

It’s interesting that Byles seems to focus on the nature of demolition itself – that drift towards the invisible removal of buildings, barely passing to reflect on their passing, on their meaning at that time and place. In questions, Geoff recalls the fantastical proposal related in Byles’s book: that downtown Detroit should basically be abandoned, and re-opened as a form of urban memorial and theme park. Byles says, “what these places and ruins do is so valuable” and that they can have profound effects on people. Byles also states that he’s not a preservationist though; perhaps obviously, given he’s written a book about demolition. To illustrate this further, he remembers someone telling him that the original, much-lauded and much-missed Penn Station was ‘a terrible place really’, and this about a demolition that led the New York Times to pen a “Farewell to Penn Station”, saying “We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” (Genuine nostalgia here.)

Penn Station before

Penn Station in ruins

I ask him whether he’s read Chrisopher Woodward’s book In Ruins, about the nature of ruins from an (overly) art history perspective. In that, Woodward’s thesis is that artists love ruins, as they show the passing of time on an object, indicate an external process at work and somewhat out of control; whereas architects fear ruins … as they show the passing of time on an object, indicate an external process at work and somewhat out of control. Byles replies that is surely painful for architects to see their buildings torn down. Yet with more and more adaptive reuse and adventurous preservation efforts, and with architects getting more and more excited working within such situations (working with an existing object), that may change. Echoing a theme of the conference exemplified by some of LOT-EK’s projects, making a new program from these existing buildings or spaces, instead of just demolishing them, is an increasingly appealing creative challenge. (However, Owen Hatherley indicated demolition’s pervading dominance over adaptive reuse recently, with respect to Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower coming down.)

Joseph Grima, Storefront director, makes a great observation at this point, stating that the Storefront gallery we’re sitting in was built as a temporary installaton in 1992, by Holl/Acconci, and was intended to be up for no more than a year. (There’s a rich history of this, perhaps most famously with the Eiffel Tower.) Joseph then goes on to remind us of the great Cedric Price’s maxim that all buildings should come with expiration dates. Indeed, when asked what should be done with York Minster, Cedric said “Tear it down”. Joseph notes that this iconoclastic approach continues to some extent in Rem Koolhaas’s ideas, that buildings and cities should be continually refreshed, akin to some kind of crop rotation.

But perhaps the most apposite comment on Jeff Byles’s talk on demolition was by the building itself. Just as anyone who mentioned the sound of the city had their point underlined by a fire engine screaming past outside, as Byles was talking a good-sized chunk of ceiling plaster dropped down behind him.


2 responses to “Postopolis!: Jeff Byles”

  1. GM Avatar

    It’s Jacob Volk (not Boulk). Great review of the talk.


  2. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks Geoff. Fixed above.


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