Demolition Theory

Space, Time and the City

by Michael R. Allen

Proposition: The city is a series of arrested moments of time called “spaces.” The only way in which we know architectural spaces exist is through navigation — movement in time that suggests space.


Who is above the law of time? Who can arrest a moment?

Who gets to define what moments are more worthy of replay through the perpetuation of some spaces and the annihilation of others?

Does the destruction of space then become an onslaught against time itself? The destruction of an arrested moment seems futile. In the end, we all have time and only some us seem to have spaces.

Ultimately, no one can own a moment. Such ownership would require control of time itself. Whether or not anyone can own a space in time is also questionable.

Moments are frightening to anyone who wants total control of history. To those who find in the arrested moments some delight, time is not an erasure of our works or of our dominance but a succession of joy. One moment’s passage into the next creates a new possibility — like movement across the urban landscape from one building to the next.

As we move through time, we create spaces built out of moments. Viewed in light of a live lived in time, preservation of space is the suggestion that certain momentary experiences are joyous and worth repeated experience, and that the coexistence of such experiences is desirable. Those who disregard such moments seem to suggest that time itself should be conquered for a unitary idea.

(Photograph: Demolition of a storefront building at the southeast corner of Union and St. Louis, August 2006.)

Brecht Butcher Buildings North St. Louis Old North Theory

Our City

by Michael R. Allen

Such architectural beauty and refined historic masonry as found in St. Louis is not easy to find in other American cities. We who dwell here in the city are surrounded by wonderful sights free for the intake. On a walk to work, or a drive to the grocery store, we pass hundreds of buildings that uplift our aesthetic sensibilities. Unlike new, glamorous architecture, which unfortunately is segregated in the wealthier parts of St. Louis, the historic architecture abounds everywhere people live.

Such a cultural resource needs to good stewardship, and often we fail to provide that. As we conclude one year and start another, we should reflect upon what we all can do to steward one of the world’s most important architectural collections: the city of St. Louis.

Photo: Brecht Butcher Supply Company Buildings, 1201 Cass Avenue.


Sounds Like a City

by Michael R. Allen

Think about this on your way home from work, or on your weekend walk to the neighbor’s house: If your block were a song, how would it sound? What does the setback of each house sound like? How about the distance between houses? Vacant lots?

Building heights, styles, forms, fenestration and materials all create metaphoric rhythms and harmonies in the essays of architectural critics. Try to make the metaphors into true translation of architecture into music. If you live in an older part of a city, you will likely find discordant notes, varied rhythms and strange tempos. These may become in your mind a coherent composition, or they may seem like an improvised structure created by a free jazz ensemble. No matter how few houses remain on a block, some song emerges. Even the bad new buildings can be “played” in the mind.

Start to imagine blocks as songs, neighborhoods as operas, the city as the whole range of possible musical expressions. While this may seem far-fetched, I refuse to believe that such information is not embedded in the great architecture of my block, my neighborhood and my city.

Abandonment Documentation Theory

Ruins and Ideology

by Michael R. Allen

A new online journal of urban exploration, Liminal City, is in the works. The first issue is not yet published, but the site hosts an engrossing essay by Michael Cook entitled “On the Excavation of Space and Our Narratives of Urban Exploration.” His essay takes aim at the “endless cataloguing of the picturesque” by documentary photographers and writers who study ruins as well as the restoration of ruins. Cook wants more narrative and less science in the representation of urban exploration.

Not surprising, then, that Cook critiques my essay “Narrating Abandonment” (see page two of his essay) and finds my arguments too hostile to mystery and awe. However, his description of my essay’s larger point as a call for “a politics of urban exploration that would build a radical counter-hegemonic discourse” is the best summary I have read. Cook seems opposed to “civilized time,” which is all well and good except the stance side-steps every social problem ruins pose. I can’t apologize for looking at an abandoned building and thinking that it is resource that people need for shelter of lives or activities, and that the architecture of an abandoned building is socially beneficial and should be restored and conserved. The social imbalance caused by capital distribution hardly afford most people the romance of the picturesque. Exploring abandoned places is exciting, but mostly depressing; and abandoned factory reminds me of the structural un- and under-employment of our times, while and abandoned house reminds me that affordable, clean housing is scarce in this nation. Ruins can be aesthetically and experientially stimulating, but rarely to those people who live amid — or inside of — them. What some people call “scientism” others might see as steps toward resolution of great social problems. Rehabbing a vacant building often creates expensive housing, but also creates affordable housing and jobs. Romanticism is an ideology with resonance among the middle and upper classes.

Or, to put it simply for those who have been following Ecology of Absence: I once enjoyed exploring derelict buildings; now I live in one. That is an oversimplification, but it’s not far from the truth. Cook raises good points, but from a framework at odds with mine, which is driven not by my own desires but by the needs I see around me as I live in a city recovering from de-industrialization and massive decay.