World-class wrecking crew: the designers who destroy to create

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There are plenty of awards for build, but two designers have inaugurated a competition for the most creative style of demolishing a building in the hope that the results will improve the urban environnment

When David Bench was a child in suburban Houston, he harboured a peculiar fiction. I are applied to ride in the back of the car and imagine I had a huge at-bat, says the young, New York-based designer, and I could swat down every ugly roadside building.

These daydreams may not have helped him win his place at Yales graduate school, or his position at the prestigious Manhattan practice, Selldorf Architect. Yet Bench believes his destructive side assisted him and his colleague Jonathan Chesley victory in one of his professions most challenging contests.

Back in April 2014 Bench and Chesley won the special prize in the Storefront for Art and Architectures Competition of Competitions. This open-call from a venerable New York non-profit organisation was staged to find inventive, new architectural challenges. Storefront believed that the quotidian architectural rivalry, which usually asked for a new shopping mall or opera house proposals, had stymied the disciplines growth and constricted its purview.

Bench and Chesleys winning entry, Taking Buildings Down, was as ingenious as it was simple: rather than ask for new architectural developings, the pair wondered what kind of submissions they might receive if they called for designers to dream-up a demolition strategy?

Destruction is always seen as a negative thing, says Chesley, but sometimes it can be good.


Building being torn down near Motor City Casino, Detroit. Photo: Cameron Davidson/ Corbis

The competition, which is now also being staged by Storefront and will unveil its winners later this month, aims to recognise the most creative erasure of houses, structures and infrastructures: Removal is all that is allowed, the rules state.

Though the competition is new, the practice of architectural demolition is relatively well established. The pair point to the huge, elevated freeways that were ploughed into big US cities such as Seattle and Boston during the 20 th century that have, in recent years, been removed, improving both city life and traffic flowing. It doesnt seem that anyone thought that was a bad notion, Bench says.

Chesley takes a keen interest in how wild environments can fit into urban settings, and says the destruction of a poorly conceived city spaces can make way for more efficient, natural developments. When we talk about under-utilised space in cities we are typically describing some swath of cement with lines painted on the ground and a few scattered cars, planters or benches, he says. If this was to be replaced with a density of growing, living things it would automatically become intensely utilised. Even if this utilisation wasnt by humen, the use would be palpable and important for urban ecology.

Bench and Chesley, who work together in their own informal lunchtime architectural firm, INC_A, have put forward a number of other revolutionary the recommendations in the past, including one scheme to turn the Houston Astrodome into a sports-themed prison.

While that project is unlikely to break ground, the pair believes their demolition rivalry piqued the interest of Storefronts committee, thanks in part to the destruction of New Yorks acclaimed Folk Art Museum, which was levelled to make way for the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in 2014.

While neither Bench nor Chesley think this nice, though not-entirely-vital the building “shouldve been” saved, the pair does believe cities need to find new ways of managing destruction.

Preservation is good, but it doesnt permit any opposing force, says Bench. If you save a few beautiful houses, its not as if the stuff that really should go then gets demolished. Instead, we end up putting the pressure on the buildings that are quite good, but not quite good enough to be deemed historical.


The remaining Sixth Street Bridge. Photo: Ringo Chiu/ Zuma Press/ Corbis

The architects contrast the churn of growth activity in New York, where builds are constantly being torn down to make way for new ones, with less fortunate cities such as Detroit, where the demolition ball tends to swing into real estate that has stood vacant for years that, despite being perfectly serviceable, is no longer economical to maintain.

This a condition that is relevant to every city, says Bench , not just a down-and-out place, but also a thriving one.

Unlike some architectural rivalries, there is no guarantee that Taking Buildings Downs winning entry will be put into practice. Yet, even if no ugly tower blocks or flyovers are levelled as a direct result of Bench and Chesleys competition, the pair still sees merit in the exert. Taking Houses Down could enable architects to develop a new situate abilities to shape the city surrounding, contradicting Frank Lloyd Wrights old adage that the physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.

When were brought into a building project, most things have been decided, says Chesley. Yet, with a demolition project, an designer could select a subject, garner local supporting, and put their plan into action.

More importantly, the competitor may alter the style planning officials and the public consider the structures that surround us.

When we were in school, just after 9/11, the common notion was that no one would build a skyscraper again, and we were all going to have to plan for our buildings to be demolished, says Chesley. In practise no one really thinks about their house being taken away everyone feigns it will be there forever.

Yet, if we want cities to succeed, we must, in this pairs opinion, find ways to let the right builds fall.

Removal is something that needs to be considered in any urban system, says Bench, whether its failing or not.

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