The Philosophy of the Bulldozer: Or, The Modern Art of Creative Destruction

“In their creation of the modern city, Le Corbusier, Haussmann and Moses shared the conviction that the older urban centres that had stood in their way had to be destroyed. They viewed the pre-modern city as riddled with slums that needed to be cleared away. Small, dense, crowded lanes were condemned as a cumbersome relic, unsuitable for the coming new age. In this lineage of modern urban planning, the bulldozer has always been the most important tool in the creation of the future.

—Anna Greenspan,  Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade

The Master Builders

There’s a sense that modernity and modernism not only disowned the past, but literally and figuratively destroyed it to make way for the new. Studying the great architects and engineers of Paris and New York Le Corbusier, Haussmann and Moses, Anna Greenspan gazes upon the bewildering delirium that is modernity. Not a modernity that is a repetition but rather a movement that never stopped modernizing, progressing forward powered into the uncharted future,  accelerating technics and technology, enforcing an engine of dynamic planning, innovation, and creativity to empower a world that sloughs the encrusted ruins of a dilapidated and out-of-date metropolis and projects a new world as a blank slate for the geometer’s gaze. Modernity is a temporal engine of creation and destruction born of both the geometer’s dream of perfection, and the dark undertow of a volcanic and energetic thermospasm at the heart of creation itself. This war between Platonic perfection with its top-down planning, modeling, and simulated artificiality,  and the unruly titanic forces of the street life of cities where the unconscious power of a delirious intelligence emerges from the shadows would and still is driving our world.

Citing Edward Glaeser’s book Triumph of the City Greenspan reminds us that Georges-Eugène Haussmann ‘evicted vast numbers of the poor, turning their homes into wide boulevards that made Paris monumental. He lopped off a good chunk of the Luxembourg Gardens to create city streets. He tore down ancient landmarks.’ SF: 35) The great city of medieval and renaissance Paris would become rubble in the path of this architect become engineer of grand and monumental roadways. As another architectural historian Peter Hall remarks ‘Haussmann had little concern for the heritage of the past; it simply got in the way.’ (SF: 35)

Robert Moses of New York, a student of Haussmann comments Greenspan “projects and roads rammed through neighbourhoods, dislocating hundreds of thousands of people, obliterating much of the existing urban fabric. Seemingly oblivious to the destructive path that lay in the wake of his developments, Moses appeared to delight in his particular form of ‘creative destruction’. ‘When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis,’ he notoriously maintained, ‘you have to slash your way through with a meat axe.’”(SF: 36)

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