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dynamic planning, innovation, and creativity to empower a world that sloughs the encrusted ruins of a dilapidated and out-of-date metropolis and projects a new world as a blank slate for the geometer’s gaze.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)

The inheritor of this thinking in the new, of creative destruction, of innovation and planning Le Corbusier’s imagined metropolis was never actually constructed. It exists today, as it did at its inception, as pure abstraction. “This is how it should be. What mattered most to Le Corbusier was not any empirical actuality but rather the integrity of the plan. It was this, rather than any of its specific components, that was the crucial element separating the old organic town from the new modern city.” (SF: 36)

At the core of these architects vision was The Plan, the sense that one needed to clear a path, to destroy the old to make way for the new, and that the cost in human suffering and misery was of less worth than bringing order our of chaos and creating through destruction a new world. These men were given the power of autocratic jurisdiction to do what they wanted, to destroy at will decades if not hundreds of years of growth and human accumulation.

All three men were master manipulators of the economic and political systems of their day, but it was Robert Moses who as Greenspan remarks was the ultimate “master of the political game”, managing to seize “property, mobilise vast sums of money and create a web of public authorities that were answerable to him alone”. (Sf: 37) For decades nothing happened in New York without his approval. At the height of his career, Moses’ word functioned as dictatorial fiat, forceful enough to reshape New York. As Greenspan in summation comments:

Le Corbusier, Haussmann and Moses sought to mastermind the City of Tomorrow through the building of roads. This project, and projection, expressed and also helped create the idea that modernity was inextricably tied to a linear and progressive time. In wiping away the old to make way for the new, modern urban planners aimed to construct the future as a utopian destination (the end point in history). In town planning no less than religion, this has involved an alliance with authoritarian rule and a faith that the future can be mastered.(SF: 37)

The Economics of Creative Destruction: Progress and the Future

The notion of creative destruction in the wake of such modernity would under economist Austrian American  economist Joseph Schumpeter follow the work of Karl Marx and popularize a theory of economic innovation and the business cycle. According to Schumpeter, the “gale of creative destruction” describes the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one”. In Marxian economic theory the concept refers more broadly to the linked processes of the accumulation and annihilation of wealth under capitalism.2

In his classic text Schumpter would tell us,

Capitalism is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary. And this evolutionary character of the capitalist process is not merely due to the fact that economic life goes on in a social and natural environment which changes and by its change alters the data of economic action; this fact is important and these changes (wars, revolutions and so on) often condition industrial change, but they are not its prime movers. … The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates. (CSD: 87)

There’s a sense that what drives both modernity and capitalism is a war against the ancient worldview of a static and unchanging reality, of a realm of fixed and authoritarian forces of sovereignty and power enforcing a rigid caste like system of economic and socio-cultural traditions that must be static and unchanging. Modernity as that famous quote from Marx “All that is solid melts into airreminds us is shaped by a rush of eroding forces that undermine and destroy all in their path as they seek to build and move toward the future.  And, yet, there was an undertow to all this melting, for as Marshall Berman will tell us of the modernization of the great cities what was planned and what actually happened were two different things. “The tragic irony of modernism is that its triumph has helped to destroy the very urban life it hoped to set free.3 As Berman will explicate,

Corresponding in a most curious way to this flattening out of urban landscape, the twentieth century has also produced a dismal out of social Serious thinking about modern life has polarized itself into two sterile antitheses, which may be as I suggested earlier, “modernolatry” and “cultural despair. (ASMA: 89)

A sense of fatalism and despair for all those excluded from the bright cities of lights, of those whose lives had been crushed under the power of all this modernist planning and creative destruction of the old to make way for the new. None of these architects as engineers, master builders and capitalists ever brought into consideration the lives of all those who would be affected by this destructive power of exclusion. It was as if the modern capitalist utopia was founded on the exclusion of human life in its bid to make way for technology and a consumer’s paradise.

Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

As Anna Greenspan reminds us in 1961 the self-taught urbanist Jane Jacobs published her most famous work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which presented itself as a critique of the thinking surrounding modern cities. (SF: 37)  Against the Geometer’s paradise of Platonic city-planning that was at the heart of those great master builders and their creative destruction as typified in Le Corbusier, Haussmann and Moses, Jacobs “presented a view of the city that was grounded in the material reality of the street” (SF: 38). As Greenspan remarks,

By looking, listening and learning from the street, Jacobs discovered that the most vibrant urban neighbourhoods were precisely those that the modernists were eagerly clearing away. In the messiness of older urban neighbourhoods Jacobs saw the successful workings of a complex and diverse system, which assembled itself from the ground up, and was thus totally at odds with the planners’ desire for total control. (SF: 38)

This battle between top-down hierarchical models built on a flat and geometric plane cleared of the debris and ruins of the past was countered by Jacobs with a sense that it is not the mathematical perfection and purification of the world of messy life that is needed, but rather the very material richness of  all that energetic and thriving energy is the heart of any and all cities that would exist for humans not machines. For the primal master builders and engineers of modernity it was the machine not humanity that was central, the great engine of creation was to be technological progress. The city would be a machine for machines: efficient, orderly, and productive. While in Jacobs world it was the very real material lives of the city’s inhabitants in all their unorderly grime and messiness.

As Greenspan explicates,

According to the high modernist tradition, urban development needs to be mastered through the implementation of top-down plans. Jacobs’ critique rested on the counterargument; cities are too complex to be comprehended from on high. She railed against the arrogance— and impossibility— of imposing a single abstract ideal on the diverse multiplicity that was essential to urban innovation and growth. The cities’ complexity meant that unforeseen consequences would always, invariably, upset the plan. Tear down slums and build new public housing and what you ultimately end up with are projects so derelict and dangerous that the only solution is to blow them up. (SF: 38)

And, of course, anyone who has seen the ruins of those great modernist hulks built in the late sixties and early seventies under HUD will understand just what Jacobs is describing.

Ultimately plans “go wrong,” Greenspan tells us, “because planners do not think on a neighbourhood scale. Instead, they view the city as a whole, try to comprehend it from on high and seek to impose order from above. Jacobs, who was attentive to and immersed in the micro-rhythms of daily life, argued for bottom-up emergence, or order from below. Cities are built from the emergent order of individuals not the oversight of all-powerful planners. They work, not because they adhere to the neat lines of a well-ordered plan, but rather due to the vital everyday entrepreneurialism of the street.” (SF: 38-39)

 


  1. Greenspan, Anna. Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1994) [1942]. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. London: Routledge. pp. 82–83.
  3. Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. (Penguin, 2011) p. 89

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