Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Postmortem: Building Destruction

August, 2013

Published in Architecture Post Mortem: The Diastolic Architecture of Decline, Dystopia and Death, edited by Donald Kunze, David Bertolini and Simone Brott (Ashgate, 2013).


The art of building contains the finer art of destruction.

To build is to be human may appear axiomatic, but human beings also bear an enigmatic impulse for the destruction of their own fabrications. The incendiary beauty of a burning building is both awful and awesome, making us beholden in a kind of a catatonic grip to something we understand vaguely. And whatever we seem to understand, we hardly acknowledge.

The demolition of Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia in 2004 was not only a spectacular event but a demonstration of an intractable lure for the coming down of a construction. Televised for two whole days, the implosion was presented as a magnificent theater of dismantling. “It was so cool,” many spectators exclaimed, while nearby residents bemoaned the vanishing of a familiar landmark. Perhaps such obliteration is destined as the life-cycle or utility of a building runs out. But buildings have been marked for an episodic downfall so that new wonders may arise. The iconic demolition of Pruitt-Igoe Housing in St. Louis (1972) and the patricidal drowning of Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall in Stanley Tigerman’s photo-montage marked the passing away of a regime in anticipation of a new one. From the sacrificial ashes and rubbles rises the unashamed rhetoric of the avant-garde. Nietzsche is invoked.

Presented at the outset, a provisional typology of building destructions suggests the following: nihilistic (most famously, the apocryphal scene of Nero playing the lyre while the city burnt, or Pompeii or Fukushima ravaged by a natural disaster), tactical (triumphal destruction of cities from Alexander to Genghiz Khan, the blitzkrieg of Second World War, or the demolition of Babri Masjid in India in 1992), and transitional, one that leads to the release of a new epoch (Pruitt-Igoe or Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium). The tilt of this essay is neither towards the nihilistic nor the tactical mode although one cannot completely escape either in a narrative on destruction. Transition is perhaps an endemic condition in the phenomenon of destruction but something that needs to be analyzed as a thing in itself. Instead of offering a sociological or pathological explanation for all building catastrophes, one is drawn here, like moth to fire, to provide a risky metaphor, to meditations on a fourth type: contrived or ritualized destructions.




Even if building ends with construction, the story is not completely over as something begins anew from annihilation. This essay is a narrative on ritualized destruction, how various practices and performances of de-construction convey a significance contrary to the immediate or literal phenomenon of destruction. If tectonics (in its original link to techne/poeisis) is about appearing and making appear, destruction is about the presencing of an absence; it is not simply an antinomy, but making an otherwise appear. A vivid example is the blowing away of a Tibetan sand-mandala after its meticulous construction, or the weaving of baskets by Abba Paul, a Desert Father, and burning them at the end each year. Such a phenomenon may be approached by a number of concept-heavy terms: sacrifice, death, dismemberment, disappearance, “un-building,” or what Gordon Matta-Clark called “anarchitecture.” In any of these conceptual horizons, there is a narratival or ritual continuity to what may appear to be an abrupt end. Destruction means a second chance, or in theological term, a resurrection, or in ascetical sense, an alchemical transformation, leaving one body for another. There is always something else.

Destruction is always mobilized around a figural substance, often bringing a convergence of the anthropological and architectural body. A contrived destruction of the building-body is one of the oldest and recurrent tropes in architecture. Whether it is the body constructed in the tectonic framework of a building, or the building formed in the ligaments of a body, both fall victim to a homicide or bauicide, as the case may be. Body and building are bound together in a bond of violence that re- or de-form each other. The ritual destruction of buildings is found in diverse situations: Many emblems and elements on Greek temples are lithified versions of sacrificial objects. The Ise Shrine in Japan is taken apart and rebuilt every twenty years. The Hindu mandala is created on the dismembered body of a mysterious being (Vastupurusa) upon which arises temples or cities. Rituals for gaining adulthood in certain tribal cultures were performed through breaking down special huts. The roof is a favorite trope of destruction: Shamans or Buddhist arhats conceived illuminative ecstasy as breaking through the roof.


James Frazer notes how Dieris of Australia tore through the roof of a special hut to initiate the arrival of rain. There is, in short, blood on the body of architecture.


The following sections present five post-mortems performed on departed bodies of architecture. The narratives intend not only to expand the significance of demolition, dismemberment and disappearance, but invoke the epistemic question of whether destruction can be studied. If we are to pursue a theory for building destruction, the narratives suggest both a preliminary horizon for that mysterious event and provisional mapping of architectural violence. There are few questions that are left suspended for a later analysis: Does destruction precede construction? Or, is construction always followed by destruction? Is destruction implicit in construction? Is destruction antithetical to construction? The following anticipatory observations are proposed for reading the post-mortem reports:


Destruction is a beginning. The enactment of destruction has a contractual relationship with pre-established norms and practices. As with Edward Said’s meditation on beginnings, one would suggest that there is intention and method in such systematized mayhem. In other words, there is a method to the madness. Every beginning is an occasion of violence, and it is embedded in the very ritual of building.


Destruction disrupts normativity; it involves a transgression or transcendence for which normativity is a required benchmark. Destruction triggers, as in Jacques Derrida’s reflection on death, a “rhetoric of borders,” a conversation on border making and limit condition. The sense of destruction as an end – final limit – invites an analogy with death. “Seneca describes the absolute imminence, the imminence of death at every instant. The imminence of a disappearance that is by essence premature seals the union of the possible and the impossible, of fear and desire, and of mortality and immortality, in being-to-death.” Thus, re-citing Seneca via Derrida, one could say destruction is imminent in building.


Destruction is purposeful. Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986) ends with a fiery destruction of a house. (In fact, the end does not begin well in the making of the film. During the final shoot, the camera jams while the house-set is burning. The house had to be rebuilt so it could be burned again). In Tarkovsky’s driven meditation on the macrocosmic scope of human annihilation (in the film, nuclear catastrophe), and its microscopic reach into the lives of the individual, the father figure in the film pulls together the material possessions of the family and burns the house down as a kind of barter to save the family. Is this cataclysmic or cathartic? Is it a sacrifice or surrender? Compared to Michelangelo Antonioni’s nihilistic and ecstatic destruction of the consumerist house in Zabriskie Point (1970), the burning of the dwelling in the eponymous Sacrifice is an Abrahamic gift.

As with Siva’s bipolar cosmic dance, destruction is ambiguous. Destruction is implicated in a doubleness: it is both a silencing and an emergence, a depletion and a regeneration. Its paradoxical kinship with creation is not only non-extractable, but also necessary, as many artists have noted how an oscillation between creation/constructivity and destruction is present ubiquitously in the rhythms or proceedings of nature. The prosaic destiny of the deterioration of buildings receives a discursive doubleness in David Leatherbarrow and Mohsen Mostafavi’s notion of “weathering” when they proclaim: “Finishing ends construction, weathering constructs finishes.”

Destruction is performative, and as such is materially tenuous (although it needs materiality for that very performance), making the event both unsettled and unsettling. That is why the artworks of Matta-Clark or Andy Goldsworthy which are literally performed for deterioration rely on the photographic medium for their rhetorical reproduction. The ontology of destruction requires a human agency in the performance and practice.


“Why Did The Monk Burn The Temple?”

The writer Yukio Mishima wondered, as did millions of people, when the news spread that a monk at Kyoto’s wondrous temple had burnt it down: “why did the monk do that?” One sultry summer night in 1950, an acolyte priest Hayashi Yoken struck a match to a bundle of dry sticks and threw it at the most beautiful edifice on earth, Kinkakuji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The building burnt to ashes. Few things are known about Hayashi. The club-footed monk stammered, and before proceeding to burn the temple, went on a drinking binge and visiting prostitutes. But that did not explain why he torched Kyoto’s sacred monument.


Mishima was induced to reflect on the mystery of destruction through writing a fictionalized version of events that led to the climactic incendiary moment. Mishima’s story, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956), recreates the stammering priest Yoken as the fictional Mizoguchi. The book is finally an essay on the question of beauty and the beautiful, and what is one to do when beholden to a thing of beauty that not only confounds a visual apprehension but also challenges a conceptual comprehension.


But if beauty is here, can its shadow be far behind. Mizoguchi was both ugly and irresistible. He stuttered, dragged his foot, and presented himself as a miserable creature, a kind of hunchback of Kinkakuji. And that also, as Mizoguchi began to observe, made him an object of people’s attention even if it was surreptitious or unacknowledged. In a chain of actions that are both contemplative and concatenated, Mizoguchi homologizes himself with the Golden Pavilion. The object of veneration and the subject of revulsion become alter egos.


Such a homology is however fraught with perplexity. Mizoguchi wondered which one was the “real” Kinkakuji, the temple that his father had described so lovingly when he was a child, the model of the temple that he had seen in another precinct, the Kinkakuji that he serves as an acolyte monk, or the idea of that temple that sediments in the soul of a beholder? And if the destination of a thing of perfect beauty is annihilation, as Mizoguchi arrives at that realization, which one is to be destroyed?


The golden phoenix that perches on the roof of Kinkakuji, as well as the supposed ashes of the Buddha kept in the pavilion, is both a poignant and ironic reminder of the temple’s burning destiny, and its convulsive history of destruction and rebuilding (but not quite like the ritual dismantling and reconstruction of Ise Shrine). Kinkakuji was rebuilt after Yoken/Mizoguchi destroyed it in 1950. It was destroyed during a war in the 15th century and rebuilt after that.


Yukio Mishima’s own life parallels an itinerary of careful construction towards a ritualized annihilation. Identifying his own body as the national/ist ethic, Mishima built up his corporeal body, athletically and militaristically (and auto-erotically), to represent a perfect vision of the nationalist destination. But, in 1970, thwarted by the course of the body politic to give credence to his nationalist vision or to enact a theatrical termination of such edification, or a combination of both, Mishima committed seppuku, a self-ritualized suicide. In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Mishima makes complex conjunctions of Buddhist ideas of transitoriness with social and nationalist ethics, all of which comes at a particular historical moment in war-torn Japan. The ambivalence of post-war chaos of Japan and an incendiary illumination of social pathology was reflected in Mishima’s first staged play Kataku (The Burning House, 1948). Drawn from a Buddhist fable in the Lotus Sutra, the burning house becomes a metaphor for immersion in and release from a troubled world of sufferings and defilements.


“The Rafters Are Shattered”

The young man, emaciated but resolute, sits under the fig tree in a forest, determined not to move until he has found the light. He sits cross-legged but erect, eyes closed but focused, with only one objective: the truth. For eight years he has roamed the forest in search of that elusive target. He had subjected his body to various trials if only truth would show. He remained standing on one leg as a form of penance. He went without food for weeks, his skin and bones were indistinguishable, and yet truth remained concealed and unavailable.


Eight years earlier, he was a prince in a palace, a lucky guy who had it all. Yet, he left home, renounced as people would say, so home or gaha could be abolished forever. Home has not left him; it clung to his body like a leech after one has come out from bathing in an ancient pond.


While young leaves twinkled like green stars at the gentle breeze, he sat under the bo tree determined not to stand up or open his eyes until what he sought has been found. Then at the end comes the brilliant moment, something that would signify the ultimate episode in an operatic journey. At a point in the meditation, a deep realization dawns on him, and he exclaims: “The rafters are shattered, the ridge-pole is destroyed, and the architect will no longer erect the house (gaha) again.” That is when the young man known as Gautama Siddhartha becomes the Buddha.


That is the only statement attributed to the Buddha describing himself at the highly enigmatic and ineffable event of attaining nirvana. Literary and artistic representations will struggle with recreating that condition, but the verses describe arriving at the ascetic telos in cataclysmic terms, as a dramatic destruction of the body. And what is also significant is that the destruction is carried out in the tectonic framework of a building.


Two notions are embedded in that cryptic statement. First, there is the body and building reference where the body is conceived of as gaha, home or house. And, second, there is the ushering of the dismantling of that structure. Two consequential questions emerge here: Why a building imagery for the body? And, why is the event rendered in a cataclysmic manner?


Gaha is the villain in the description. Gaha is home in its normative sense, implying being in the world, socially, familially and phenomenally. The Buddha’s statement is the most vivid expression of the violent destruction of gaha. And what is the consequence of this climactic condition? The moment coincides with the final goal of asceticism, or freeing oneself from the tethers of the world. But this is part of a series of key episodes in the ascetic journey. The climactic nature of this event is premised by an ascetic conceptualization where the body is like a hut, whose existing lineaments and ligaments must be shattered before the enlightened life can begin. Clearly this is a vivid body and building association in which the body-building is conceived of particularly as a “final” hut. The house-body stands as the last bastion in what appears to be a single minded pursuit of the ascetic to literally de-construct the existing structure of life. That is the truth the young prince was seeking.


In Buddhist sense, the destruction of the “last” hut is an ideograph of nirvana, the climax of renunciation. The cataclysm, using the trope of the shattered hut, basically inaugurates a new life in the teleological narrative where the old parameters are nullified. The narratival content is based on, first, the ascetic body being homologous to a building, and second, the body being primarily conditioned by socialization, must now be transformed radically.


The great ascetic experiment works through a simultaneity of the occupation and “destruction” of the body-building. It is not truly a destruction, however the rhetoric may be, but a radical reconstitution or transformation, in which “something” remains, although the old measures of identity are no longer valid. The so-called destruction of the hut is comparable to attaining a “non-conditioned” mode of existence, akin to a “second birth,” of dying to this world and being born again in order to create another “human,” a body more purified and superior. The Buddha once used the example of a chick breaking out of the egg-shell as a “second birth.” “To break the shell of the egg is equivalent,” Mircea Eliade explains “… to breaking out of the samsara, out of the wheel of existence.” After the shattered gaha, there is nothing, for it is coeval to a condition that is totally ineffable, or as one text mentions, asamskrata, or unconstructed. The art historian Stella Kramrisch describes that un-constructed condition as arriving at “zero-point.”


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