On May 16th 1871, at the core of the Paris Commune, a ceremony is organized to demolish the Vendôme Column, symbol of the Napoleonian imperialism (refer to Raspouteam’s website for more information). Although an important amount of buildings were burnt down (for various reasons) during La Commune, the destruction of the Vendôme Column is the most expressive symbol of what I would like to call architecture in negative, or to use an oxymoron, destructive construction. On the contrary of what was affirmed by the Versaillais press and officials, this act was very far from being motivated by a thoughtless barbarian will of destruction. Indeed, the ensemble of buildings being representative -we might say symptomatic- of a given scheme of relationships of power, it is necessary for a new form of governance to subvert or demolish the same ensemble in order to avoid to reproduce the same relationships of domination of one group over another.
In their Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism (Programme Elementaire du Bureau d’Urbanisme Unitaire) in the Internationale Situationniste #6 (Paris, August 1961), the Situationists, through the writings of Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem, affirms the following:
All space is already occupied by the enemy, which has even reshaped its basic laws, its geometry, to its own purposes. Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive void concept developed by modern physics. Materializing freedom means beginning by appropriating a few patches of the surface of a domesticated planet.
This notion of positive void is precisely what the demolition of the Vendôme Column was about: the suppression of the power of a paradigmatic artifact to allow the construction of something new.
This idea of positive destruction is nevertheless complex as it needs to be interpreted in a non-absolutist way and not necessarily in a literal manner. The Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s, through the systematic destruction of cultural heritage and suppression of every counter ideological behaviors, embodies an example of the danger of such political attitude. Just like revolutions should not be about the absolute negation of all ideas and artifacts from the past, architecture in negative does not consist in the systematic destruction of all part of the city from the past. We might even argue that the subversion of the past paradigm might be more desirable than their destruction, as the latter, despite the strong expression of change it embodies, remains essentially punctual. Subversion, on the contrary, carries simultaneously within itself the track of the old paradigm and the expression of the new one. In the case of the Vendôme Column, we can maybe conclude by pointing out the work of David Gissen who proposes a monument to the destroyed column, and thus re-establish the didactic and historical value of the moment. In that case however, La Commune having been exterminated, the mound of the fallen column (now rebuilt and in the middle of the one of the most expensive piece of real estate in Paris) constitutes more a testimony to the three glorious months of existence of La Commune.