Unbuilding the City: Writing Demolition





demolition, infrastructure, Sydney Metro, literature, Iain Sinclair, Louis Aragon

How to Cite

Mudie, E. (2017). Unbuilding the City: Writing Demolition. M/C Journal, 20(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1219
Vol. 20 No. 2 (2017): build
Published 2017-04-26


Utopian and forward looking in tenor, official narratives of urban renewal and development implicitly promote normative ideals of progress and necessary civic improvement. Yet an underlying condition of such renewal is frequently the very opposite of building: the demolition of existing urban fabric. Taking as its starting point the large-scale demolition of buildings proposed for the NSW Government’s Sydney Metro rail project, this article interrogates the role of literary treatments of demolition in mediating complex, and often contradictory, responses to transformations of the built environment. Case studies are drawn from literary texts in which demolition and infrastructure development are key preoccupations, notably Louis Aragon’s 1926 Surrealist document of a threatened Parisian arcade, Paris Peasant, and the non-fiction accounts of the redevelopment of London’s East End by British writer Iain Sinclair. 

Sydney Unbuilt

Presently, Australia’s biggest public transport project according to the NSW Government website, the Sydney Metro is set to revolutionise Sydney’s rail future with more than 30 metro stations and a fleet of fully-automated driverless trains. Its impetus extends at least as far back as the Liberal-National Coalition’s landslide win at the 2011 New South Wales state election when Barry O’Farrell, then party leader, declared “NSW has to be rebuilt” (qtd in Aston). Infrastructure upgrades became one of the Coalition’s key priorities upon forming government. Following a second Coalition win at the 2015 election, the state of NSW, or the city of Sydney more accurately, remains today deep amidst widespread building works with an unprecedented number of infrastructure, development and urban renewal projects simultaneously underway.

From an historical perspective, Sydney is certainly no stranger to demolition. This was in evidence in  Demolished Sydney, an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney that captured the zeitgeist of 2016 with its historical survey of Sydney’s demolished architecture. As the exhibition media release pointed out: “Since 1788 Sydney has been built, unbuilt and rebuilt as it has grown from Georgian town to Victorian city to the global urban centre it is today” (Museum of Sydney). What this evolutionist narrative glosses over, however, is the extent to which the impact of Sydney’s significant reinventions of itself through large-scale redevelopment are often not properly registered until well after such changes have taken place. With the imminent commencement of Sydney Metro Stage 2 CBD works, the city similarly stands to lose a number of buildings that embody the civic urban ideals of an earlier era, the effects of which are unlikely to be fully appreciated until the project’s post-demolition phase. 

The revelation, over the past year, of the full extent of demolition required to build Sydney Metro casts a spotlight on the project and raises questions about its likely impact in reconfiguring the character of Sydney’s inner city. An Environmental Impact Statement Summary (EISS) released by the NSW Government in May 2016 confirms that 79 buildings in the CBD and surrounding suburbs are slated for demolition as part of station development plans for the Stage 2 Chatswood to Sydenham line (Transport for NSW). Initial assurances were that the large majority of acquisitions would be commercial buildings. Yet, the mix also comprises some locally-heritage listed structures including, most notably, 7 Elizabeth Street Sydney (Image 1), a residential apartment tower of 54 studio flats located at the top end of the Sydney central business district.

7 Elizabeth Street Sydney apartment towers
Image 1: 7 Elizabeth Street Sydney apartment towers (middle). Architect: Emil Sodersten. Image credit: Ella Mudie.

As the sole surviving block of CBD flats constructed during the 1930s, 7 Elizabeth Street had been identified by the Australian Institute of Architects as an example of historically significant twentieth-century residential architecture. Furthermore, the modernist block is aesthetically significant as the work of prominent Art Deco architect Emil Sodersten (1899-1961) and interior designer Marion Hall Best (1905-1988). Disregarding recommendations that the building should be retained and conserved, Transport for NSW compulsorily acquired the block, evicting residents in late 2016 from one of the few remaining sources of affordable housing in the inner-city. Meanwhile, a few blocks down at 302 Pitt Street the more than century-old Druids House (Image 2) is also set to be demolished for the Metro development. Prior to purchase by Transport for NSW, the property had been slated for a state-of-the-art adaptive reuse as a boutique hotel which would have preserved the building’s façade and windows. In North Sydney, a locally heritage listed shopfront at 187 Miller Street, one of the few examples of the Victorian Italianate style remaining on the street, faces a similar fate. 

Druids House, 302 Pitt Street Sydney 
Image 2. Druids House, 302 Pitt Street Sydney. Image credit: Ella Mudie.

Beyond the bureaucratic accounting of the numbers and locations of demolitions outlined in the NSW Government’s EISS, this survey of disappearing structures highlights to what extent, large-scale transport infrastructure projects like Sydney Metro, can reshape what the Situationists termed the “psychogeography” of a city; the critical manner in which places and environments affect our emotions and behaviour. With their tendency to erase traces of the city’s past and to smooth over its textures, those variegations in the urban fabric that emerge from the interrelationship of the built environment with the lived experience of a space, the changes wrought by infrastructure and development thus manifest a certain anguish of urban dynamism that is connected to broader anxieties over modernity’s “speed of change and the ever-changing horizons of time and space” (Huyssen 23). 

Indeed, just as startling as the disappearance of older and more idiosyncratic structures is the demolition of newer building stock which, in the case of Sydney Metro, includes the slated demolition of a well-maintained 22-storey commercial office tower at 39 Martin Place (Image 3). Completed in just 1972, the fact that the lifespan of this tower will amount to less than fifty years points to the rapid obsolescence, and sheer disposability, of commercial building stock in the twenty first-century. It is also indicative of the drive towards destruction that operates within the project of modernism itself. Pondering the relationship of modernist architecture to time, Guiliana Bruno asks: 

can we really speak of a modernist ruin? Unlike the porous, permeable stone of ancient building, the material of modernism does not ‘ruin.’ Concrete does not decay. It does not slowly erode and corrode, fade out or fade away. It cannot monumentally disintegrate. In some way, modernist architecture does not absorb the passing of time. Adverse to deterioration, it does not age easily, gracefully or elegantly. (80)

In its resistance to organic ruination, Bruno’s comment thus implies it is demolition that will be the fate of the large majority of the urban building stock of the twentieth century and beyond. In this way, Sydney Metro is symptomatic of far broader cycles of replenishment and renewal at play in cities around the world, bringing to the fore timely questions about demolition and modernity, the conflict between economic development and the civic good, and social justice concerns over the public’s right to the city.  

39 Martin Place Sydney
Image 3: 39 Martin Place Sydney. Image credit: Ella Mudie.

In the second part of this article, I turn to literary treatments of demolition in order to consider what role the writer might play in giving expression to some of the conflicts and tensions, as exemplified by Sydney Metro, that manifest in unbuilding the city. How might literature, I ask, be uniquely placed to mobilise critique? And to what extent does the writeras both a detached observer and engaged participant in the cityoccupy an ambivalent stance especially sensitive to the inherent contradictions and paradoxes of the built environment’s relationship to modernity?

Iain Sinclair: Calling Time on the Grand Projects 

For more than two decades, British author Iain Sinclair has been mapping the shifting terrain of London and its edgelands across a spectrum of experimental fiction and non-fiction works. In addition to the thematic attention paid to neoliberal capitalist processes of urban renewal and their tendency to implode established ties between place, memory and identity, Sinclair’s hybrid documentary-novels are especially pertinent to the analysis of “writing demolition” for their distinct writerly approach. Two recent texts, Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project (2011) and London Overground: A Day’s Walk around the Ginger Line (2015), highlight an intensification of interest on Sinclair’s part in the growing influence exerted by global finance, hyper consumerism and security fears on the reterritorialisation of the English capital. 

Written in the lead up to the 2012 London Olympics, Ghost Milk is Sinclair’s scathing indictment of the corporate greed that fuelled the large-scale redevelopment of Stratford and its surrounds ahead of the Games. It is an angry and vocal response to urban transformation, a sustained polemic intensified by the author’s local perspective. A long-term resident of East London, in the 1970s Sinclair worked as a labourer at Chobham Farm and thus feels a personal assault in how Stratford “abdicated its fixed identity and willingly prostituted itself as a backdrop for experimental malls, rail hubs and computer generated Olympic parks” (28). For Sinclair, the bulldozing of the Stratford and Hackney boroughs was performed in the name of a so-called civic legacy beyond the Olympic spectacle that failed to culminate in anything more than a “long march towards a theme park without a theme” (11), a site emblematic of the bland shopping mall architecture of what Sinclair derisorily terms “the GP [Grand Project] era” (125).

As a literary treatment of demolition Ghost Milk is particularly concerned with the compromised role of language in urban planning rhetoric. The redevelopment required for the Olympics is backed by a “fraudulent narrative” (99), says Sinclair, a conspiratorial co-optation of language made to bend in the service of urban gentrification. “In many ways,” he writes, “the essential literature of the GP era is the proposal, the bullet-point pitch, the perversion of natural language into weasel forms of not-saying” (125). This impoverishment and simplification of language, Sinclair argues, weakens the critical thinking required to recognise the propagandising tendencies underlying so many urban renewal programs.

The author’s vocal admonishment of the London Olympics did not go unnoticed. In 2008 a reading from his forthcoming book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009), at a local library was cancelled out of fear of providing a public platform for his negative views. In Ghost Milk Sinclair reflects upon the treatment of his not yet published docu-novel as “found guilty, with no right of reply, of being political but somehow outside politics” (115). Confronted with the type of large-scale change that underpins such projects as the Olympic Games, or the Sydney Metro closer to home, Sinclair’s predicament points to the ambiguous position of influence occupied by writers. On the one hand, influence is limited in so far as authors play no formal part in the political process. Yet, when outspoken critique resonates words can become suddenly powerful, radically undermining the authority of slick environmental impact statements and sanctioned public consultation findings. 

In a more poetic sense, Sinclair’s texts are further influential for the way in which they offer a subjective mythologising of the city as a counterpoint to the banal narratives of bureaucratised urbanism. This is especially apparent in London Overground: A Day’s Walk around the Ginger Line (2015), in which Sinclair recounts a single-day street-level pedestrian exploration of the 35-mile and 33-station circuit of the new London Overground railway line. Surveying with disapproval the “new bridges, artisan bakeries, blue-bike racks and coffee shops” (20) that have sprung up along the route of the elevated railway, the initial gambit of the text appears to be to critique the London Overground as a “device for boosting property values” (23). Rail zone as “generator for investment” (31), and driver of the political emasculation of suburbs like Hackney and Shoreditch. Yet as the text develops the narrator appears increasingly drawn to the curious manner in which the Overground line performs an “accidental re-mapping of London” (24). He drifts, then, in search of: 

a site in which to confront one’s shadow. In a degraded form, this was the ambition behind our orbital tramp. To be attentive to the voices; to walk beside our shadow selves. To reverse the polarity of incomprehensible public schemes, the secret motors of capital defended and promoted by professionally mendacious politicians capable of justifying anything. (London Overground 127)

Summoning the oneiric qualities of the railway and its inclination to dreaming and reverie, Sinclair reimagines it as divine oracle, a “ladder of initiation” (47) bisecting resonant zones animated by traces of the visionary artists and novelists whose sensitivity to place have shaped the perception of the London boroughs in the urban imaginary. It is in this manner that Sinclair’s walks generate “an oppositional perspective against the grand projects of centralized planning and management of space” (Weston 261). In a kind of poetic re-enchantment of urban space, texts like Ghost Milk and London Overground shatter the thin veneer of present-day capitalist urbanism challenging the reader to conceive of alternative visions of the city as heterogeneous and imbued with deep historical time.

Louis Aragon: Demolition and Modernity

While London Overground was composed after the construction of the new railway circuit, the pre-demolition phase of a project is, by comparison, a threshold moment. Literary responses to impending demolition are thus shaped in an unstable context as the landscape of a city becomes subject to unpredictable changes that can unfold at a very swift pace. Declan Tan suggests that the writing of Ghost Milk in the lead up to the London Olympics marks Sinclair’s disapproval as “futile, Ghost Milk is knowingly written as a documentary of near-history, an archival treatment of 2012 now, before it happens.” Yet, paradoxically it is the very futility of Sinclair’s project that intensifies the urgency to record, sharpening his polemic. This notion of writing a “documentary of near-history” also suggests a certain breach in time, which in the case of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant is mined for its revolutionary energies.

First published in book form in 1926, Paris Peasant is an experimental Surrealist novel comprising four collage-like fragments including Aragon’s famous panegyric on the Passage de l’Opéra, a nineteenth-century Parisian arcade slated for demolition to make way for a new access road to the Boulevard Haussmann. Reading the text in the present era of Sydney Metro works, the predicament of the disappearing Opera Arcade resonates with the fate of the threatened Art Deco tower at 7 Elizabeth Street, soon to be razed to build a new metro station. Critical of the media’s overall neglect of the redevelopment, Aragon’s text pays sympathetic attention to the plight of the arcade’s business owners, railing against the injustices of their imminent eviction whilst mourning the disappearance of one of the last vestiges of the more organic configuration of the city that preceded the Haussmann renovation of Paris:

the great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of police during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums. (Aragon 14)

In light of these concerns it is tempting to cast Paris Peasant as a classic anti-development polemic. However, closer interrogation of the narrator’s ambivalent stance points to a more complicated attitude towards urban renewal. For, as he casts a forensic eye across the arcade’s shops it becomes apparent that these threatened sites hold a certain lure of attraction for the Surrealist author. The explanatory genre of the guide-book is subverted in a highly imaginative inventory of the arcade interiors. Touring its baths, brothels and hair salon, shoe shine parlour, run-down theatre, and the Café Certameeting place of the Surrealiststhe narrator’s perambulation provides a launching point for intoxicated reveries and effervescent flights of fancy. Finally, the narrator concedes: “I would never have thought of myself as an observer. I like to let the winds and the rain blow through me: chance is my only experience, hazard my sole experiment” (88). 

Neither a journalist nor an historian, Paris Peasant’s narrator is not concerned merely to document the Opera Arcade for posterity. Rather, his interest in the site resides in its liminal state. On the cusp of being transformed into something else, the ontological instability of the arcade provides a dramatic illustration of the myth of architecture’s permanency. Aragon’s novel is concerned then, Abigail Susik notes, with the “insatiable momentum of progress,” and how it “renders all the more visible what could be called the radical remainders of modernity: the recently ruined, lately depleted, presently-passé entities that, for better and for worse, multiply and accumulate in the wake of accelerated production and consumption in industrial society” (34). Drawing comparison with Walter Benjamin’s sprawling Arcades Project, a kaleidoscopic critique of commodity culture, Paris Vaclav similarly characterises Paris Peasant as manifesting a distinct form of “political affect: one of melancholy for the destruction of the arcades yet also of a decidedly non-conservative devotion to aesthetic innovation” (24).

Sensitive to the contradictory nature of progress under late capitalist modernity, Paris Peasant thus recognises destruction as an underlying condition of change and innovation as was typical of avant-garde texts of the early twentieth century. Yet Aragon resists fatalism in his simultaneous alertness to the radical potential of the marvellous in the everyday, searching for the fault lines in ordinary reality beneath which poetic re-enchantment challenges the status quo of modern life. In this way, Aragon’s experimental novel sketches the textures and psychogeographies of the city, tracing its detours and shifts in ambience, the relationship of architecture to dreams, memory and fantasy; those composite layers of a city that official documents and masterplans rarely ascribe value to and which literary authors are uniquely placed to capture in their writings on cities. 


Unable to respond within the swift publication timeframes of journalistic articles, the novelist is admittedly not well-placed to halt the demolition of buildings. In this article, I have sought to argue that the power and agency of the literary response resides, rather, in its long view and the subjective perspective of the author. At the time of writing, Sydney Metro is poised to involve a scale of demolition that has not been seen in Sydney for several decades and which will transform the city in a manner that, to date, has largely passed uncritiqued. The works of Iain Sinclair and Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant point to the capacity of literary texts to deconstruct those broader forces that increasingly reshape the city without proper consideration; exposing the seductive ideology of urban renewal and the false promises of grand projects that transform multifaceted cityscapes into homogenous non-places. The literary text thus makes visible what is easily missed in the experience of everyday life, forcing us to consider the losses that haunt every gain in the building and rebuilding of the city.


Aragon, Louis. Paris Peasant. Trans. Simon Taylor Watson. Boston: Exact Change, 1994. 

Aston, Heath. “We’ll Govern for All.” Sydney Morning Herald 27 Mar. 2011. 23 Feb. 2017 <http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/state-election-2011/well-govern-for-all-20110326-1cbbf.html>. 

Bruno, Guiliana. “Modernist Ruins, Filmic Archaeologies.” Ruins. Ed. Brian Dillon. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2011. 76-81.

Huyssen, Andreas. Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003.

Museum of Sydney. Demolished Sydney Media Release. Sydney: Sydney Living Museums 20 Oct. 2016. 25 Feb. 2017 <http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/2016/12/05/new-exhibition-demolished-sydney>.

Paris, Vaclav. “Uncreative Influence: Louis Aragon’s Paysan de Paris and Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk.” Journal of Modern Literature 37.1 (Autumn 2013): 21-39.

Sinclair, Iain. Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project. London: Penguin, 2012. 

———. Hackney, That Rose Red Empire. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2009.

———. London Overground: A Day’s Walk around the Ginger Line. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015.

Susik, Abigail. “Paris 1924: Aragon, Le Corbusier, and the Question of the Outmoded.” Wreck: Graduate Journal of Art History, Visual Art, and Theory 2.2 (2008): 29-44.

Tan, Declan. Review of Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project by Iain Sinclair. Huffington Post 15 Dec. 2011; updated 14 Feb. 2012. 21 Feb 2017 <http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/declan-tan/ghost-milk-ian-sinclair-review_b_1145692.html>. 

Transport for NSW, Chatswood to Sydenham: Environmental Impact Statement Summary. 25 Mar. 2017 <http://www.sydneymetro.info>. Sydney: NSW Government, May-June 2016.

Weston, David. “Against the Grand Project: Iain Sinclair’s Local London.” Contemporary Literature 56.2 (Summer 2015): 255-79.

Author Biography

Ella Mudie, Independent

Dr Ella Mudie is a freelance writer from Sydney with broad interests across the visual arts, literature, design and architecture. She received her PhD in English Literature from the University of New South Wales in 2016.