November 16, 2012


The Anglican cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, has been damaged by two major earthquakes, and what to do with the building has become a controversial matter. The Diocese of Christchurch decided to build an architecturally unorthodox temporary cathedral and eventually to replace the damaged building, which is considered dangerously unstable.

I was surprised that a  recent story on the cathedral speaks of the “deconstruction” of the building. Erecting a building can be called construction, so it is not unreasonable to call tearing down a building deconstruction. Conventionally, however, the systematic elimination of a structure is referred to as demolition. The only definitions I could find for deconstruction relate to philosophical or literary analysis. Is a new definition for deconstruction coming into vogue or are people inventing jargon to replace a perfectly serviceable word, namely demolition?

The question is this: Is demolishing a building different from deconstructing it? Before I read the entire article, I thought that deconstruction might mean disassembling, the careful dismantling of a structure, preserving at least some of the pieces for future use. What is clear from reading the article (and certainly from reading the court opinion that is the subject of the piece) is that what is being referred to is stripping the building down to the level of about 2 meters. Apparently, the walls are unstable, but the foundation is not (or is not a hazard, in any case).

I am inclined to think that the use of deconstruction in the story (and in the court proceedings) constitutes an unnecessary and unwise neologism. The diocese was given notice “in accordance with Section 38(4) of the [Canterbury Recovery Act of 2011] that your building is to be demolished to the extent necessary to remove the hazards.” If deconstruction, as used in the New Zealand discussion means nothing more than tearing down, the word is unnecessary and pretentious. Demolition, dismantling, or tearing down would each serve as well. If deconstruction is intended to mean dismantling down to the sill, I suspect that the need for the word is insufficient for it to achieve widespread comprehension (and therefore acceptance).


  1. If one thing is clear in any discussion of language it is that English has a problem with fads. It is also clear in my view that journalism majors are not studying grammar or logic before they graduate.

    "Deconstruction" as used in the article is definitely pretentious. Someone chooses words not to inform but to impress.

    Shakespeare wept.


  2. Hmm. As someone living in Christchurch (and an Anglican priest closely following the cathedral story, but not directly involved in the decision-making about it) I can inform you that 'deconstruction' is being widely used in the post-quake phase of our life. Widely used because many buildings are being deconstructed.

    As I understand the way the word is being used in contrast to demolition, 'demolition' is crash, bang, wallop: bash the building down, throw the rubble in trucks and take away (e.g. to reclaim land from the sea), whereas 'deconstruction' is (a) taking a building down to a safe level (as you refer to above), possibly involving (b) removing wood, stone, bricks, etc as carefully as possible for reuse, e.g. in any restoration of the building, and/or (c) (if safe to do so) slowly taking out of the building everything that can be recycled or reused, everything that might be unsafe to dispose of as general rubbish or for general reclaiming of land [e.g. asbestos], until the point is reached where the only thing left to do is to demolish what remains.

    If I have been listening correctly, a possible alternative language is "dirty demolition" (for the crash, bang, wallop approach) and "clean demolition" for the careful taking out of what can be recycled or reused.

    PS Incidentally, the cathedral and its future, whatever the language used for whatever happens to it, is proving to be a long drawn out saga!


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