Sunday, November 4, 2001
remarkable chronicle of human spirit and architectural heritage.
By C.A. Twardy
This might not seem a
good time to talk about the value of buildings, with so many of
their innocent occupants slaughtered recently. Who would not gladly
surrender the World Trade Center towers for the thousands lost in
And yet, of course, it
was precisely the symbolic value of the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon that attracted terrorists to them. Throughout history,
especially the history of the past century, buildings have been
obliterated to crush their inhabitants both literally and figuratively.
Think of Coventry, England, of firemen sweeping incendiaries from
the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, of Dresden, Germany,
The point was to kill
people and to kill the spirit of survivors.
The latter object, at
least, never seems to work, as Anthony M. Tung makes clear in "Preserving
the World's Great Cities." Tung, a preservationist and former
landmarks commissioner in New York City, toured cities around the
globe to investigate how their inhabitants have fared in managing
architectural and urban heritage.
This might seem a dry
textbook exercise, something of little interest beyond graduate
classes in architectural history or the narrow circles of passionate
preservationists, but it turns out to be a sequence of remarkable
chronicles. Through reading, interviews and on-site visits, Tung
explores 14 cities, among them Rome; Cairo, Egypt; Beijing; and
his native New York.
His central insight is
hardly surprising, but nonetheless valuable: Commitment to heritage
and urbanism is a product of each city's unique culture. And some
manage better than others.
Perhaps the most affecting
case history is Warsaw's. Long the capital of a people only intermittently
permitted to rule themselves, Warsaw has made a point of preserving
itself, often at great peril. The Nazis specifically destroyed the
city's landmarks to demoralize the Poles, but planners and architects
actually envisaged the rebuilding of their city as the occupiers
destroyed it, making and hiding the drawings used after the war
to reconstitute entire districts.
It is one of history's
most stirring lessons in how unconquerable spirit lodges in architectural
Rome might be the world's
most fascinating casebook of preservation. With the empire disintegrating
around him, the Emperor Majorian in A.D. 458 issued a preservation
edict. Romans already were engaged in practices the popes would
perfect over the next millennium, raiding antiquity's landmarks
for the marble to build new landmarks. Tung estimates that as much
as 95 percent of ancient Rome was destroyed, much of it purposefully.
of course, understand that their imperial and Christian landmarks
are treasures, but preservation nonetheless is mired in a maze of
sometimes corrupt bureaucracy.
The same is true of Cairo,
but centuries of autocratic rule and the contemporary reality of
cruel and rampant poverty conspire against preservation in that
great city. Here, Tung concentrates on how the spread of vast, illegal
shantytowns not only taxes metropolitan resources that might otherwise
preserve history, but also literally undermines the Islamic treasures
of the medieval city - -- polluted ground water rises and seeps
into the limestone.
Again, historic consciousness
is a product of the civic environment. Europe's city-states were
perhaps slow in acting upon it, but, says Tung, "a similar
sense of civitas had not been developed in Cairo."
And of course Tung touches
on New York City. There the go-go spirit of razing the old and raising
the new, bigger and higher, ran into its first roadblock after the
destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station. Tung quotes the eminent
architectural historian Vincent Scully: "One entered the city
like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat."
The 1965 Landmark Law
set about to prevent similar exchanges, and it met its first major
test when the owners of the city's other noble railhead, Grand Central
Station, proposed a skyscraper above it. New York's effort to scuttle
the plan was affirmed by the Supreme Court.
Tung mentions the World
Trade Center only in passing, but he notes that some towers merit
landmark designation, and that saving the past must inevitably balance
with building the contemporary city. Few architectural historians
celebrated the Trade Center towers when they were built, and many
lumped them with other spiritless spires of commerce, the buildings
that seemed to trump urban heritage. But in a quarter-century they
became integral to the skyline.
Even as their rubble
is slowly cleared, some insist they must be rebuilt --- demonstrating,
in a way, the defiance of Warsaw's residents. Others, of course,
consider the precinct sacred and will abide only a memorial. This
will, in time, present a new twist on the conflicts Tung faced on
the Landmarks Commission --- and documents in this trenchant and
Twardy, a free-lance reviewer in Las Vegas, writes frequently about
history and architecture.
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