October 22, 2001
Fragile Charm of Cities
New Yorkers know as well
as anyone that great cities are works in progress, buffeted by avarice,
ideology, and politics. Now, New York has seen firsthand how acts
of terrorism can tear at the urban fabric. But every great city
rests, in part, on the sundered stones, walls, and foundations of
its own past. Those foundations are resilient, like the inhabitants
themselves. Brought to their knees, cities rise again, building
on what came before.
As New Yorkers set about
designing and building whatever will stand in the place of the Twin
Towers, they would do well to consult Anthony M. Tung's masterly
Preserving the World's Great Cities. A former landmarks-preservation
commissioner in New York, Tung in 1995 began visiting 22 cities,
from Amsterdam to Vienna, from Cairo to Kyoto. This far-reaching
book, the result of those travels, weaves well-told tales of urban
destruction and renewal, using preservation and planning as the
prism through which history is viewed. For example, Tung examines
Warsaw's painstaking postwar restoration of its 17th century Old
Town, itself a reconstruction of an older neighborhood destroyed
by fire. He looks at how religious conflict has devastated Jerusalem
and how Berlin wrestles with its dark past as it has recovered from
World War II--and three decades of being split by the Wall. In each
chapter, he evaluates varying approaches to preservation, seeking
solutions that might stem the destruction and loss of historical
treasure that go hand in hand with development.
The earliest attempts
at preservation, we learn, date from the seventh century B.C. in
Mesopotamia. There, anyone who dared to despoil the appearance of
the Royal Road of Nineveh was hanged from the roof of his own house.
By the fifth century A.D., punishments had eased somewhat: In Rome,
Emperor Majorian decreed that workmen found stripping marble from
imperial monuments have their hands cut off. Those Draconian measures
notwithstanding, neither Majorian nor his successors could halt
Rome's physical deterioration. By the 11th century, uncleared debris
and garbage had raised the level of Rome's streets by as much as
20 feet. The once-proud city of 1 million inhabitants became a swampy
village of 30,000. The engineering and artistry that had raised
aqueducts, fountains, and temples adorned with intricate sculptures
went into suspended animation.
Then, Rome rose again.
In 1420, the papacy returned to the erstwhile imperial capital.
And as the Renaissance progressed, Romans rebuilt their city--creating
much of the metropolis we know today out of the original marble
from the long-destroyed palaces of the Roman elite. "The fact
that a significant part of the imperial legacy of Rome was not passed
down to us is largely a matter of choice," Tung writes.
In the modern era, Rome
and other cities around the world face similar choices. Building
in city centers requires destroying something first. And these days,
what goes in is often constructed in an international style that
ignores the traditions, craftsmanship, and materials that make a
city distinctive. In Singapore, for example, the vernacular architecture
that blended Chinese, Malaysian, and British colonial traditions
has been replaced by steel-and-glass towers that look much like
those in London and New York. While Tung isn't against modernism,
he points out, rightly, that historic neighborhoods and the buildings
that constitute them are "a finite resource from a closed period
of human evolution." His emphasis is on maintaining the fabric
and texture of neighborhoods: Isolated from the environment in which
they were constructed, solitary buildings provide little insight
Some cities have done
a better job at preserving their traditional architecture. In Amsterdam,
a 17th-century core of low-rise row houses nestles along the city's
canals. The historic area was saved by a city commission that in
the 1950s provided public funds to restore endangered buildings
in run-down neighborhoods. In Paris, a 1974 land-use plan designated
nearly 60% of the city as a historic zone, limiting the height of
structures to traditional norms.
Preserving the World's
Great Cities is not just for policy wonks. Yes, it details the roles
of planning and preservation in the development of urban areas,
but in each chapter Tung presents a lively political and architectural
history of the cities he studied. And while disciples of modernism
might find his perspective somewhat stifling, he makes clear that
he doesn't oppose modern architecture. He simply believes the impulse
to destroy and build anew shouldn't outweigh the often-less-profitable
path of conservation.
Tung, writing before
the attacks of September 11, describes the battles over air rights
in New York and the ever-present role of politics in its development.
While New York hasn't always done the best job of preserving its
past--the demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station is just the
most notorious example--the city consistently manages to reinvent
itself and move on. His preference is clearly for preservation,
especially in neighborhoods that maintain their original texture,
such as Greenwich Village. But he also notes that tearing down and
building up again are a vital part of New York's tradition. While
the cause of the current devastation is utterly unlike other catalysts
for change, the result will surely be the same: New York will rebuild.
Rocks has written extensively on planning and architecture.
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