December 23, 2001
Reviewed by Randolph
Special to the Star Tribune
How permanent is a city?
Seemingly solidly built, what keeps a city alive and whole? The
answer, as revealed in two new books, is something less substantial
than timber, brick, concrete and steel.
Anthony M. Tung's beautiful
and compelling "Preserving the World's Great Cities" makes
a tour of 19 cities in Asia, Europe, Africa and North America, comparing
the efforts to preserve them during the upheavals and demographic
inundations of the madly violent 20th century.
A trained architect and
a member of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
for nine years, Tung has an acute appreciation of the value and
fragility of cities. He knows the treacherous politics and bureaucracies
that urban conservationists face and the dilemmas of urban preservation,
in which gentrification can save buildings but further oppress the
poor. Tung also knows what cities are for: to stimulate the exchange
and growth of ideas.
His book serves a similar
function, thanks to his nuanced understanding of the shared qualities
and profound differences between cities, from Old Warsaw, defiantly
re-created after Nazi destruction,to the lost opportunities of Singapore,
smothered by high-rise construction.
Global tour, local
Tung takes the reader on revealing explorations of the histories
of the three Romes (imperial, papal and modern); of the nightmare
of Cairo's dysfunctional government and its doomed Muslim treasures;
of Vienna's remarkable social-democratic public housing legacy and
the decision to preserve the violence visited upon her rich architecture.
In Amsterdam, he finds
an inspiring fusion of urban antiquity and social equity. Athens
is besieged by a pall of stone-dissolving air pollution and bad
modern building; while Venice faces an onslaught of so many tourists
that its residents are leaving. In New York City, he notes how preservation
has succeeded in everything except what makes New York famous, its
After further visits
to far-flung citiesParis, Moscow, Beijing, London, Berlin,
Kyoto and Mexico CityTung ends with the hopeful stories of
architecturally appropriate, scattered-site public housing in Charleston,
S.C., and the instructive revelation of a multi-layered past in
the rebuilt Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.
A poet of places
The book is deeply appreciative of the varied urban heritages
of mankind and concerned about the suffocating tide of homogenization
that comes with globalization. Garnished with informative maps,
it provides insightful capsule histories of each place and concise
reporting on what is happening today.
It also has a poet's
voice: "For centuries," Tung writes, "Amsterdammers
have loved brick . . . They used bricks of different hues, or stained
them black with water-repelling oils yielding a glowing and deeply
colored surface. With a modest palette of elementswater, bridges,
trees and bricksthrough its social coherence and perpetual
imagination, Amsterdam weaves a singular urban music. It is not
the grand, imposing symphony of Vienna but the song of a cityscape
where many different individuals artfully knit together their separate
existences into a useful harmony of life."
Tung dares to envision
a future in which fractured cities are made whole as the design
blunders of the 20th century are reversed; when ugly, out-of-scale
buildings become obsolete and are replaced with better contextual
is the author of a dozen books on history, architecture and art
including guides to San Francisco and New Orleans. He is the historian
for the Presidio Trust at San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation
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