Sunday, November 25, 2001
by Robert Fishman
In the long
list of high crimes and misdemeanors that marked the 20th century,
a place must be found for the wanton destruction of so much of the
world's urban heritage. In a new book discussed below, architect
Anthony M. Tung estimates that in the last century more than 50%
of the fabric of humanity's most beautiful cities has been, as he
puts it, "purposely, thoughtlessly, and sometimes with malice,
removed from the earth forever."
range from such obvious villains as the Nazis, who demolished the
historic core of Warsaw during World War II to destroy Polish culture,
to the Chinese Communists, who demolished Beijing's magnificent
walls and more than half the rest of the city to destroy their own
historic culture. But as Tung shows, one must also single out the
capitalist entrepreneurs who made works of timeless beauty subject
to short-term market forces: the corrupt bureaucracies in cities
such as Cairo and Athens that allowed their urban fabric to self-destruct
in polluted air and poisoned water; and, sadly, the great modernists
like the architect Le Corbusier who insisted that the historic city
was an obsolete impediment to the modern marvel of towers and highways
they wanted to construct. As one of their most devoted acolytes,
Reyner Banham, asserted in 1963, "There is not one building
that is not expendable."
perhaps the most lively, intelligent and misguided architectural
critic of his generationand whose work and life are featured
in the last book of this roundupdespised preservationists
as urban "embalmers"; but we have learned that it is precisely
the once-despised historic urban fabric that has proved to be the
most valuable inspiration for creating a truly living city.
It is not paradox
that the people who are creating the future in so many societies
now tend to live in the oldest parts of cities. For only there can
they find a human-scaled, mixed-use environment, organized around
vital public spaces, and built on those values of craftsmanship,
identity and history that a globalizing civilization desperately
The New Culture
Anthony Tung served on New York City's Landmarks Commission
from 1979 to 1988, when he was summarily dismissed for protecting
that city's landmarks too effectively. He then embarked on a worldwide
investigation of preservation in 22 major cities, and New York's
loss has become urbanism's gain. His new book, Preserving the
World's Great Cities: the Destruction and Renewal of the Historic
Metropolis (Clarkson Potter, $ 40), is itself a landmark of
creative urbanism. Tung has taken the fundamental tenet of contemporary
preservationone preserves not individual landmarks but the
whole endangered fabric of an urban districtand used it to
show how these "marvelous symphonies of urban form" were
developed and why their preservation is essential.
For each city
he provides a brief and remarkably vivid account of its history
and built fabric. Tung's breadth of vision and rapid-fire insights
recall Lewis Mumford at his best. He is illuminating in discussing
familiar terrainLondon, Rome, Venice, Parisas he is
when dealing with less familiar locales, such as Beijing, Mexico
City or Singapore.
Above all, Tung
insists that preservation is not Banham's "embalming"
of cities but a way to build a city that is more intensely alive.
He points, for example, to the Polish people's devoted rebuilding
of the war-devastated Warsaw. He is particularly insightful and
moving in his analysis of the Old Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem, an
aesthetic masterpiece that also respects the site's conflicted history.
"If ever the holiest city on earth ever achieves peace among
its people," Tung concludes, "the restored Jewish Quarter
provides a model for what the metropolis might become."
teaches at the Taubman College of Architecture of the University
of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
to review index