October 22, 2001

The Fragile Charms of the city

By David Rock

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 into history.

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.