Sunday, November 4, 2001


The verdict: 
A 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 their destruction?

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, leveled.

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 heritage.

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.

Contemporary Romans, 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 timely book.

Twardy, a free-lance reviewer in Las Vegas, writes frequently about history and architecture.