Monday, February 18, 2002

By Martin Zimmerman
Special to the Observer

On the college campus where I reside stands a sleek, angular dormitory, called Mission Park. It is a modernist building, designed by a renowned architectural firm and clad in monochromatic concrete (in the manner of Le Corbusier who was a godfather of the modernist era).

Mission Park has nevertheless garnered its share of derision since its construction in 1973, especially so in places like Williams College, which admirably represents the brick, cut stone, and wood clapboard of much-revered New England.

Anthony Tung, author of "Preserving the World's Great Cities," writes that such stylistic rejection is but a footnote to much larger issues that have had a profound impact upon major cities around the globe. This book, the author's first, is the product of seven years of painstaking research along with extensive travels crisscrossing between many of the oldest and most beautiful cities on five continents, from Tokyo to Beijing, New York to Mexico City, Cairo to London, Athens to Moscow, Rome to Singapore, Warsaw to Paris, Venice to Jerusalem.

Tung's prognosis is gloomy. Simply put, it is that the 20th century may be unique in terms of the relentless assault wreaked upon the historic urban landscape; he calls this modern phenomenon the "culture of destruction." Despite some exceptions where circumstance and collective will have combined to forge radical improvement, such as the resuscitation of the bombed out core of Warsaw following World War II, or the more recent success saving Venice form drowning, which garnered broad

financial support around the world, the overriding trend remains negative.
According to Tung, in the last 100 years, more than 50 percent of the world's most precious cityscapes have been "purposely, thoughtlessly, and sometimes with malice removed from the earth forever." The implications for the future are for even greater loss, not only of precious architectural ensembles, such as the Acropolis of Athens, the Muslim core of Cairo, and the wooden vernacular housing of Kyoto, to name a few, but even more ominous, the loss of the intangible, which is what defines and distinguishes all cultures.

The causes of this prognosis are complex. They are linked to wars large and small, endemic poverty, unchecked ideologies political and economic, (from Marxism to laissez-faire capitalism), metastasized bureaucracies, ecological devastation, corruption and neglect. These factors are compounded by mushrooming population growth, ten to twenty-fold in the last two generations, which is far faster than can be coped with even by the so-called advanced Western cities.

This book fits in seamlessly with published by other scholars of urban culture and history, most notably another self-taught historian Lewis Mumford, whose works, "the Culture of Cities," and "The City in History," are considered classics. Certainly one can quibble with some of its structural inconsistencies, and one cannot help but wonder why such cities such as Boston, Chicago or Washington, D.C. did not merit full chapters along with, or instead of, New York and Charleston.

Nevertheless, Tung has managed to probe deeply into the hostile forces that are impacting our urbanized planet, and to communicate with precision, erudition and compassion the horrific risk of loss that may portend for the future.

Martin Zimmerman, an architect and former director of facilities planning for UNC charlotte, is the campus planner for Williams College in western Massachusetts.