December 23, 2001

Reviewed by Randolph Delehanty
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 flavors
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 fantastic,filigreed skyscrapers.

After further visits to far-flung cities—Paris, Moscow, Beijing, London, Berlin, Kyoto and Mexico City—Tung 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 elements—water, bridges, trees and bricks—through 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 designs.

Randolph Delehanty 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 Area.