Sunday, November 25, 2001

ARCHITECTURE: Reviewed by Robert Fishman


n 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."

The perpetrators 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."

Banham, who perhaps the most lively, intelligent and misguided architectural critic of his generation—and whose work and life are featured in the last book of this roundup—despised 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 needs

The New Culture of Cities
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 preservation—one preserves not individual landmarks but the whole endangered fabric of an urban district—and 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 terrain—London, Rome, Venice, Paris—as 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."

Robert Fishman teaches at the Taubman College of Architecture of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.