Preserving the World's Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis

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Both epic and intimate, this is the story of the fight to save the world’s architectural and cultural heritage as it is embodied in the extraordinary buildings and urban spaces of the great cities of Asia, the Americas, and Europe.

Never before have the complexities and dramas of urban preservation been as keenly documented as in Preserving the World’s Great Cities. In researching this important work, Anthony Tung traveled throughout the world to visit remarkable buildings and ...

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Both epic and intimate, this is the story of the fight to save the world’s architectural and cultural heritage as it is embodied in the extraordinary buildings and urban spaces of the great cities of Asia, the Americas, and Europe.

Never before have the complexities and dramas of urban preservation been as keenly documented as in Preserving the World’s Great Cities. In researching this important work, Anthony Tung traveled throughout the world to visit remarkable buildings and districts in China, Italy, Greece, the U.S., Japan, and elsewhere. Everywhere he found both the devastating legacy of war, economics, and indifference and the accomplishments of people who have worked and sometimes risked their lives to preserve and renew the most meaningful urban expressions of the human spirit.

From Singapore’s blind rush to become the most modern city of the East to Warsaw’s poignant and heroic effort to resurrect itself from the Nazis’ systematic campaign of physical and cultural obliteration, from New York and Rome to Kyoto and Cairo, we see the city as an expression of the best and worst within us. This is essential reading for fans of Jane Jacobs and Witold Rybczynski and everyone who is concerned about urban preservation.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
HThe idea of preserving the material past is not a new one the Emperor Majorian (the Jane Jacobs of 458 C.E. Rome) issued an edict to protect old buildings but in modern times, it has often been in sharp conflict with the contemporary forces of commerce, war and redevelopment. Tung, a former New York City Landmarks Preservation Commissioner, has written an innovative historical and theoretical study of architectural and cultural preservation efforts in 20 cities across the world. Rather then relying on one cultural model, Tung makes his argument by illuminating specific cases in context how Amsterdam's "medieval communal water boards" set the groundwork for modern preservation; how religious warfare devastated and continues to hinder the conservation of Jerusalem; and in China and Japan, how preservation efforts focus on retaining "the original aesthetic" rather than the original building. But the common theme is the importance of cultural conservation. Tung visited each of the 20 sites himself and relies on exhaustive archival research. He presents difficult problems fairly such as whether the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece despite Athenian pollution, the battle over air rights in Manhattan, and whether the reconstruction of Warsaw has destroyed the history of its destruction during the war always attempting to find a solution that relies on common sense, historical integrity and balancing practical needs with preserving heritage. This is an important contribution not only to the literature of urban studies and city planning, but to architectural history and sociology. 75 b&w photos and 50 maps not seen by PW. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Having learned that the most useful information on architectural preservation often comes from other places, former New York City Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Tung decided to visit some of the world's most significant buildings in China, Italy, Greece, Japan, and elsewhere. Here he aims to compile what he learned into one volume, recording his on-site investigations into the architectural preservation issues facing 18 major cities of the world. The first section describes the destruction of historic urban environments worldwide and the conservation statutes that have been created in response. The second two contain a series of urban conservation profiles. While the book is not meant to be an academic treatise, its format and depth of discussion will discourage most popular readers. The maps are useful if minimal given the book's length; 75 black-and-white photographs, though not included in the proof copy, should help clarify the discussions. Recommended for urban public libraries and all architecture and urban planning collections. Jay Schafer, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780517701485
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/9/2001
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.43 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

ANTHONY M. TUNG has been a New York City Landmarks Preservation Commissioner, a member of the Board of Trustees of Cooper Union, and a lecturer on architecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt

The Century of Destruction

Whoever studies the behavior of human beings cannot escape the conclusion that we must reckon with an enemy within the lines. It becomes increasingly evident that some of the destruction that curses the earth is self-destruction; that the extraordinary propensity of the human being to join hands with external forces in an attack upon his own existence is one of the most remarkable of biological phenomena.
--Karl A. Menninger, Man Against Himself, 1938

The twentieth century was the century of destruction. This is the first and foremost fact concerning the preservation of historic cities around the world. It was a century of dramatic urban expansion, improvement, and redefinition, but it was also a century when urban architectural culture was destroyed at a rate unmatched in human history.

In two world wars and numerous regional conflicts, millions of tons of explosives have been detonated in ancient urban centers. In metropolitan areas across the globe, huge tracts of historic architecture, which might have been rehabilitated, were leveled instead, in waves of so-called urban renewal that frequently did not renew centuries-old handcrafted buildings so much as replace them with highways clogged with cars and with mass-produced anonymous structures of concrete, glass, and steel. By the end of the century, in underdeveloped nations, numerous old urban centers were surrounded by vast impoverished megacities where a culture of illegality--affecting virtually all aspects of urban management--subjected surviving historic structures to continuous hostile environmental siege. Meanwhile, across the century and around the clock, a progressively incalculable amount of human, industrial, and vehicular waste was spewed into our urban areas. In numerous places, this continuous flow of pollutants has caused the once-sustaining waters of life to become so acid--and so corrosive--that they melt the very stone of the architectural masterworks of history.

Between the years 1900 and 2000, nearly one-quarter of the landmarks of Amsterdam were leveled by Amsterdammers. More than half of the indexed buildings of Islamic Cairo--one of the few intact medieval Muslim cities out of several that had existed at the beginning of the century--were destroyed by Cairenes. Singapore razed the exotic colonial emporium that once attracted ships from across the world. Turks allowed the preponderance of the wooden buildings of Ottoman Istanbul to become so deteriorated that they barely continue to stand. Thousands of New York's beautiful old buildings were demolished by New Yorkers. In Athens all but a minute fraction of a lovely but quickly passing nineteenth-century achievement in city design was wrecked by Athenians. Communist rulers decimated the picturesque skyline of onion domes and gilded bell towers of czarist Moscow. Hardly a building in Venice was not eroded by decay due to heightened modern pollution caused by Venetians. Radical post-World War II modernization by Japan erased most of the refined wooden architectural cityscape of imperial Kyoto. Romans demolished a third of Rome's historic structures. The Viennese stripped of their beauty large parts of elegant fin de siécle Vienna. And after six hundred years the towering and fabled walls of ancient Beijing were dismantled by the Chinese, who then bulldozed block upon block of their city's traditional courtyard houses.

As damaging as these practices have been, in many places they continue. Meanwhile, in an attempt to stop the wreckage, an imaginative new urban planning practice has arisen in historic cities across the world, the effort of modern societies to conserve the architectural culture of the civilizations of the past. Yet even as the new urban conservation ethic emerged, the process of destruction has continued, and saving the culture of cities has become a race against time and self-negating human impulses.

The Third Reich demolished the landmarks of Warsaw as a punitive action against the Poles. The Allies firebombed Dresden as a punitive action against the Germans. The historic cores of Hamburg and Coventry were both despoiled. The preponderance of Japan's wooden cityscapes were incinerated. Vast armadas of planes pulverized Weimar Berlin. The venerated Jewish Quarter of Old Jerusalem was laid waste. Only yesterday, so was Sarajevo, and in the jungles of Cambodia the Khmer Rouge looted the temples of their ancestors to buy weapons with which to kill their neighbors.

The ruin resulting from warfare in our era continues an age-old pattern--Alexander burned Persepolis, Caesar set aflame the library at Alexandria, the Mongols put the torch to Baghdad--and in the twentieth century, as modern arsenals have been unleashed upon historic cities, unprecedented desolation has ensued. Our ability to be barbaric has increased by a quantum leap.

And yet, by comparison, the vast and rapid devastation resulting from urban renewal and city building has been even more extensive. Half a century after the Second World War numerous planners throughout Europe, including Germany, have concluded that far more architectural history was destroyed in the urban redevelopment that followed the fighting than by the tens of millions of bombs themselves. Moreover, in many cities it has come to be perceived that much of the loss incurred in the rush to remodel the metropolis was avoidable, unnecessary, largely irreversible, and therefore tragic.

In the twentieth century, after thousands of years of city building, the shape and character of the historic metropolis was fundamentally changed. During an unprecedented period of metropolitan growth, the historic parts of many older cities came to be surrounded by dense urban and suburban rings whose aesthetic and environmental qualities clashed with the character of the traditional cityscape. Frequently, the original historic city became alienated within a larger conurbation. Numerous old places of urban settlement became fractured in scale, form, and spirit--with disrelated zones of modern and historic buildings set in disquieting juxtaposition.

For thousands of years prior to this transformation, even the largest cities of the world could be perceived in their totality from a high point near or in the city. The naked eye could encompass the expanse of the city and the beginning of the countryside beyond. Today, with few exceptions, we can discern the extent of the human-made environment only when looking down from an airplane. The modern metropolis became too large to be comprehended from any viewpoint on the earth.

The fantastic growth of our cities has been the consequence of a staggering worldwide increase in urban populations. In 1900, about 220 million people, or about 13.6 percent of the world's population, lived in urban areas; the largest city by far was London, with 6.5 million inhabitants, and only eight cities exceeded or even verged upon a million. By the year 2000, however, 323 cities had a million residents apiece. It is estimated that forty will soon house 15 million people each, and several will surpass 20 million. Early in the twenty-first century, for the first time in history, more people will live inside cities than outside them. The United Nations predicts that by 2025 about 61 percent of the population of the world, or 5.2 billion people, will reside in urban areas. In a hundred years, global urban population has increased more than tenfold, and it is still growing.

This eruption in population has fueled several massive building explosions. Myriad historic conurbations that had evolved over many hundreds of years soared to two, three, four, five--as much as ten times their size within a century, a half-century, a quarter-century.

The first stages of this rapid urban transformation began in the latter half of the 1800s in the United States and Europe as a result of the Industrial Revolution. As this development continued and spread into the twentieth century, new technologies irrevocably altered city life and city form.

The Modernization of Cities

The change was both quantitative and qualitative. The modernization of the metropolis required its expansion as well as an effort to raise the standard of living for all the city's inhabitants. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, as people were driven off farms and into cities, life in metropolitan areas was bitter and unhealthy for large segments of an impoverished population. Many sections of older cities lacked sewage removal and sanitary water. A statistical survey of London in 1887 estimated that over 35 percent of its population--about one million people--were living in poverty in slums (that survey was taken before London subsumed several neighboring towns and further leaped in size). Inhabitants were crowded together at intolerable densities. Toilet facilities were inadequate or nonexistent, as were the accommodations for bathing, washing clothes, and cleaning. Several buildings often shared a single drinking-water tap. Crime, unemployment, hunger, disease, social unrest, hopelessness, and child mortality were prevalent. In Paris, it was judged that about 330,000 people were living in conditions worse than those in London. And in the eleventh ward in New York, more than 700 people were packed into each acre of tenements. Here the congestion was greater than in any other slum on the planet. The initial urbanization caused by the first machine age had engendered cities of despair.

But although industrialization was a root of the problem, it also offered a potential solution. The new machinery and mass production of the industrialized world not only mechanized agriculture but also created new products, new industries, and new jobs, and made possible the radical re-formation of the metropolis in virtually all of its aspects. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the populations of cities multiplied, the metropolis was simultaneously expanded and transformed in several dimensions. Cities became so big, so complex, and so multifaceted that human intellectual capacity was stretched to its limit to comprehend, control, and plan urban areas.

While cities at various levels of economic development on various continents would undergo such transfigurations to various degrees and at various times, the overall pattern of change in developed nations, and the desired result in all nations, would be similar in many ways.

- Dams and aqueducts were built and vast infrastructures were put in place to pump freshwater in and wastewater out of the city, ameliorating sanitary conditions.

- Gaslights made the metropolis safer at night, and cities like Paris became celebrated for their nocturnal beauty.

- Railroad tracks pierced the urban fabric as nations were united by rapid transport systems, and major cities became hubs for the movement of people, materials, and products.

- Monumental railway terminals, public parks, public schools, universities, hospitals, courts, museums, zoos, and opera houses were built. Department stores and apartment buildings proliferated. Countless government offices for the extensive bureaucracies of modern society inundated the cityscape.

- Avenues, boulevards, and streets were broadened to facilitate heightened vehicular traffic flow. Suspension bridges and tunnels spanned wide waterways and linked landmasses.

- Warehouses, factories, and rail yards occupied extended industrial zones.

- Mass transit systems were established above and below ground and horse-drawn trolleys were followed by electric trams and subways.

- Electric lighting replaced gas.

- Middle-class families moved to garden suburbs along commuter rail lines.

- The automobile proliferated, and cities were retrofitted to serve the needs of cars, trucks, and buses.

- The elevator and the skyscraper further increased the density of the metropolis.

- Immense networks of telephone lines were installed.

- Air conditioned high-rise central business districts rose up out of the city's mass.

- An extensive system of highways crisscrossed nations and encircled and cut through the metropolis.

- The suburbs expanded beyond all expectations; endless numbers of commuters clogged freeways.

- Industry moved out of the city's center.

- The wide suburban rings around cities were dotted with industrial and corporate parks, shopping malls, and asphalt parking lots.

- Airports were constructed on the urban periphery, and the great metropolis was joined to a global network of cities.

The extensive remodeling of the metropolis constituted nothing less than a physical and spiritual metamorphosis. Among a greatly expanded middle class in cities of the first wave of industrialized nations, greater health, happiness, and freedom from abject poverty were, to some degree, the end products of the physical alterations. And in every city, the most significant constructions, in terms of both their physical and their social implications, were the massive amounts of housing needed: more and more people were accommodated, with an increasing measure of better-quality living space for each person.

Housing the population of the growing metropolis was often a task of heroic proportions, mobilizing whole societies across decades. In the Communist capitals of Moscow and Beijing, the many clusters and rows of new residential blocks represented a major step forward, as vast populations of former serfs and farmers were provided with greatly improved living conditions. In Amsterdam, Paris, New York, Vienna, Kyoto, Singapore, Berlin, London, and most other cities of the first and following waves of industrialization, numerous older inhabitants can still recall the days when several families were packed into one room, unwashed and with meager options for betterment. When first constructed, the armada of upgraded residential facilities seemed to be palpable evidence of an evolving social and economic equity. But in many of these places, for many people, as the gloss of newness wore thin, so did the promise of improvement.

While many aspects of the modernization of the city were profoundly positive, as Karl A. Menninger has observed, there was "an enemy within the lines." A lurking human propensity for self-destruction caused this transformation to have several negative by-products: the physical and social fracturing of the city, extensive urban poverty and illegal settlement in underdeveloped nations, urban environmental pollution of an unprecedented magnitude, and widespread radical depletion of urban architectural culture. In this regard, a fundamental change during the twentieth century in the way buildings were conceived and fabricated would eventually pose a complex and far-reaching environmental dilemma.

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