on January 14, 2002
I picked up this book because I love Venice--no intention of buying it, just browsing, but the introduction inspired me to know and read more. What a treat this book has been! It is not at all pedantic, and encompasses far more than discussions of buildings; it is about history, lifestyles, politics, beauty, and cruelty. The book calls attention to the dire poverty so many people endure, and the deep danger that so many of the world's greatest, most historic and exotic cities face because of lack of money, corrupt politicians, gigantic bureaucracies, uncontrolled population growth, shortsightedness, and the weather. Yet the book is uplifting, too. The most amazing chapter deals with the total destruction of Warsaw during WWII, and the strength and ingenuity the Polish people used to rebuild it. I was surprised and delighted by the depth of Mr. Tung's historical knowledge, his fairness, his compassion, and his prose. A wonderful book in every way.
on December 4, 2001
This is a remarkably profound and informative work. The author, Anthony Tung, has somehow successfully and exquisitly managed to comprehend the city as a living organism - uniting the social, psychological, and cultural features of the population of the city with its physical, material, and institutional environment. The physical aspect of the city is the externalization of the ethos of its people. In turn it also daily reinforces and recreates that ethos. The city is also one of the major "secondary ties", i.e. substitutes for our "primary tie", our family, that we necessarily create as we move from infancy into the chaos of the external world. As such it is one of our most important communities, and helps to provide us with a sense of identity, meaning, and stability in the face of the meaninglessness and anxiety provoking nature of the world. As the family does, it succors us and protects us. In return we give it our loyalty. As long as this relationship between the city and its people is harmonious, the quality of life ranges from the tolerable to the the exhilirating. But when that organic unity is seriously ruptured, the consequences are devastating. Thus the "preservation" of the city is too serious a matter to be left to chance.
In his scholarly review of the history of the great world cities he takes up here Tung has, together with the orientation noted above, also found exceptionally fruitful Freud's great model, from his Civilization and Its Discontents, that views history, made by human beings, as the dynamic resultant of eros and thanatos, life and death forces, of destructive and preservative impulses. Thus, all in all, he has given us a unique work, indeed a seminal work on the subject, and one which will, and should, set the tone for future scholarship and practice.
on November 23, 2004
In March of 1995 author Anthony M. Tung journeyed to 22 of the world's greatest cities in order to study how architectural preservation had failed and succeeded in some of the most artistically and historically significant urban areas around the globe. Having served for many years as a member of New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission, Tung sought to understand how the complex issue of urban conservation was handled around the world and to gather in one book a body of very basic information about this practice.
Until the 20th century, each new stage of architecture and construction referred substantially to previous stages; in Western culture, there was a "direct aesthetic line" connecting the architecture of classical Greece, imperial Rome, the Romanesque period, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Rocco, and all forms of classical revival that followed, with even divergent traditions like French Gothic or English Tudor making use of common architectonic elements. Cities tended to be harmonious, each new generation of buildings blending with older buildings to a great degree.
In the 20th century however, many age-old aesthetic traditions were abruptly discarded by a modern, new, jarring architecture, built often at vastly different scales than older buildings, of completely different materials, built with new methods, buildings that were consciously designed to have a complete lack of relationship with the previous continuum of form. In Cairo for instance skylines once dominated by domes and minarets of mosques are now ruled by looming massive hotels. Massive gray residential slabs now dominate the remaining parts of historic Moscow. In some cases, as in New York, new buildings were built over and around preserved historic buildings, making them appear toy-like and ridiculous. Further, these buildings of alien scale and design often hopelessly fractured any urban architectural harmony, often forever, as what was destroyed can either never be replaced or only replaced at great financial, legal, political, and economic cost.
Older cities of handcrafted buildings, made of natural materials from the immediate environment of the city, reflecting the historical values and physical characteristics of unique urban cultures Tung wrote now constitute a "finite resource from a closed period of human cultural evolution." Much of the unique architecture of the world's great cities - ancient Roman ruins, the cross-cultural traditions of Singaporean pernanakan architecture, buildings that show a great "specialness of place" - is still in danger in many places of being replaced by a global monoculture, of older unique buildings being replaced by comparatively poorly constructed structures that are generic in design and that differ little in response to local environmental and social surroundings.
Why were older buildings replaced? War certainly plays a factor as might be expected, though by and large Tung feels that city residents themselves are responsible for building replacement. Sometimes older handcrafted buildings are replaced for what were laudable reasons, such as slum clearance, attempts to give the poor a better quality of life, though often irreplaceable but fixable buildings were demolished rather than rehabilitated. Some cities, such as Vienna, Charleston, and Amsterdam (which are detailed at length), bucked this trend, either saving old buildings or constructing new public housing with a conscious effort to maintain local architectural traditions. More often than not though making money was the goal; speculative real estate and construction in the name of progress fractured urban landscapes, as out of scale skyscrapers thrust into the London skyline and ugly hotels of poor artistry were erected in Cairo.
Sometimes destruction or replacement of older handcrafted buildings seemed nearly unavoidable; Kyoto for instance, largely spared bombing in World War II, for centuries a city with buildings comprised of shoji (sliding walls of light wood frames covered by translucent paper) and tatami (rectilinear straw mats of standardized dimensions that covered the floors), were rapidly being replaced post-war by modern Western buildings that could more easily accommodate such innovations as modern plumbing and electricity. Tung related how this "culture of destruction" is being reversed, efforts in this regard aided by uniquely Asian views of preservation (often times ancient buildings are wood and are partially or wholly rebuilt periodically, the emphasis often in China and Japan on preserving the original form not as in Europe or America the original material) and permanence (Japanese buildings were traditionally built to withstand natural disasters and wars by being flexible and if destroyed by being easily rebuilt).
Sometimes architectural preservation - or destruction - was dictated not by war or by progress but by ideology. The Third Reich demolished the landmarks of Warsaw as a punitive action against the Poles, Nazi architects purposely identifying key Warsaw buildings and purposefully destroying them (additionally many were destroyed in actual combat). As an act of defiance, Polish architects risked their lives (and quite a few perished for their efforts) to document this heritage before it was destroyed, hiding plans and documents during the Nazi occupation and then completely rebuilding the city as an act of remembrance.
Tung recounted many successes in his book as well as failures. What are the common denominators in successful preservation? Clearly economic underdevelopment causes decay and destruction of historic assets. In a detailed chapter on Cairo, Tung discussed how the city's massive problems posed by skyrocketing population growth, extensive poverty, and an endemic culture of illegal settlement and corrupt, byzantine bureaucracy have caused residents to perceive conservation as a lesser priority and have created unique environmental challenges to the city's priceless Muslim architecture thanks to air pollution and a rising water table. Citizens of cities have to have in addition to the means of preserving the city a will to do so; while many of the historic districts of New York were listed and are protected thanks to the efforts of the residents of those areas, Venice, despite widespread international support, is decaying as fewer and fewer Venetians actually live in the historic city, not only affecting city politics and budgets as residents of the historic city lose clout to those outside the historic city but by simply not being present to provide such upkeep.
on January 24, 2004
this book is a wonderful read. it should be a mandatory read for all city planners/architects. there is so much we can learn from the successes and failure of other cities' efforts in preserving their heritage.
for most people, it's still a great treat coz' the stories of how these great evolves are just mesmerizing. the tale of the reconstruction of warsaw is a moving moment of human history. and the decaying of ancient cairo is tragic and upsetting. the author manages to tell these stories in a context relevant to all of us, as a city dweller or a visitor in a globalized world. he also makes us aware of the complex underlying forces behind the metamorphosis of these urban fabrics.
i am looking forward to visiting or revisiting these great cities after reading this book. and i am eagerly waiting for a sequel that uncovers the stories of other great cities like prague, kathmandu, bangkok, shanghai, new delhi, sydney, buenos aires, havana, istanbul, barcelona...
on February 28, 2002
What makes a city great? How do you preserve a great city? Why do you preserve a great city? Who can preserve a great city? As you finish this well crafted review by Anthony Tung of the evolving fate of 20 famous cities from around the earth, you feel the answers to these questions are within your grasp. A great city is a living manifestation of the society that built it over the centuries. It can be preserved by the dedicated and enlightened effort of those who live in it. Only they can develop it in a way that recognizes the changes of time without giving up their cultural heritage. Great cities are the architectural fabric of civilization, showing how it evolved in various parts of the world as societies developed within a particular regional environment. Its residents, if they can maintain their culture and heritage in the face of change can preserve it, supported by benevolent assistance from others when needed.
This book makes clear that there are also common threats of destruction each of these amazing cities must face. Beyond the ravages of time, which can clearly be overcome in a stable situation, three become apparent in reading the stories of these great cities. They are destruction from war or by conquering invaders; deterioration as the original builders move out and are replaced by those who are poorer, less educated and ironically often subjugated by the original builders; and destruction to make way for more modern and impersonal buildings and infrastructure based on the influence of modern global society.
I wish to thank the author for the journey he shared with me. When he was writing about those cities I have visited, such as Paris, London, New York or Mexico City, he captured the essence of their heritage in a way that rang true to my experience. When discussing the state of those I would like to see; Beijing, Kyoto, Cairo or Athens for example, his descriptions were again lucid and highly credible. They made me want to visit the city and try to comprehend its past and its fate for myself. Written in a style that makes you feel you are in these great cities vicariously, this book not only makes you want to visit them, but also to do your part to help preserve the heritage of the city that you call home.
on March 24, 2002
For close to three decades, I've tried to understand why some cities preserve their historic and architectural fabric, while others destroy theirs. I now have a much better understanding about the political, social, and economic dynamics underlying preservation, or the lack thereof. Moreover, the author articulated some basics that no previous book ever did. Like, what is holding up all those building in Venice? And why did Warsaw, almost alone among cities ravaged in WWII, rebuild its historic fabric? The author not only answered my Warsaw question, but moved me to near tears in the process. (Why isn't this heroic story being made into a movie?) In short, buy this fascinating, informative book!
on August 6, 2006
It is a great survey book of some amazing cities. I tend to agree with what has been written. But just a word of caution, Tung's writing style will start to grate as every chapter ends with somewhat of a flourish. I think it detracts from his obvious love of cities and preservation.
on August 12, 2014