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Monday, April 15, 2002

Book Reviews

Should We Preserve the Construction of Great Cities?

Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis by Anthony M. Tung. Clarkson Potter, New York, 2001, 480 pages, $40.00.

Preservation – referring to architectural and historical questions – is an obvious answer for the general public and for those whose profession it is to create the future fabric of our old cities. Nevertheless, preservation is also the central point of contention in many controversies between laypeople and architects, society and developers, the real world and collective ideologies. Actually, preservation is a complex issue of why, what, and how to preserve among the interwoven layers of the modern metropolis. There are many social and economic factors in big cities that ready to ambush any urban project, including preservation. Every change awakens interests, humble ones such as money and great ones such as national identity. And it is not only specific or professional minorities that are involved in preservation projects, since these generally concern a wide range of social groups and sometimes an entire nation. We have to understand that the will to preserve the great cities is a global strategy that includes politics, economics, and the living society.

Naturally, preservation is a critical issue for those professionals responsible for preservation policy, and practicing in the core of the metropolis. On the other hand, it is certainly not evident that we should preserve the past without thinking. History alternates between periods of preservation and renewal of the same cities. Anthony M. Tung cites Emperor Majorian’s extraordinary edict of 458 CE, regarding Rome: “We, the rulers of the state, with a view to restoring the beauty of our venerable city, desire to put an end to the abuses which have already long excited our indignation….We accordingly command, by universal law, that all buildings which were of old erected for the public use or ornament, be they temples or other monuments, shall henceforth be neither destroyed nor touched by anyone whomsoever” (p.29).

Fifteen hundred forty-four years later, the decision to preserve is an ambiguous burden, and a heavy one. We are not, all of us, very sure of the goals, or of the consequences of a wide-ranging preservation policy. Contrarily, we are not very sure of what, how, or if we should dare to build anew in our great cities. Yet, the stream of our history has not frozen; we are living in the process. Suddenly, we feel again that we should look backwards, that we should care for our heritage, and preserve our cities from destruction. This might be our debt to the anxiety of the modern metropolis, or maybe our nostalgia for a paradise lost in the nineteenth century following the twentieth-century rise of modernism.

All of the great cities are living cities that are inevitably evolving toward an unknown future – the wind is still pushing the angel of history forward to that future. We still need a culture of building and the skill to make the new. If we want to preserve a future for our past, we should also preserve the skill to erect buildings such as those that were erected in the past, 20 or a thousand years ago – and to have the courage to destroy those prior buildings. And from whom should we preserve the past? That is the real question. Contemporary society functions according to images and finance. A “beautiful city” is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, there is the quest for a new picturesque, relocating the picturesque ideals of the eighteenth century in the very heart of the modern metropolis: New York, Cairo and Paris, Athens and Singapore, London and Mexico City. On the other hand, the preservation of that picturesque beauty has generally been the impetus for a complete restructuring of land use and land values, creating new and unexpected ways to make a profit – as, for example, in the Marais quarter in Paris.

Preserving the World’s Great Cities by Anthony M. Tung is a very well written book and strangely easy to read for almost any public. The author has been a New York City Landmarks Preservation commissioner, a teacher of arts and architecture, and an architectural designer. Obviously, he is very qualified to tell us “how architectural preservation worked and failed in some of the most artistically and historically significant places around the world” (p.1). To tell this story, he did not begin by visiting a library but by taking a plane to Athens and to 22 of the world’s great cities, so as to judge them with his “own eyes” (p.5). This book on architectural preservation is a kind of comparative essay, an account of the differences between many places that are measured against a single standard: the author himself. Compressing time and distance, he has tried to put these cities together on his worktable “as if they were immediate neighbors and could be seen simultaneously” (p.5). Simultaneity, however, obliged him to throw away the real differences among them: the social, political, economic, and cultural circumstances. The images of the preserved were the dominant fact in front of his “own eyes.” The comparison could not help but be the story he told in the end.

The main argument is quite simple and equally naïve but widely spread at the dawn of the third millennium of our Western civilization. According to Tung, a tragedy has occurred: “[D]uring the twentieth century…modern civilization destroyed much of the architectural fabric inherited from previous generations, creating a widening chasm between us and our past” (p.1), which means that “modern civilization” has either not been responsible for any legitimate construction itself or does not belong to our past. Indeed, the first chapter of the book begins with an absolutely negative declaration: “The twentieth century was the century of destruction” (p.15). Tung certainly acknowledges “the fantastic growth of our cities” (p.17) and the bombs of the world wars, but he has “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” (p.17). For Tung, the change was both quantitative and qualitative.

Regarding the former, he points to the machine age and the industrialization that finally “engendered cities of despair” (p.18); as for the latter, he points to modernism and, especially, Le Corbusier’s widely influential “schizophrenic environment” and “cultural negation” (p.26). Both aspects reflect Tung’s close affinities for pre-industrial societies and cityscapes that can be saved (strangely) within the “beauty” of old buildings and the old urban fabric, everywhere on the globe and without restriction. The twentieth century, modernism, and machines certainly do not fit into that spirit of nostalgia. In this kind of exorcism, the future is built as the past in order to produce “the city as a living museum” – the title of the book’s final chapter.

Looking closer at “the city of the gods besieged,” – that is, Athens, my city – I will agree with the author, who juxtaposes the remains of the ancient city with the modern metropolis. He celebrates the flowering of genius that can be seen in the Acropolis monuments and looks closer at the recent works of restoration; he appreciates the classically influenced architectural elements and details of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings, offering “a beautiful and coherent metropolis, unified aesthetically on several levels” (p.264). He deplores “the loss” of that “city beautiful” (ibid), however. This was a “tragic tale of uncontrolled urban growth” (p.249), producing “acre upon acre of ugly, poorly made, generic modern buildings” (p.266). Modernity again is the real root of the problem. Preservation should be a selective project, dismissing the architectural achievements of the twentieth century to retain the city “as it first blossomed after Greek independence” – a low scale of urban construction, streets bathed in sunlight, and flowering citrus trees under the architectural symbols of Western civilization (p.263).

The ideal past, that extraordinary collage of classical and neoclassical architecture, can create, for the author, “a potential future Athens, no longer so polluted that acids in its air melt stone, with its heritage returned from foreign lands, and with the parts of the Parthenon reassembled in the geographic setting that gave them birth, standing above the city on top of the Acropolis” (p.430). Actually, that is a prayer in the very last paragraph of the book. Its conclusion is: “[O]nly then, when the remains of one history’s greatest integrated works of architecture and sculpture are once more gathered together, will we truly comprehend the human achievement of the city, and the past will assume a singular coloration perhaps beyond our capacity to anticipate” (pp. 430-31). In that sense, Athens is no more “my city,” but the world’s.

Preservation is an ideology concentrated to such a degree that it produces a wholly built thing: all kinds of monuments, distinguished houses, and historical cities, which create the living museums of everyday and tourist life. I feel very involved myself in these projects, but I cannot help looking forward to preserving twentieth-century modernity also, to building the future. There is no such thing as an absolute cohesion of extraordinarily frozen portions of real life from the nineteenth or seventeenth century. We are always constructing our past. Yet that construction is also the construction of the future – and, to afford it, we should primarily preserve our skill to build the new.

Panayotis Tournikiotis is a professor at the school of architecture of the National Technical University of Athens and the author of The Historiography of Modern Architecture.
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