Saturday, January 29, 2005


Book Review #1

I have to admit that when I first picked up a copy of Preserving the World's Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of The Historic Metropolis, by Anthony Tung, I did not expect a particularly lively read. Afterall, the breadth of the subject matter could cripple even the most entertaining writer. Fortunately, my assumptions were way off the mark.

In Preserving the World's Great Cities, Anthony Tung, a former New York City Landmarks Preservation Comissioner, uses his particular expertise in urban preservation to survey the built history of what he considers to be the 18 most important cities to human civilization. The cities covered by Tung include many of the usual suspects like Rome, London, Paris, New York City, Venice, and Athens. Other cities featured are Kyoto, Amsterdam, Charleston, Warsaw, and Singapore - to name a few.

Impressively, Tung actually traveled to all eighteen cities in the book, which allowed him to to most accurately depict the triumphs and failures of the the world's greatest urban forms. This epic voyage, which would make any urbanoid or history buff jealous, not only enriches the author's analysis, but also furthers his ability to communicate the amount of sheer change inherent to the evolution of all cities, both ancient and modern. His sharp historical analysis and descriptions only help the western reader feel the sights, sounds, dynamics, and living history of the world's greatest cities.

Perhaps the most important part of Tung's comprehensive work is that he is able to succinctly explain the social, political, economic, and historic events that have caused the destruction of some of humanity's greatest physical and social accomplishments. Though each city could easily be a book of its own, Tung clearly illuminates the destructive nature of human civilization and how the confluence of greed, war, and ideological change have forever impacted human-made environments.

Tung is especially critical of the modernist movement, which is made obvious in a brutally honest chapter about the recent failures of his hometown - New York City. I found this chapter to be one of his best because he has a such a deep understanding of the history of NYC, and how modernist architecture has managed to sever the all-important and time-honored principle of creating strong relationships between buildings, streets, and the public realm. Though he questions similar developments in every chapter, his own life experiences in NYC make for a level of knowledge that simply cannot be matched by his analysis of the 17 other cities.

Tung efficiently covers thousands of years of history in relatively short chapters. Thus, if you are looking for extremely detailed historical information, this book might not be for you. However, if you want to gain a broader understanding of World history, historical and modern planning theory, and the pains of preserving some of the most impressive architectural sites in the world (think Venice, Italy!) then I would highly recommend Preserving the World's Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis.

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