**Become a member of The Art Deco Society of New York at www.artdeco.org. With over 25 events per year, ADSNY is an active cultural and social non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating architecture, decorative arts, fashion, and music from the 1920s and 30s! I look forward to seeing you at the next event!**

26 June 2011

"Preserving the World's Great Cities"

A couple of weeks ago, a fellow preservationist recommended Anthony Tung's Preserving the World's Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis. At a hefty 400+ pages I never thought I would make a dent in the text, but because it is a superb history lesson on the origins of urban architecture and preservation, and his stories bring to light how preservation is enacted worldwide and how we can learn from each city's mistakes and contributions, I have successfully completed the novel-like read in no time at all.

I was inspired by Tung's text to write this month's post on the realities of building, demolition, rebuilding and preservation. If all you ever read of his book are the first couple of chapters you will have gained such an appreciation for the built environment around you. He empowers his readers with questions which every preservationist and conservationist should ask himself: "to what point in its history should an ancient structure be restored?"/"Is it not the vocation of architects to build?"/"To what degree has this special place--its architectural culture, its urban beauty, its high material accomplishments, its civic dignity, and the spirit of this metropolis itself--survived our century of self-inflicted destruction?"

The beauty of his prose is juxtaposed with hard-to-swallow facts about what it took to build our "great cities."  His chapter on Rome concludes with the question as to why the Pantheon was saved from demolition time and time again over 1,500 years. His answer remains positive--that the Pantheon serves ever as a "reminder that large parts of the legacy of ancient Rome could very well have been bequeathed to us." Quite possibly my favorite quote from the book follows: "The by-product of this vast and disputed act of destruction [the destruction of ancient Rome]--the lesson for subsequent generations--was the emergence of the idea that it should have been tempered by reason and by consideration for the future of humankind."

Do our actions not contradict this lesson? Why is it that we still have a so-called appetite for destruction? It exists not only in architecture, but also in other facets of our daily lives. Our choice to drive cars and burn more holes in the atmosphere versus walking or biking to reduce carbon emissions is just one example. Shouldn't we save this glorious world for future generations? Is it not important to learn from the past where we come from and which mistakes not to repeat?

Storytelling through a historical lens, Tung emphasizes the "specialness of place which constitutes the essence of urban collective memory." This memory serves as a city's currency. It attracts tourists, instills pride in its citizens, and sets apart each urban environment as a unique entity in and of itself. One of 18 great cities Tung surveys is Warsaw. He walks the reader through its tumultuous past, including the destruction caused by Hitler and Germany during WWII. Tung begins the chapter: "how important is our architectural heritage?/what limits will we place on the city's future in order to preserve our cultural identity?/what price are we willing to pay to conserve our record of history?" Using Warsaw's architectural conservation efforts and history as the answers to these questions, he clearly illustrates that, "here people established the value of their monuments by what they were willing to sacrifice. In Warsaw, a city's inhabitants endangered their lives to save their past." What follows is an account of the heroic efforts by the Poles to document the architectural history of their city as it was being physically destroyed and as they were being shipped off to concentration camps.

So, I end with the question: what price are we willing to pay in order to preserve our cultural identity for our children and grandchildren? Do we want them to remember where we came from and how we lived in our great cities? If so, then why are we not more adamant about saving the architecture that preserves our memories, our ancestors memories, and the memories of our future generations?