Anthony Tung sees the preservation of our built environment as a struggle between competing interests, which has to be decided yet. In a detailed and extensive lecture the author and former New York City preservation commissioner elaborated on the importance of preservation, and the different approaches to heritage in Europe and the United States.
Tung commenced his lecture with some alarming figures and statistics about the scale of destruction brought to our built environment in the twentieth century. Since 1900, war, ideology and modernist planning conceptions destroyed more than 50 percent of our cities. To cope with this alarming rate of destruction Tung praised the idea of designating inner city areas as historic preservation areas, ‘before it is too late’.
One fine example of inner city preservation is the city of Charleston, South Caroline, according to Tung. The small-scale historic core stands in a stark contrast with the standard American inner city, usually dominated by the glass and concrete of skyscrapers and highway junctions. In Charleston the predictive vision of a mayor who was in power for more than forty years led to a public embrace of the city’s architectural heritage. In this way, private developers were hindered in large-scale commercial redevelopment and more or less forced to build in a style that suited the historic environment. Tung left the question unanswered whether this led to an aesthetically pleasing architecture, but at least it ‘fitted the eye’.
In addition, Tung showed some recent examples of social housing projects in a retro-style that blended nicely into the cityscape, which is dominated by structures from before the abolition of slavery in the US, thus attempting to eradicate the visual markers of social and racial segregation in parts of the city. Based on these examples Tung stressed the importance (and success) of invisibility in architecture as an antidote to self-validating aesthetics.
Tung also shed a light on preservation practices in New York, a city that was deliberately demolished and rebuilt several times in the last century. However, in contrast to common belief, the city was actually one of the first in the Western world to designate protected historic districts in 1965. By showing a load of pictures of ‘fitting’ and ‘non-fitting’ architecture, Tung gave his idea of ‘good’ and ‘failed’ architecture. Tung had to admit that the designation of historic districts might lead to a ‘Disneyfication’ of once bustling city quarters, but it is up to a next generation of social scientists, city officials and architects to cope with the disadvantages of preservation.
During his conclusion Tung invited his listeners to judge the so-called fill in architecture of Amsterdam. Here the American-European gap between what is good and failed architecture became obviously clear. Whereas Tung judged the Nieuwezijds Kolk, an exuberant glass office building by Dutch architect Ben van Berkel, as a fine example of how modern architecture is able to pay respect to the built environment, his listeners wholeheartedly judged the building as one of the worst recent interventions in Amsterdam’s inner city.