Great cities are stories
The assault occurred worldwide throughout the last century, as historic cities modernized. “Between the years 1900 and 2000, nearly one quarter of the landmarks of Amsterdam were leveled by Amsterdammers,” writes Anthony Tung in Preserving the World’s Great Cities. “More than half of the indexed buildings of Islamic Cairo—one of the few intact medieval Muslim cities that had existed at the beginning of the century—were destroyed by Cairenes.”
Singapore tore itself down. Athenians looted “all but a minute fraction” of their city’s 19th-century design. Thousands of New York’s buildings were razed by New Yorkers. Moscow knocked over its onion domes and bell towers. Despite that their city was spared from incendiary bombing during World War II, Kyoto’s residents pulled down most of its wooden buildings afterward. Romans demolished a third of Rome’s historic structures. The Turks allowed Istanbul’s Ottoman architecture to rot. Beginning in 1949, Beijing worried its Old City like a scab, scratching away the city wall, tearing off its hutong. So did the rest of China: of the three hundred walled cities that existed at the founding of the People’s Republic, only four remained intact. Paris destroyed its Les Halles market, [and] in the mid-19nth century, the civil engineer Baron Haussmann performed drastic surgery on the medieval city center. He straightened its tangled lanes, tripling road width to 140 yards. Every new street took the place of six destroyed alleys. […]
The historian Tung observes, “The preservation of great cities is ultimately the story of how different urban societies created environments of extraordinary meaning, were affected by their cityscapes through centuries of habitation, and came to realize that the loss of old buildings involved much more than just the visible destruction of ancient bricks and stones.
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