One of the biggest questions in the current war is what to do about rebuilding lower Manhattan. The families of firefighters and brokers and maintenance crews and back-office workers won’t be comforted much by the thought of their loved ones’ final resting place being the aptly but unfortunately named landfill Fresh Kills, where the World Trade Center debris is being buried. They will desire, along with the city and the nation, a formal memorial. But New York City is not Oklahoma City; the site of the wasted buildings will not lie fallow forever.

History is filled with examples of cities rebuilding themselves following the devastation of war. After World War II, Viennese buildings that had been damaged or destroyed were rebuilt with plain stucco fronts, stark reminders that sit next to richly decorated neighbors. During the war, 80 percent of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed and 60 percent of the city’s prewar population killed. The Nazis had hoped to break Poland’s will by deliberately destroying its cultural landmarks. The architecture faculty of Warsaw Technical University, knowing that war must inevitably end, risked their lives and those of their students to record the designs and interplay of the city’s historic structures, hiding their plans at an out-of-town monastery. Warsaw’s brick-by-brick postwar reconstruction occupied one out of every six workers in the city and spawned a rebirth of handcraftsmanship.

But things aren’t always rebuilt. In Berlin, the headquarters of the Gestapo, SS, and Reich Security Main Office all shared a city block targeted, naturally, for destruction by the Allies. The land was home to a portion of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. Following reunification, the city decided to leave the vacant lot and scattered ruins of the security buildings as a memorial called “Topography of Terror,” signaling that the land was too polluted for civilized use.

These examples are drawn from Preserving the World’s Great Cities, in which former New York City landmarks commissioner Anthony M. Tung demonstrates time and again that contemporary ideas about what the past might mean go a long way toward determining what is done with historic structures and their environment. Where there is a communal sense of pride in the past, as in London or Amsterdam, much of the older city has been maintained against the demands of vastly increased urban populations, cars, and modern interior wiring. Where there have been sharp ideological breaks with the past, as in communist Moscow and Beijing, and in Rome in times of both fascist and papal rule, older buildings were torn down to form the building blocks of cities that went in for big makeovers. It depends on whether the past is something you want to claim or want to destroy. What to put on the site of the World Trade Center, then, depends on whether what it represented—a triumph of American-style capitalism in the world—is something we want to reclaim.

Tung’s book was designed to demonstrate why civic preservation efforts are essential, where they have worked, and how much of our urban heritage that had survived centuries of war and natural devastation was lost during the 20th century to poor planning. It is very much in keeping with the current historical trend of examining the course of empires through their effects on small groups, even though Tung focuses on cities and buildings rather than on individuals. The book is an impressive distillation of centuries of architectural, political, and economic history in the major capitals of four continents. It will be useful not only to planners and advocates, but to engaged and curious travelers as well. (Tung visited all of the nearly two dozen cities he writes about.)

Tung writes in a direct style and demonstrates, by setting each of his chapters in a particular place, the virtues of specificity. He gives a sense of how great cities are shaped both by economic fortunes and their place in the world. Any visitor to Venice gets a quick sense of the blending of medieval and Renaissance Italian styles with influences imported from the Byzantine and Muslim domains over which the city-state once held sway. In an epoch when fenestration was still rare, glass windows were prevalent in Venice because of the sodium carbonate and sand that was abundant in the neighboring lagoon and riverbeds. Openings for light and air reduced the amount of masonry required in Venetian exteriors—a boon where foundations were expensively constructed by pounding wooden piles into clay islets. And thick walls were not as necessary to Venice as to other European cities because the tricky channels of the lagoon made the capital of the “Serene Republic” defensible by sea.

As much as anything else, Tung’s book is an elegy to the old notions that the unique circumstances of place determine the shape of a city. His prime example of a historic city that fell victim to modern Internationalist architecture is Singapore, a trading metropolis once rich in overlapping Chinese, Malay, Indian, and European Baroque influences in homes and shops that all had French jalousie shutters to help them breathe. Visitors to the handsomely appointed Embassy of Singapore in Washington are handed a magazine article trumpeting the homeland as having the most global economy in the world. Singapore, despite its repressive government, has been a great success story in recent decades, enjoying one of the world’s highest standards of living. The island is free of the illegal and unsanitary settlements that plague many other former colonial capitals. But its great building boom represented a nearly complete refutation of the past, with boxy office towers shooting up along the Singapore River that might just as easily have been built in Frankfurt or Seattle. It was only when Singapore officials noted that tourism was hurting—why travel halfway around the world to see the same shopping malls available at home?—that more than a handful of buildings were protected and preserved.

“Most of the new architecture in Singapore primarily reflects the economic formulas of modern speculative development,” rather than the dictates of local cultural or climactic influences, writes Tung, “just as American fast-food chains offer identical dishes, with the same names, in the same wrappers, by waiters in matching uniforms.” Modern insulation in steel and glass buildings, coupled with climate control in both summer and winter, has made it possible to put up basically the same building in places as different as Stockholm and Cairo.

Heating and air conditioning have conspired to make buildings look monotonous in another way, too. Tung notes that as the costs of equipping interiors with controlled temperatures, electricity, and communications wiring grew more expensive, the amount of money developers were willing to spend on exterior decoration and design dropped accordingly. These effects coincided with the modernist aesthetic borne of factory-made materials and best expressed by Viennese architect Adolf Loos: “Ornament is crime.”

All of these are reasons why, even though Tung’s book moves us more or less to the present day, he has no new great cities to write about. The 20th century saw a quantum leap in metropolitan growth, but it was not a time for building new cities. In America, population growth in recent decades has taken place largely in the suburbs that surround cities. Today, those same suburbs are losing ground to the new outer-ring suburbs that surround them.

Hamilton County, Indiana, which touches on the beltway around Indianapolis, is one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, having grown by 85 percent over the past decade. It has become such a rich source of Republican votes that state Sen. Luke Kenley, a lifelong resident, thinks it provides him a strong base for the gubernatorial bid he’ll seek in 2004. Asked to describe the area, a former farming community grown suddenly heavy in large middle-class houses, shops, and professional-service offices, Kenley says, “If you flew across the country and looked at developments, you would find it to be a typical sort of upper-scale suburban community.” It’s a strange sort of civic pride that boasts of sameness.

Indianapolis has lost less population and economic activity to its suburbs than most cities because of a strong regional government structure. But consider Buffalo. Forty years ago, its residents outnumbered those in the surrounding county by two to one; today, that ratio is exactly reversed. Admittedly, Buffalo is not such a splendid city to rate inclusion in Tung’s book, but it can boast from the turn of the last century buildings designed by namebrand architects including Stanford White, Frank Lloyd Wright, and E.B. Green. Louis Sullivan’s terra cotta Guaranty Building will be familiar to anyone who has ever sat through an art history class, but its retail storefronts sit vacant and its lobby is now dark and still enough to serve as a set for an old horror movie. The building sits at the edge of a downtown so lifeless that even the McDonald’s was torn down.

Arising to the east is a flourishing suburban town called Amherst. Home to a state university campus and located next door to the airport, Amherst consistently ranks among the nation’s safest cities and has become the main economic engine of Erie County. During the 1990s, the number of jobs there increased by 109 percent, while rising by only five percent in western New York as a whole. Amherst now has a greater assessed real-estate value than Buffalo—but it has no buildings with the sort of aesthetic value with which Buffalo decorated itself during the boom years a century ago. Amherst thrives by packaging the well-educated Erie County workforce with tax incentives and large-footprint buildings of the exact kind that small service companies could find in suburban Rochester or Cleveland.

The same sameness is the dominant aesthetic in home building. Suburban housing developments are always named for what they destroy—Rolling Hills, Forest Lakes—but they all end up striving to look identical to the ones across the highway. The desire for big new houses is easily mocked but not necessarily bad. The forces of modern transportation, office work, and housing that have ripped many cities apart have also helped millions of people to live much better lives. Tung is quick to acknowledge the appalling lack of sewage removal and sanitary water that made life nasty, brutish, and short for the urban poor in Europe in the 19th century and much of the planet today.

Neither does Tung ignore the negative social conditions that created great edifices, from the slave labor in this country that built and maintained antebellum mansions to the class barriers embodied in the very name of Beijing’s Forbidden City. One estimate he does not cite is that Versailles cost France one-third of a year’s gross domestic product to build. Surely it is better for overpriced and badly arranged Rolling Hills Estates homes to provide shelter and investment opportunity for thousands of individual homeowners than for a nation to build a royal palace.

Still, it is worth noting, at least now that the Clinton boom is over, that we don’t seem to have a lot to show for it, other than consumer debt. America may not have built a Versailles, but we didn’t build practical things, either. We spent our money on abstractions, building up the Internet and financial systems but not adequate roads or airports. Expansion plans at a dozen airports went on hold after September 11, while interest in high-speed light rail suddenly became fashionable, with a $71 billion plan floating in Congress. On an even more mundane but important level, the National League of Cities is fond of publicizing the scare statistic that over the next 20 years, it will cost municipalities $2 trillion to provide water that meets EPA standards.

With no Versailles to show off, what will America have to show the tourists of the future, the Chinese or the Burkina Fasovars or whoever are the regnant power of the 24th century and wish to see the glories of the great American empire? For the present, instead of Versailles, we now have a fake city of Paris, complete with a half-size Eiffel Tower, in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is, of course, one of the great boomtowns of the 20th century. The city didn’t even exist in 1900 and only 30 people then lived in its entire valley. In the 55 years since Bugsy Siegel had his vision in the desert, Vegas has grown to 480,000, with 220,000 of the residents moving in during the 1990s alone. But that decade represented a major challenge to Vegas, with casinos proliferating from Tunica, Mississippi, to Duluth, Minnesota. How to bring in the suckers?

Vegas reimagined itself as a theme park—the depository of the great architecture that Tung celebrates and mourns in his book. Hotels boasting tropical themes, mini-versions of Venetian canals, and the largest pyramid outside of Egypt have all popped up along Las Vegas Boulevard within the last few years. The homage to Lake Como outside the Bellagio may be relatively puny but it boasts something the original one doesn’t: a dancing water shows that performto the tunes of “Hey, Big Spender” and, with wonderful cheap irony, “Simple Gifts.” Vegas solved the Singapore problem by reversing it. Now you can pretend you’re traveling halfway around the world, from the pyramids to Paris, just by crossing the street—or taking advantage of the free valet parking—and still see the same shopping malls you’d see at home. Vegas beat its imitators by imitating the best.

That, of course, includes the New York skyline. (The Vegas version has a roller coaster.) Which brings us back to the question of how to rebuild the real New York. The World Trade Center was one of the ultimate expressions of modern monoculture architecture—a model for buildings that sprang up everywhere from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. Terrorists attacked it precisely because it was a totem of the global “McWorld” culture they despised.

But rebuilding the towers or some semblence of them would not merely be an act of defiance against terrorists. It would be an endorsement of the only brand of urban culture we have in this country. The energy of New York, as Tung writes, has come from building ever taller, ever more populous buildings: “It is the speculative developer’s dream; a place of conspicuous consumption and enormous wealth [that] will sustain buildings of almost any height imaginable.”

Skyscrapers cost New York some cozy neighborhoods, but the World Trade Center had harmonized with the original New York skyline by the time the planes struck. Lower Manhattan evolved around it, with the development of Battery Park City and an increase in the size of roofscapes in the neighborhood. It is because of skyscrapers that Manhattan is our one great pedestrian and public transportation urban environment—a thriving rejoinder throughout the recent boom years to all those businesses that chose to locate in big-footed, sprawling office parks on the exurban edge.

By their destruction, the WTC towers became a more powerful symbol than they had ever before been of the vitality of trade and freedom in the country. Rebuilding them is crucial not just to the financial well-being of the city, but to preserve the essence of the city itself. In an interview, Tung recalled a New York firefighter who entered the blaze on September 11 telling him, “Even though I know how dangerous those buildings are to us, I want to see those buildings back.”