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Gary Hustwit’s “Urbanized”

Completing the trilogy begun with Helvetica and Objectified, Hustwit goes macro.

Urbanized premiered in Toronto and now opens for a five-day run at the IFC Center in New York before rolling on to further cities in the coming weeks, but this past weekend saw it "playing to a packed house at the London School of Economics," and Justin McGuirk was there for the Guardian. "It is directed by Gary Hustwit, who made the cult hit Helvetica in 2007 (an unlikely film about a Swiss typeface) before taking on the much broader topic of industrial design in 2009's Objectified. With Urbanized, he zooms out even further to complete his trilogy, a cinematic story about design moving from the micro to the macro. With each leap in scale, Hustwit risks pointing his camera at a topic so big he ends up saying nothing at all. Yet Urbanized is a brave and timely movie that manages to strike almost exactly the right tone. For a sense of the scale of the urban problem, simply look at Mumbai, a city of 12 million people that is set to be the world's biggest by 2050. Already, 60% of its population lives in slums with such poor sanitation that there is only one toilet seat for every 600 people. The municipality is reluctant to build toilets for fear that it will encourage more migrants to come. 'As if people come to shit,' retorts the activist Sheela Patel in the movie. Quite. Most people come to work. Cities are basins of opportunity, and their citizens drive national economies. It is peculiar, then, how poorly cities reward their citizens for that contribution."

Alexandra Lange, a columnist for Design Observer, has come away frustrated: "We drift in space and in time, transitions often made by a felicitous reference that sends us from continent to continent. We don't build from small-scale, ground-up interventions, like community gardens in Detroit, to large-scale professional efforts like city planning chair Amanda Burden's rezoning of New York. We don't move in spatio-economic terms from the slums of the second and third world (Mumbai, Cape Town, Bogota) to the towers of Beijing. Or vice versa, tracing bus rapid transit in New York back to BRT in Bogota (or, for that matter, in Curitiba, Brazil, a previous international favorite with trickle-up ideas). Only in one case, Elemental's Chilean low-income housing project, do we see numbers. Nothing builds, except a simultaneous sense of wonder and frustration. After an hour, I was restless, as it was hard to sustain feature-length interest without a story arc…. Urbanized left me with the same feeling of incompleteness as last year's Museum of Modern Art's Small Scale, Big Change exhibition. I see why critics would argue, in both cases, that it is better for this film or that exhibit to exist…. But I also think that Hustwit failed to ask himself a tough enough question before he went around the world. He wants people 'to think just a little bit differently'? That's not enough, and a better film, like a better exhibition, could have advanced the dialogue."

But the New York Times' AO Scott argues that "even viewers with deep knowledge of modern urban planning are likely to learn something from the carefully selected images and thoughtful interviews… Urbanized is less focused on the history of cities than on the way they are adapting to the challenges of the present and future, notably climate change and population growth. This slant leaves some inevitable gaps — the David-and-Goliath battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs is mentioned, but important earlier figures like Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted are not — and there is a distinct bias in favor of Jacobs-influenced new urbanism and against other approaches to city planning…. Mr Hustwit relies more on the testimony of professionals than on the wisdom of ordinary people, but that is in keeping with the overall mood of the film, which is lively, curious and pedagogical. Like a really good class taught by a team of enthusiastic professors, Urbanized supplies grist for many late-night arguments or solitary ruminations."

Writing in the Voice, Aaron Hillis finds that the doc "efficiently zips between ideas on not just why cities look and function the way they do, but also on how communities can be engaged and empowered to improve our shared living space. Creative urban planning transforms in ways pragmatic (NYC's former railroad-turned-park the High Line), thought-provoking (interactive street art in New Orleans), or both (chalk-art activism as an energy-saving experiment in Brighton, UK). Most timely is the section on Stuttgart eco protesters and the city as an expression of assembly and struggle, which should've inspired the occupiers downtown to build a better model."

More from Christopher Bell (Playlist, B), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 4/5), Benjamin Sutton (L) and Bob Turnbull. Charlotte West talks with Hustwit for Imprint and Filmmaker's Scott Macaulay's got five questions for him as well.

"The four posters for the doc Urbanized are just great," writes Jim Coudal. "They were designed by Build."

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Most interesting post. Love to see the film but like all such endeavors no way to translate it into any kind of meaningful action. Now if we could just get the folks working on this end of the problem together with Mumbai… “!”:

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