Gary Hustwit has made a bit of a name for himself making documentaries about subjects that sound like they’ll be dull, but in his hands turn out to be far more interesting than you’d expect. His design trilogy kicked off with Helvetica, about a text font, and he followed that up with Objectified, about the relationship between manufactured objects and the people who design them. Just reading that sentence you could make you fall asleep, but believe it or not, the documentaries are fascinating.
Hustwit rounds out the trilogy with Urbanized, where he tries to outdo himself in making a documentary about a boring sounding subject, as it’s about urban planning. Once more though he proves that what may initially seem deathly dull is actually fascinating in the right hands.
It’s partly a look at how urban planning works, and partly an examination of the often passionate ideas and philosophy (or lack thereof) behind the creation of cities and neighbourhoods, and turns out to be a bizarrely absorbing subject. For example it talks about Brazil’s relatively new capital, Brasilia, a city built from scratch in the late 60s. It is as much a statement about how designers of the time thought cities should be as it is about creating a practical place to live and work, resulting in something unique but which is constantly jammed with traffic as there’s no way to walk anywhere.
Every aspect of a city has to be thought about and designed by someone at some point, and the result is a mix of hodgepodge growth and renewal, as well as very deliberate creation of infrastructure and space for people to live and breathe. The subject the documentary constantly comes back to is people and how they experience the urban design around them. Whether its lowering the murder rate simply by creating safe, well lit walking paths in South African townships, a South American mayor who sees planning for pedestrians and public transport as a democratic principle, or people in deprived Detroit neighbourhoods trying to make the best of a situation where the population of the city has plummeted by more than half in the last few decades, Hustwit finds all sorts of thought-provoking case studies that make the viewer question how the world around them actually works.
It’s a truly fascinating documentary, asking all sorts of questions and raising all sorts of ideas about what urban planning is actually all about. There’s no consensus, as it ranges from high falutin’ idealism and grand civic plans (which are as much about imposing a philosophy on a city as creating a space for people), to small community projects and creating individual buildings that almost accidentally have a larger impact of the world around them. Somehow all this comes together to create towns and cities.
I never expected to be as absorbed as I was, but it’s an unexpectedly interesting subject, or at least it is in Hustwit’s hands, who really is an astonishing advocate for the importance and impact of design. His numerous, globe-trotting case studies aren’t just about buildings, they’re about ideas, philosophies and people, and how battles can rage over that, such as in Stuttgart, where a planned railway project has led to sometimes violent protest.
Unfortunately it’s a fact that no matter what I say, unless you work in the planning department of the local council, Urbanized is a tough sell to most people. However if you’re one of those people whose interested in the world around, Urbanized is likely to be a refreshing surprise, filled with thought-provoking ideas about how the man-made world around us comes to be the way it is, and suggesting ideas about how we can make it better for the future.
Overall Verdict: Urban Planning may seem like a rather impersonal and dull thing, but Urbanized shows it can be a fascinating, passionate and complex thing.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac