Sunday, November 6th, 2011

Review: Urbanized – A Film by Gary Hustwit

Urbanized is the third entry in Gary Hustwit’s so-called “Design Trilogy,” the first of which was Helvetica (which I saw and enjoyed greatly) and Objectified (which I have not yet seen). Because I liked Helvetica so much and because of the hype surrounding this film in the urbanist community, I was really looking forward to seeing it. Alas, Urbanized turned out to be a disappointment. This is a weak film that did not in my view measure up to Helvetica. Here are a few reasons why.

1. No narrative or thematic coherence. Urbanized consists of a series of scenes shot in various cities around the world. These are essentially standalone elements that do not appear to have any particular narrative or thematic connection. As a result, this is basically a collection of random vignettes.

Now, Helvetica works similarly, but is a much more effective film. Let’s contrast to see the difference. In that work, Hustwit chooses to focus on a single typeface, Helvetica, and uses it as a lens to give us a glimpse into the larger universe of typography, graphic design, the design process, and various theories on design. This is an effective type structure also used by, for example, in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which tells the story of the post-war American city through the lens of a notorious housing project in St. Louis. It was also used by Greg Lindsay in his recent book Aerotropolis, that gives us a view into the world of globalization through the lens of the airport.

In Urbanized, however, Hustwit fails to lock in on anything as an anchor, spinning us around through various places, ideas, and bits and pieces of information, and leaving us to try to sort out for ourselves what it all means. The film, however, does not equip either the urbanist or the average viewer with any tools to do that (see below).

Indeed, I’m not even sure I know exactly what this film was supposed to be about. If I didn’t know anything about Hustwit or his previous work, didn’t know this was part of a design trilogy, didn’t know much about cities, I’m not sure that I’d come away thinking this was a film about the discipline of urban design, though clearly it is mentioned several times. It could equally have been a film about man’s attempt to cope with the mass influx of people into cities. Or to use/adapt cities to deal with larger environmental and social forces. Or all of the above. All we can tell for sure is that this has something to do with cities.

This is reinforced by the film making style, which is similar to Hustwit’s previous work. There are various pictures of cities along with a variety of big-name talking head segments, with an indie style soundtrack. It’s all vaguely “cool” and so works on that level, even if we’ve already seen this playbook before. But given the lack of a narrator, the lack of anyone asking questions, the lack of any thematic progression or unity, it’s not clear what any of this means. We are treated to “debates” between Oscar Niemeyer and Jan Gehl, Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, etc. Yet we are never sure which of these the film maker intends for us to believe. Even if this is about design, it’s as if Hustwit doesn’t have a point of view on it, either what urban design actually is, or what constitutes good urban design. He clearly has some sort of an agenda as he edited this to set up these contrasts. Indeed, he even uses extremely manipulative film making techniques (see below) at times to shape our reactions. But I’m still not quite sure what that agenda is.

2. The film’s examples are conventional and uninteresting. One of the most irritating things to me about the film is that practically every segment profiled something that would already be familiar to even the most casual of urbanist: Mumbai’s slums, New York’s High Line, Bogota’s BRT and bikeways, shrinking Detroit, etc. It’s as if Hustwit did only a cursory study of the topic at hand and took the first high profile examples he came across in “Cities for Dummies.”

Some on Twitter suggested that this shouldn’t be seen as a knock, but rather that we hard core urbanists should get that this is for the mass market film goer who might be exposed to all this for the first time. We urbanists aren’t the target market. Fair enough. But a really good film maker would have squared that circle. As the people Hustwit profiles in his films might note, this is the sort of thing that sets apart really good design from merely average. Good design is able to appeal to both the expert and the novice at the same time, to operate on multiple levels. Had Hustwit dug a bit deeper, he probably could have found better examples that would have appealed to both crowds. As it stands, the film comes across as a bit lazy.

Also, if the casual film goer is the target audience, Urbanized still fails to illuminate. The various issues facing urban areas are treated on such a shallow level – at times not even directly highlighted as all – that it can be difficult for a non-urbanist to even identify them at all, much less think about them in any serious way.

For example, the segment on a protest over a rail project in Stuttgart was set up as a conventional “the Man” versus “the People” debate. Protest itself seemed to be the theme. But this actually had interesting content to it. On one side you’ve got people promoting a high speed rail line. On the other, preservationists. This was perhaps a perfect way to highlight the conflict of values – in this case sustainability/addressing climate change and 21st century transport on one hand, and historic preservation and open space on another – that good urban design has to solve. There are lots of things that we want that are all goods, but we can’t have them all and have to make tradeoffs. Yet Urbanized was totally silent on this and it’s not clear that a casual non-urbanist film goer would connect all the dots to make this leap. In this regard, Urbanized leaves even the newcomer to the field a bit bewildered, even if perhaps feeling good and soma’d up from the hipster film styling.

Other items that were only hinted at but without sufficient context or tooling to enable the viewer to really engage with the ideas:

  • The boundaries of what constitute design. The film starts with Amanda Burden implying that anything that’s consciously considered is design, but by that standard I’m a “breakfast designer” because I consciously decided to have an orange this morning when I woke up.
  • Design as a top down vs. bottoms-up enterprise and the virtues or lack thereof of populist revolt. The film seems sympathetic to populism, but I wonder what Hustwit would make of the Tea Party or those in America who would prefer not to do anything about CO2 emissions.
  • The limits of design. This is hinted at in the top-down vs. bottom-up debate but not directly addressed. To what extent can we design a complex urban organism in the same way we design a font? Are cities fundamentally designed or is spontaneous order or emergent properties a better paradigm?
  • The historic record of design and design failures. We see here some attacks at modernists and the legacy of Robert Moses. But from what I see, today’s designers are often just as ready to remake cities in accordance with their own theories. Is this type of endeavor inherently flawed?
  • The real Bogota story. I love Enrique Peñalosa and what was accomplished in Bogota. But he lost his re-election bid. And while this was too recent for the film, he just lost another election. Why is that if he did all these wonderful things?

3. Miscellaneous criticisms. A couple things jumped out at me as just off. The first was the almost complete lack of economics as a driver of the city. But arguably this is the most important factor that gives cities their rationale and the reason all those people are streaming into cities. I would have thought this would have rated higher mention.

Also, the film seems to treat the design of physical systems as determinant. In both the Cape Town and Rio case studies, for example, safety is presented as an artifact of physical design. Clearly, that plays a role. But I’d argue that social conditions and other factors play a much larger one. The focus on design as a behavior determinant robs people of moral agency.

4. Use of propagandistic and manipulative film techniques. Given the general approach of the film, we are led to believe that the film maker is letting cities and people speak for themselves without attempting to impose a PoV. But this is clearly not always true as Hustwit uses various techniques to sway the viewer. Two key examples leaped out at me.

The first was the sprawl example from Phoenix. Generally Hustwit goes for very high profile commentators. For example, the anti-spawl narrative was provided by Ellen Dunham-Jones, a noted New Urbanist proponent. Yet the pro-sprawl narrative was from a guy named Grady Gammage, Jr. I’d never heard of. He’s a local zoning attorney. Is this the best advocate Hustwit could find? There are many more high profile people Hustwit could have reached out to. For example, Joel Kotkin has thought about this issue for many years, is an articulate defender of suburbia, and is very experienced being on camera.

I’m also going to be a little unkind myself here by picking on Gammage. But even his physical appearance I found interesting. He isn’t ugly, but is a bit overweight with a vaguely Jabba the Hub appearance that Hustwit uses to tap into a sort of “big fat tax attorney” stereotype to make him appear a bit sinister.

A similar technique was on display in the Stuttgart example. He shows a police action against protestors that includes shots framed to show riot police in which their boots are prominently featured, as if to say, “Get it? Jackbooted Germans.” And despite the high levels of English proficiency in Germany, this segment was filmed almost entirely in German and subtitled. Hustwit could find people in China that speak English but not in Germany? The choice of heavy German language for this segment almost had to be deliberate. Again, drawing into German stereotypes.

In a film that in effect purports not to take sides, clearly these techniques were intended to shape the viewer’s impression. And Hustwit is too good a film maker not to know how these things would appear to viewers. To me it came across as heavy handed and I thought it was unfortunate.

I’m probably coming overly negative in this review myself. The film was actually moderately enjoyable to watch. Given its high profile, it’s definitely something urbanists should see. But I think it could have and should have been a lot more, particularly in light of what Hustwit accomplished with Helvetica. I think he would have been better served to lock in on something – a city, a theme – as an anchor, to dig deeper to find mind-blowing examples for the urbanist and Average Joe alike, and to ditch some of the slanting techniques. As it was, I came away from this very disappointed.

You might also be interested in reading Alexandra Lange’s review over at Design Observer, which makes some similar points.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture, Public Policy, Transportation

7 Responses to “Review: Urbanized – A Film by Gary Hustwit”

  1. urbandata says:

    Having just seen the film, this review seems off base. I disagree with many of your specific points and don’t think they are quite accurate – for example, 1) economics is presented as a major force throughout the film and 2) Aravena’s and Khayelitsha’s work are far from mainstream urbanism. But more importantly this is a film about the complexity of cities and how ideas and personal perseverance can triumph over broader socioeconomic narratives. One famous urbanist in the film put it this way: Demography, not architecture, will define the 21st Century City. All in all the best assessment of the film I have heard is that it is a gift not just to the United States, but to the whole world. It successfully captures the contradictions and extreme challenges at the heart of urbanism and the fact that individuals can change these through their own participation in the underlying systems, policies, and politics (which is why the Stuttgart example is brilliant).

  2. HELVETICA is one of my favorite films, but I found OBJECTIFIED lacking. I still plan to see URBANIZED tonight, but hoping it at least falls in the middle of the experience of the two, rather than leaning more towards OBJECTIFIED. Considering how incredible HELVETICA is, some folks don’t even make one masterpiece, so I’ll keep giving Hustwit a chance to make another, for now.

  3. Eric O says:

    Your review brings up an interesting question: What would be the “Helvetica” of urban design?

    It can’t be in the conscious art of shaping of the city, the design of the city… For normative theories of city form go back millennia. Even modern city planning, as an urge, has to trace its origins back a few centuries (the 1666 Great Fire of London?), which would make an interesting arc but I’m not sure the likes of Hustwit could make much out of it. Richard Sennett, today’s Mumford, might. But, fact is, urban design just does not seem to be served very well with such single-inflected design histories. Although, some of us pretend that it does (and would like it that way to serve dogma). Inconveniently, there is no cosmogony in urban design modernity. Could we trace it back to a single quiet beginning, to the equivalent of that foundry in Switzerland that just needed a new typeface to peddle? …It’s an evocative question.

  4. Wad says:

    @Eric O, the Helveticas of urban design are the tract home and the strip mall.

    They’re anodyne, ubiquitous and the most accessible.

    Wait, did you mean the typeface or the film? :)

  5. Eric O says:

    @Wad. An interesting parallel. The mythologies would take us back here to two foundries for urban design there, Voisin and Broadacres… How brutally short are the results from paradise!

    That would have been an interesting arc: how we began with Futurama’s elevated walkways …and “lung-green” parkland ribbons cutting through formerly industrial waste-lands (Voisin and Futurama, people, don’t forget, maximized the pedestrian realm too!) – and ended up with the High Line, now 70 years in future. A complete generational cycle of same beginnings.

    Heck, if an unspecified point of Urbanized is to posit the design challenges for the city as variations on the theme “how to do more for more people”, then we’ve seen this film before, To New Horizons (on GM’s 1939 World Fair exhibit Futurama). I haven’t seen Urbanized, so this is a question for those of you who have: Is Urbanized aware of its genre’s lineage? (Unfortunately, the film hasn’t made it to our starchtown of Charlotte – Drat the cool people in Raleigh who get a screening of it tonight).

    Maybe Urbanized is striving to be an irresolute and post-structural version of Futurama… hence, the urbanist’s impatience with it. Part of the reason Helvetica worked so well was the agnostic stance of the narrative arc. I liked that about that film, how the return to the precedent balkanized stances and created new synthetic movements. The film portrayed every side.

    Maybe urbanists need to appreciate the agnostic in-between. The most powerful thing about cities is that they almost never fail to accidentally synthesize new things from polar dichotomies. That is a design process, but maybe it is the “emergent, unplanned” kind of design. If that’s a message from Urbanized, then I’ll live with it! But I’ll wait to watch the film…

  6. MegD says:

    I also have to come to the film’s defense. I have posted a longer defense at, but I want to address a couple points here.

    It seemed pretty obvious to me that the theme tying it all together was urban design. Without pounding us over the head to emphasize that with every scene change, the film showed us the challenges to good urban design (explosive growth in Beijing, shrinkage and decline in Detroit). It showed the consequences of poor design (slums in Mumbai) and the benefits of good design (mobility in Bogota, increased public safety in Capetown). Every scene showed some aspect of design, whether it was the obstacles to achieving it, or its positive and negative effects on people.

    I also think that expecting the film to teach the dedicated urbanist something new would be tantamount to expecting Helvetica to teach a typeface designer something new. I don’t think we should judge the two films on the same terms – whether or not we learned something new – when our own knowledge of the two fields is so vastly different. Furthermore, I think we should judge it not on what it can teach urbanists, but instead by how well it can convince the non-specialist of the importance of urban design and planning. I think that it can, so long as it has the opportunity to reach a wide enough audience (factors largely dependent on distribution and marketing).

  7. Carl Wohlt says:

    I think Aaron raises many good points, but also think Hustwit undertook an impossibly ambitious project. Going from Helvetica to Urbanized is like going from a single well prepared dish to a ten course meal complete with wine flights. My hope is that Hustwit will continue to return to urbanism as a topic the way that Scorsese has returned to certain common themes throughout his career. And I hope he does so with a greater sense of urgency about the challenges humankind faces with accelerating urbanism.

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