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Urbanized Surveys Global Cities, in All Their Squalor and Glory

November 18, 2011

The new documentary marks the finale of filmmaker Gary Hustwit's design trilogy.

By Dante A. Ciampaglia

Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai
Photo courtesy Gary Hustwit
The film features scenes from Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai.

 

Stuttgart 21 project
Photo courtesy Gary Hustwit
Hustwit critically assesses the Stuttgart 21 project, which calls for tearing down a landmark train station and handing over a large parcel of public land to private developers. The project has drawn considerable opposition.
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In the echo chamber of American documentaries, Gary Huswit’s films reverberate for all the right reasons. They are open explorations, not narrow screeds, that encourage insiders and philistines alike to robustly and respectfully debate the cultural relevancy of seemingly esoteric subjects, like fonts faces (Helvetica, 2007) and product design (Objectified, 2009).

Huswit's new film, Urbanized, which opened in limited release in October and completes his design trilogy, broadens the investigation to cities. The 85-minute unnarrated film explores the design and function of urban areas in the 21st century through profiles of 14 cities and interviews with leading minds such as Rem Koolhaas, Sir Norman Foster, former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa, and Edgar Pieterse from the African Centre for Cities. This is Huswit’s most accessible subject to date. It’s also an ideological minefield. In discussing modern urban development, you can’t ignore the role of money, power, and class or the deeply rooted opinions most people have on how to balance public and private interests.

These are charged issues, and Huswit rarely loses his head. His treatment of both urban malignancies—oppressive slums (Mumbai), unsustainable energy consumption (Beijing), tone-deaf governments (Stuttgart)—and triumphs—participatory design (Santiago), "self-organizing urbanization" (Detroit), post-industrial transformation (New York)—is fair and exhilarating. Rather than ping-pong between pontificating talking heads, Huswit pits architects, politicians, and other experts against cities themselves through compelling, vibrant images. People can talk about what works, what doesn’t, and what the repercussions are in urban centers. But words can’t compete with the damning impact of seeing, for example, a haphazard slum of ramshackle shacks just outside the walls of a developer’s paradise of expensive high-rise condo buildings. In Urbanized, it's in images where arguments begin and end.

We appreciate the elegance of this approach all the more when Huswit stumbles. Throughout Urbanized, he wants us thinking and talking about the stake citizens actually have in their public spaces—an increasingly vital discussion considering the spread of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Near the end of the film, the New York and London-based filmmaker presents the contentious Stuttgart 21 project as a microcosm of that goal.

S21 called for tearing down the landmark Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof (1922), designed by Paul Bonatz, and rebuilding a new train station in its place; ripping up centuries-old trees; and handing over a large swath of public land to private developers. Huswit talks to politicians backing the project, but spends far more time sympathizing with protesters rallying against it. So when the police launch their inevitable crackdown on the project’s opponents, it's no surprise to find our sympathies aligned with Huswit’s. What’s jarring is that we’re spoon-fed his disgust with the government through one-sided footage of police brutality and bloodied, teary protester testimonials. We’re never allowed to reach our own conclusions or register our own disgust. This Michael Moore-esque manipulation violates the tone of the rest of the film.

But in the end, we accept this invective as an understandable byproduct of Huswit’s love of cities. He wants them to succeed, and knows they can. Even after his late-game moment of rage, he quickly regroups back to a place of infectious, energizing optimism. From Bogotá to Detroit to (eventually) Stuttgart, he believes that the public good will prevail. And when the public wins, so do cities.

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