“I knew we were going to fail; it was really just an issue of not failing too badly,” Gary Hustwit told the audience after the London screening of Urbanized, the final part of his design film trilogy which began with the indie hit Helvetica (2007). That first film set out to prove that the Swiss typeface is everywhere in the world and, despite its ubiquity, is far from boring. Hustwit made this limited case easily. He also introduced a lay audience to a small cast of superstar graphic designers as talking heads, including Paula Scher, David Carson and, most entertainingly, Erik Spiekermann.
After Objectified (2009), a second instalment devoted to industrial design, Hustwit now takes on the design, function and future of cities. The film is as sprawling as this description suggests, though the vagueness doesn’t lie in how it’s made. It was created by editing – 300 hours of footage cut down to 85 minutes – and it shows. The combination of voice-over, music and fast cuts, often at the same time, will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a documentary by Adam Curtis. Hustwit’s editors, however, are much more skilled and Hustwit, who has also made music documentaries, has a better ear.
The film moves from city to city, across continents, from London to Mumbai, Santiago to Cape Town. Sheela Patel, an advocate for slum dwellers in Mumbai, informs us of the city’s shortage of public toilets – the urban plan allots 1:80 people; the actual ratio is 1:600. It’s a deliberate ploy: politicians don’t want to encourage more people to come to the city. Patel rolls her eyes: “As if people come to shit.”
Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, spends so long praising the bus system and cycle lanes he introduced that Hustwit seems to be working for his re-election campaign. Alejandro Aravena’s Lo Barnechea housing project in Chile, is picked as another example of good practice. Urbanized seems to define good practice as “participatory design”. Large-scale urban planning is treated as a modernist trend that hasn’t worked out. Just as you’re admiring the aerial view of Brasília, a talking head says: “The problem is, it’s so beautiful.” (For balance, a loyal Niemeyer says that he’ll never criticise his mentor Lúcio Costa’s masterplan.)
Amanda Burden, the director of New York’s Department of City Planning, says that the city was formed by Robert Moses but, “We judge ourselves by Jane Jacobs.” She continues, “His impact was profound and his insensitivity was his downfall.” On “downfall” we cut to a pretty girl in a floppy, widebrimmed hat, lounging in a park – as if Moses set out to kill Annie Hall. Hustwit’s too sophisticated a filmmaker, and Burden’s delivery is too hammy, for this not to be tongue-in-cheek. But it’s an unsatisfactory way to present such a big topic.
Argument, or consciousness-raising, by montage is how the film prefers to operate. The view of an emptying Detroit from a camera placed on the front of a train is the most striking sequence; for once the music doesn’t come with a voice-over, too. Is this a criticism of the self-congratulatory founders of the High Line – so much money spent on such a small project?
Urbanized is more than content to raise a question and move swiftly on. It’s a brave decision. The results will annoy everyone except a curious general viewer, but Hustwit isn’t trying to impress anyone else.
Urbanized, Directed by Gary Hustwit, www.urbanizedfilm.com