Monday, February 13, 2012



After Helvetica (2007) and Objectified (2009), Gary Hustwit came back with the last installment of his design film trilogy – Urbanized. It’s equally charming, informative, and concise. It flows smoothly from Asian cities like Mumbai and Beijing to Santiago, Bogotá, Brasília and Rio in South America, to Cap Town in South Africa; from Copenhagen, Brighton, Stuttgart in Europe to New York, New Orleans, Detroit and Phoenix in the US, touching on key urban issues along the way, such as fast growth, shrinking cities, suburbia, slums, social housing, public infrastructure, public art, community gardens, energy consumption, technology, public involvement and protests. It’s packed with ideas and opinions from leading scholars and designers, including Ricky Burdett, Jan Gehl, Alejandro Aravena, Yung Ho Chang, James Corner, Norman Foster, Oscar Niemeyer, and of course, Rem Koolhaas, although his thinking has already shifted to the countryside.

The mood of the film is generally upbeat, even though it starts in Mumbai with its slums, where 600 people share one toilet seat. (Officially in Mumbai, one toilet seat for 50 people is considered adequate sanitation.) India and China are in the middle of a rapid development. At the end of last year, China reported for the first time that its urban population had passed 50%. (And the film predicts that by 2050, 75% of the world population would call a city home.) Many urban problems were created under the economic boom. As Rem says, market economy has so much power that there is very little room left for design and thinking. Mourning the lost quality of life in Beijing, Yung Ho Chang advocates a collective effort to correct the mistakes. “In the past thirty years, cities were conceived and designed to be part of the economic development, which is OK. But livability was really ignored until very recently. So it’s not convenient; it’s not comfortable.” Bruce Katz points out, “It can’t just take the recipe from 20th century America and apply it to 21st century China or India. That would be horrendous for them, and it would be horrendous frankly for all of us.”
Slums in Mumbai
The inconvenience of Beijing

20th century America? It was not a history of urbanization, but actually a vivid process of counter-urbanization. Endless sprawl hollowed out the center of cities, and the highways resulted in soaring car use and energy consumption. Is suburbia an “American dream” or a nightmare?

Interestingly, what’s happening in South America seems to offer fair examples of contemporary city building. In Bogotá, Colombia, former mayor Enrique Peñalosa believes “what creates traffic is not the number of cars, but the number of trips and the length of trips.” Therefore, he restricted car use by restricting parking, and introduced TransMilenio, a bus-based public transit system, to ease traffic jams. (It reminds me of the Metro Cable system in Caracas, Venezuela.) Peñalosa also promoted bike lanes. In the film, he proudly points out that in one section of Porvenir Promanade, a new road that connects low-income neighborhoods to the richest areas of the city, “the pedestrians and bicycles have pavement, and the cars are in the mud.” Another equally proud mayor Eduardo Paes of Rio talks about the high-tech Operation Center they built to take care of the everyday life of their people. All the departments of the city are here. “You got all that on a big screen, bigger than NASA, that’s what I like.”
TransMilenio in Bogotá
Mayor Peñalosa points out the mud road for cars while cycling on a paved bike lane
Operation Center in Rio de Janeiro

Alejandro Aravena talks about the Elemental projects in Chile. The innovative partnership rethinks the ways to deliver social housing. In the project in Lo Barnechea, Santiago (2010), for example, instead of a fully built tiny house, they provided half of a good house, and let the family build the other half with their own timing, according to their own needs. One intriguing story about this “participatory design” approach is the choice between a water heater and a bathtub. They didn’t have money for both. Politicians wanted water heater, but all the families preferred a bathtub. The fact is that “when they move in, they do not have money to pay the gas bill to heat the water,” so a private bathtub would be an easier step up in terms of quality of life.
“Half of a good house” in Lo Barnechea, Santiago

Talking about South American cities, Brasília is an inevitable topic. The film features the 103-year-old Oscar Niemeyer, who considers Brasília a wonderful masterpiece. He says, “I think architecture is invention. In architecture it isn’t enough to just have the right building that works well. It can also be beautiful, it can be different, it can create surprise. And surprise is the main thing in a work of art.” Jan Gehl disagrees. In his opinion, Brasília looks fantastic from the airplane, but when it gets to eye level, it’s a disaster. “Every distance is too wide; things are not connected; you have to trample for endless miles and miles along completely straight paths.” He continues, “A good city is like a good party.” “If people get involved in social activities, they will forget place and time, and just enjoy. Do not look at how many people are walking in the city. But look at how many people have stopped walking to stay and enjoy what is there.” Of course he means Copenhagen. He points out an interesting fact about the bike lanes there: there are usually parked cars between the bike lanes and the moving cars. It gives a sense of security and further encourages people to use their bicycles as much as possible. Now in Copenhagen, 37% of people who commute to work arrive on bikes. (I thought it would be more...)
Walking in Brasília
Bike lanes in Copenhagen

It seems everything is a design decision. Director of NYC Department of City Planning Amanda Burden claims, “When you walk down the street, everything you see has been designed.” But what I appreciate more are the “undesigned” aspects of cities, the “chance encounters,” as Norman Foster puts it. “Something unexpected will happen along the way, and you’ll make a discovery. That in a way is the magic of cities.” When designing the High Line, James Corner asked himself, “What will design actually mess up here? What through design will you anesthetize? Will you destroy?” In the end, it’s really just about “showcasing Manhattan in a way that is so authentic, it’s not overly manicured, overly scripted.”

It’s interesting to see the design film trilogy moves up in scale over the years, in search of the impact of design on our built environment. Helvetica was about a typeface, and graphic design in general. Objectified covered the objects/products and industrial design. And it had to end up in cities and talk about urban design to complete the explorations. Hustwit chose to close Urbanized with Edgar Pieterse’s remark: “Fundamentally as a species, we need things that can power our imaginations, that can get our passions going, that can give us a sense of meaning. And that is not a brick; it is not a pipe. It is an idea. That’s what drives cities forward.” Yes, it is the idea. And I think that’s really what drives all design disciplines, and ultimately humanity, forward.


PS. One quote from Rem that doesn’t really relate to cities (I told you he’s not thinking about that any more), but I found it quite interesting: “There is an incredible amount of wasted effort in the profession. A fair amount of it is generated through the procedure of competitions, which is really a complete drain of intelligence. I don’t know any other profession that would tolerate this. At the same time you are important, we invite your thinking, but we also announce that there is an 80% chance that we will throw away your thinking and make sure that it is completely wasted.”

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