By Sean Willett
It’s a struggle to view cities as products of design. In Calgary, maybe it’s because one may find it hard to believe the terrible bicycle infrastructure and plague-like urban sprawl were planned by rational human beings. Yet cities, like most things in our modern world, are the result of choices made by designers. Whether these choices are the right ones is a different matter entirely.
Urbanized, the final documentary in director Gary Hustwit’s design-focused trilogy (which includes 2007’s Helvetica and 2009’s Objectified), is also the latest installment in the Calgary International Film Festival’s Doc Soup series, a program that aims to showcase six notable documentaries each month. The film shines a light on the people responsible for shaping cities and the ways they are trying to solve the problems that naturally arise in urban centres. This is done mainly through a series of interconnected interviews, both in offices and out on the streets, as well as breathtaking shots of monumental cityscapes, sleek graphs and the occasional snippet of television footage.
It quickly becomes clear that Urbanized isn’t really about cities, at least not in the traditional sense. While gorgeously composed tableaux of buildings and streets feature heavily in the movie, it can be seen through the interviews that its true focus is on people. After all, what is a city if not a place for people to live their lives?
The designers that Hustwit chooses to spotlight are ones that have found ways to solve some of the most important problems facing cities, such as low-income housing, public safety and environmental concerns. It is made very clear that these designers are successful because they took people into consideration, instead of merely looking for the most “rational” solution.
An example of this comes early in the film by spotlighting a low-income housing project designed by Alejandro Aravena in Santiago, Chile. While most low-income housing solutions are focused on building the largest homes possible, Aravena instead focuses on providing the best location possible, to make it easier for parents to go to work and children to go to school. Additionally, he involved the families in the design process by having them choose which amenities they would prefer to have included in the cost of the building, instead of choosing for them.
By focusing on people, rather than solely on the structural side of urban planning, Hustwit manages to humanize city design. This is most clearly seen when the clean, carefully manicured interview scenes are interrupted by the cities themselves. From children asking Aravena about the camera crew, to the mayor of BogotÃ¡, Colombia waving to passing bicyclists, to sirens causing a designer to pause in the middle of a conversation, these scenes were included by Hustwit to make clear the undeniably important role that people play in designing cities.
Yet despite the exceptional quality of these interviews, they are almost eclipsed by Hustwit’s remarkable sense of style. He manages to combine the jaw-dropping cinematography of Luke GeissbÃ¼hler with a simple electronic soundtrack to create a sort of transcendent experience, each montage of shots leading perfectly into the next scene. It is hard to think of anyone else who could make Detroit seem otherworldly.
While the stylistic elements of the film have no problem maintaining their rhythm, the interviews often seem a bit disconnected, jumping from one unrelated subject to another at a rapid pace. This barrage of people, places and problems does serve to keep the film interesting and fresh, but effectively ruins any sort of narrative structure. The final few scenes help to fix this problem, but the movie still feels slightly disorganized as a result.
This issue hardly stops Urbanized from being an enjoyable and informative documentary, and anyone with even the slightest interest in design should make every effort to watch it.
Considering the way other cities have dealt with the problems we face today, it’s clear that there’s hope for the future of Calgary. Initiatives such as the proposed bike rental stations, the improvements to the transit system, and the currently-under-construction Bow skyscraper (which was designed by Sir Norman Foster, one of the architects interviewed in the film) reflect many of the solutions featured in Urbanized, and will help make living in Calgary cheaper, safer and more convenient.