“Urbanized” (2011)

Blowhard, Esq. writes:


The third volume in Gary Hustwit’s super SWPLy design series for the TED crowd — following his previous HELVETICA and OBJECTIFIED — I found this documentary only intermittently engaging. I enjoyed HELVETICA, which looked at 20th century typography via the lens of the titular example, but like OBJECTIFIED (which I feel asleep during), URBANIZED felt too unfocused to me.

The movie is a series of short segments that skips around the world as it examines a particular urban dilemma, for example, the slums of Mumbai, public transit in Bogota, historic preservation in New York City (via the example of The High Line), suburban sprawl in Phoenix, economic depression in Detroit, and too-rapid urbanization in Beijing. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this hodgepodge approach, but more often than not it was like reading a superficial textbook to a urban studies 101 class with a bland title like Problems in 21st Century Urbanism: A Global Survey.

I know I should review the movie presented and not the one I want, but I was hoping for more about the elements of successful city design. What makes for a good (i.e. popular, beloved) park or street? Why do certain areas repel people, while others seem perennially crowded? The best parts for me were the head of the NYC planning department explaining the importance of moveable seating in parks, another designer pointing out why the great European town squares are less than 100m x 100m (it has to do with the human eye’s field of vision), and a Danish official on how Cophenhagen reengineered its streets to be more bike-friendly.

There are a few jabs at top-down, Modernist design, too, if only in passing. After some beauty shots of Brasília that would thrill MCM geeks, one talking head notes that the pedestrian-level experience of the city is a “disaster.” A couple of starchitects don’t come off so well either. Sir Norman Foster yammers some flat rhetoric about the importance of technology and Rem Koolhaus is good for some po-mo babble. Regarding his CCTV building, Koolhaus admires that it’s a “building that doesn’t have a single identity” but instead an “unlimited amount of identities.” Someone should let Koolhaus know that the citizens of Beijing have bestowed a single identity on it.


  • An interview with Hustwit.
  • David Sucher’s excellent City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village is available on Kindle for less than $5. Paleo Retiree wrote about it here.
  • I wrote about the godawful Santa Ana Civic Center here. Long Beach also has a shitty civic center, which I’ll be writing about soon in another post.
  • I just read Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House. More on that later, too.

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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12 Responses to “Urbanized” (2011)

  1. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Nice review. Seemed to me that Hustwit is incapable of separating his activist inclinations from his ideas about urban design. In his mind what makes things beautiful and effective is inseparable from what we can do to Make the World a Better Place. I was baffled by the segment on Detroit, a city that as it crumbles to the ground is becoming the opposite of designed (or is it being designed by entropy?). But Hustwit quickly jumps from the non-design of Detroit to a segment about black folks planting things in vacant lots, and then he somehow ties that into global warming. Whatever floats your boat, I guess. Another part that amused me: the one focusing on an activist group’s efforts to spray paint green slogans on the streets outside folks’ homes. I guess you can torture a design message out of that, but I’d consider it a pretty lousy sort of design. Not only are the slogans unattractive, they’re obnoxious. As for Koolhaus, I think I watched his bit twice, and I couldn’t figure out what he was saying either time.


  2. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    What the fuck do architects mean when they say their buildings don’t have a “single identity”? What *does* have a single identity? Does Grand Central Station? And why is multi-identity so important anyway? Is, say, Hagia Sophia blessed with the supreme gift of architectural multiple-personality disorder, or has she had to cope all these years with a single crummy identity?


    • In Koolhaus’s case, he seemed to be reveling in the sculptural quality of the building, how it appears different from every angle. I’m guessing that no matter what temporary “identity” it has at any given moment, it’s still a showy, neurotic office building at heart.


  3. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    I love the Tom Wolfe, BTW. Should be required reading for every young person receiving an education in the arts.


    • Bauhaus was indeed excellent. I immediately ordered The Painted Word after I finished it. Have you read that one too?


      • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

        Yeah. I don’t think the material is as rich as the architectural stuff (how could it be?), but it’s still pretty good. When I was in art school I argued with a teacher when I claimed that the key to being considered a genius in the modern art racket was getting a prestigious critic to come up with a novel, marketable take on your stuff. It was all about what people wrote about you, and you were nothing without a good explanation. Wolfe comes up with a similar idea, but he takes it much further. His comparing that whole culture to medieval scholasticism is very funny.


  4. agnostic says:

    From that interview with Hustwit, he seems like an airhead, ideologue, and sperg. Not a very, uh, promising vision of who’s going to begin to show us The Way Out of Here.

    It’s all abstract, political, and engineering. No basic understanding of, or even interest in human nature and psychology. There’s this abstract political cause about reclaiming the private for the public — whatever that means, and whether it will enrich anyone’s lives or not. It’s always The Cause that matters with these geeks.

    Graft a space-age-looking public library onto a poor Colombian slum where no one ever feels like reading, and has no attachment to the print medium, but rather to texting or websurfing. Who cares if the facility will therefore go to waste, if the locals feel resentful over a bunch of do-gooder SWPLs swooping in on a rescue mission to give their slum a trendoid makeover, and if the intended SWPL feel-good audience will therefore lose all interest in the place in 10 years because the design style will feel so dated by then.

    None of that matters — it scored points in some theoretical battle between private vs. public interests! I just hope they paid for all those pointless projects with Kickstarter funds from clueless SWPL dupes in the first world and not taxpayer monies from productive Colombians.


  5. agnostic says:

    “I thought the segment on the New Orleans street artist and her little red stickers was pretty stupid too”

    Jesus, hipsters are so fucking unimaginative. Like 90% of their ideas for “I wish this place was _____” are foodie joints. Like you can’t go to any generic strip center (“lifestyle center”) and find over a dozen places to eat and drink.

    And how childishly self-centered they are — no thought about “what the people in this area could use is _____” even if you personally wouldn’t patronize it that much. Like a playground with real equipment or a toy store for children, who have nowhere to hang out and enjoy themselves in this era of helicopter parents. Or the proverbial mom-and-pop hardware store. You read about all those SWPLs who head off to start an organic farm — why not learn how to operate a small hardware store? Or a senior center — remember those? It was heartwarming to see the elderly hanging out with each other, and being integrated into the community back in the ’80s. Hanging out at the mall all day long, every day of the week except for Sunday.

    Hipsters need to stop writing letters to gentrification Santa Claus and grow up.


  6. agnostic says:

    The best part of From Bauhaus to Our House is where he’s done detailing everything that went wrong during the mid-century, and gets around to what looks promising from contempo architecture (i.e. the early ’80s). He singles out John Portman, the developer-architect who you’ve never heard of (going along with the theme of the lack of celebrity obsession in the ’80s) but who invented an entire type of building, the atrium hotel.

    That single-handedly reintroduced the atrium as a feature of both commercial, public, and domestic spaces (if it were in an apartment building). Of course, audiences played a role in creating the demand for the atrium, but he was the one who pioneered it in the ’60s and ran with it right through the ’80s.

    Exotic meets familiar, pastoral meets urban, playful and refined — the Eighties had so many striking contrasts, and the new atrium was one of the greatest examples of that in architecture.

    Portman has also made some of the only interesting abstract paintings out there. I think they’re mostly from the ’80s and early ’90s, and are only viewable in new retrospective books on all that he’s done, from architecture to painting to sculpture (which I don’t care for). Lots of light-dark contrasts and repeated motifs — basic elements if you’re not going to make anything figurative with line. Not at all like that monochromatic goulash or multicolored vomit-looking junk from the mid-century.


  7. Pingback: “The Human Scale” (2012) | Uncouth Reflections

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