Gary Hustwit’s first film, Helvetica (2007), was a surprisingly engaging documentary that made font fanboys of people who didn’t know they could care about the studied minutia of typeface design. He broadened his gaze to industrial design in 2009’s Objectified, which lacked the tight focus of Helvetica, but compensated with a wealth of seductive shots of the fetishized tokens of consumer desire (fittingly, Apple design chief Jonathan Ive gets plenty of screen time).
The latest entry in what Hustwit is calling his “design trilogy” takes another step back, to look at the largest-scale—and perhaps most important—design application. Urbanized alights in the field of urban design, crisscrossing the globe to compare solutions to living densely.
Hustwit name-checks some of the specialty’s greatest hits and misses, including Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs in mid-20th century New York; brutalist monuments of inhuman scale in Brasilia; former Bogotá mayor and pavement liberator Enrique Peñalosa; unchecked Phoenix sprawl; and the emptying of Detroit and New Orleans, with scatter-shot approaches to refilling the voids.
Hustwit also spends time with lesser-known subjects, like Chilean low-income housing designer Alejandro Aravena, whose plans combine aesthetic beauty with realistic considerations of what people can afford; innovative improvements in lighting and public spaces in Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, which have reduced crime and given children space to play; and a contentious battle for the heart of Stuttgart, Germany, as the construction of an upscale residential and commercial center surrounding a high-speed rail station proceeds against the wishes of a majority of the citizenry.
With as large a subject as urban planning, Urbanized can only skim the surface, flitting from one city and one morsel of an idea to the next. But it’s a good survey of important concepts and trends in urban planning, and like its predecessors, it is itself such a brilliant example of thoughtful design that it’s a pure pleasure to watch: The fastidiously composed shots look like the work of $100/hr. graphic designers, and it’s assembled with a perfect smoothness that proves that really good design is its own satisfaction.
Urbanized is being self-distributed in a limited release, so Monday’s screening at the Rialto is your best chance to catch the glorious visuals on the big screen. As an added bonus, Hustwit will be on hand for a post-film Q-and-A. Tickets are $15 ($13 for students). The show starts at 7 p.m. Visit urbanizedfilm.com/raleigh-durham-special-screening/.
The trailer is here:
Disclosure: The author is a seasonal contract employee of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which is sponsoring this film event along with ISDA Carolina and AIGA Raleigh. He works on the operations side and is not involved in programming.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this post originally stated that the screening is Tuesday night. It has been corrected.