This month Urbanized, the latest film by Gary Hustwit, premieres in selected cities around the U.S. after making its debut at the Toronto Film Festival. Coming on the heels of his odes to typography (Helvetica, 2007) and product design (Objectifed, 2009), Hustwit has now turned his lens on the design of cities. AN met up with the filmmaker to talk about how the key players in urban planning and design and make their ideas comprehensible to a wider public.
For Urbanized you use a strategy familiar from Helvetica and Objectified, namely telling a story through interviews and multiple voices. How would you describe your approach in Urbanized?
When we made Helvetica it was almost like we created another world for that film, in terms of the conversation and the visual style and the music. Ultimately, I liked that world and wanted to explore it a little more, which led to the other two films. They’re all really explorations, and for me at least that’s what links them. Basically, the subject matter for all three is design, the creativity behind design, and how design can be used for creative expression and as a problem-solving tool. Urbanized is a pretty simple film. We try to look objectively at whatever the issues are, but I think my films are really observational, especially this one.
Some of your case studies—Detroit, Beijing, Bogota, Phoenix—will be familiar to architects and designers. But others are less well-known, like the case of Stuttgart. How did you select what made the cut?
I spent about six months talking to and meeting people. I went to the Urban Age conference in Istanbul where I met Enrique Penalosa [Mayor of Bogata, Colombia] and Ricky Burdett [Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics]. As the interviews progressed, each one informed the next. Subjects would always say, “You should talk to so-and-so.” But the Stuttgart story was a project I found through Twitter. It’s a great example of how you can use social media not just as an outreach method to push out information but also for crowd-sourcing information. I think I tweeted something to the effect of “Do you know of any interesting DIY Urban Design projects in your city,” and someone tweeted back: “It’s not a DIY project but it’s a DIY opposition to redevelopment of a train station.” Two weeks later we were there shooting. We tried to get as much footage as we could, especially when 100,000 people came to protest as they cut down the first trees.
You note in the film that the political party in power at the time of the protest was ultimately voted out. What do you make of that?
Stuttgart is a cautionary tale. From a government and development perspective, the message is to get citizens truly involved early on. But sometimes these projects take so long that it’s only when the bulldozers come in that people pay attention and say, “Why wasn’t I told about this?” Well, you probably were told about it in some way, and probably there were ways for you to get involved. But people are busy and they’re kind of oblivious to the changes that are happening around them in their city.
Unlike your previous films, for Urbanized you spoke to a lot of players outside the design world, including politicians. Was it more challenging to connect with these people?
One challenge was that many of them have no idea who I am. None of them have seen Helvetica or Objectified. At least someone like Rem Koolhaas [one of the film's talking heads] may have heard of the films, but the mayor of Rio De Janeiro hasn’t. So it was a little more challenging in some cases. And some people would not talk to us, like Dave Bing, the mayor of Detroit. His handlers wouldn’t let him talk. I think he probably feels he’s under assault, and he doesn’t want me coming in and trying to have a conversation with him versus him giving me the soundbite. But I tried to approach all the subjects in the same way. Politicians and people in power will generally revert to their bullet points no matter how you approach it. But if people are talking about something that they love, they automatically show that passion, and start to get more excited about it. That’s what I like to capture on camera.
We hear some striking stats, for example, that 75 percent of the world will be living in cities by the year 2050. Do you hope to convey a sense of urgency?
Those are just the facts. My sense of urgency is really to get people to think about these things, be aware of them, and take the discussion of the issues outside of the profession. Hopefully there are some new things people discover when they watch the film, even if they do this for a living. But I think it’s really important that these issues be more a part of public discourse and that, for me, is what a film can do—it can crystallize a lot of the thinking and the players, and hopefully create a window where people who are not in that profession can get the information and see how it applies to their lives. Choose to get involved or not get involved, but at least be aware.