Directed by Gary Hustwit
"What attracts us to cities is the chance encounter," muses Sir Norman Foster as dawn breaks over a megacity in the opening moments of Urbanized. It's a truism not only reiterated by the world-renowned urban thinkers and innovators consulted throughout the documentary—the third in director Gary Hustwit's design trilogy, following Helvetica and Objectified—but unfortunately built into its plodding format. Like a sprawling suburban development, the film's chapters occupy their elegantly shot subdivisions just so. There's polite discussion between neighboring sections, but most stay within their too-small lots. Of the dozen or so projects, buildings and master plans surveyed only a few are allowed prolonged visits before shifting to a new city, systemic problem and utopian solution.
The stultifying format is especially frustrating because, as one interviewee puts it, "the 21st century is the century of the city." We, presumed urban viewers, have already figuratively if not literally bought into the viability and vitality of contemporary cities, so Urbanized is preaching to the converted. This makes engagements with projects like Chelsea's High Line seem almost redundant, while brief glimpses of the New York City Department of City Planning's inner workings promise but never deliver more complex insights into cities' official mechanisms, their dealings with community groups, activists, conservationists and developers.
Such conflicts over cities, neighborhoods and individual plots of land mark Urbanized's best chapters. From violent demonstrations in Stuttgart over a city center-bulldozing railroad station project, discontent over the Brad Pitt-sponsored starchitect-designed houses in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, and the conversion of Detroit's vacant lots into urban farms, we get a sense of the city as a massive collaborative artwork for living that's shaped by its citizens as much as by its city government. Though filled with interesting speakers and a few fascinating case studies, Hustwit's documentary lacks the zeal of something like The End of Suburbia. As Urbanized's past participle title acknowledges, the city's resurgence has already begun. The resulting lack of tension in all but a few segments makes for an edifying but often dispassionate survey of global trends in urbanism, one that affords too few chance encounters.
Opens October 28 at IFC Center