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Better by Design: Urbanized Looks at the Craft of City-Building

Coming this week, screenings of Gary Hustwit's three design-oriented documentaries: Urbanized, Helvetica, and Objectified.

Gary Hustwit’s Design Trilogy
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

January 13, 6:30 p.m. (Gary Hustwit in attendance); January 15, 8:30 p.m.; January 17, 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.

January 14, 12:30 p.m. (Gary Hustwit in attendance)

January 15, 3 p.m. (Gary Hustwit in attendance)

The films of Gary Hustwit’s Design Trilogy—Helvetica (2007), Objectified (2009), and TIFF ’11 world premiere selection Urbanized—are about as stylish and agreeable as documentaries come, focusing chiefly on elegant feats of commercial and urban design, and on the innovators who quite literally shape the daily lives of contemporary urbanites worldwide. But TIFF’s Lightbox presentations of Urbanized, in particular, which begin on January 13 with Hustwit himself in attendance, may provoke an unusual degree of ambivalence in local audiences, given a prevailing municipal agenda seemingly hostile to progressive innovation.

Thanks to our intractable transit development dilemmas, Toronto viewers are likely to experience a mixture of admiration and intense jealously upon witnessing the projects implemented by individuals like Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. Peñalosa was a key figure in the introduction of TransMilenio, a bus rapid transit (BRT) system that has served Colombia’s capital since 2000. Through the use of dedicated bus lanes, BRTs provide a frequency of service that rivals subway systems at a fraction of the cost, allowing for a considerably broader range of operation. That dedicated bus lanes reduce the amount of road available to motorists was never a concern for Peñalosa, who cites BRTs as an example of public good prevailing over private interests, and as a manifestation of democracy in action. If all citizens are equal before the law, he asserts, then “a bus with a 100 passengers has a right to 100 times more road space than a car with one.”

If it’s difficult to imagine our incumbent mayor sharing that sentiment, then Peñalosa’s efforts to establish a network of high-quality, protected bicycle paths sadly seem entirely at odds with City Hall’s apparent antipathy towards Toronto’s cyclists. Likewise the efforts of Copenhagen’s municipal authorities, who actively incentivize cycling via some of the world’s most robust cycling infrastructure. Noting that over one-third of Copenhagen’s work force commutes via bicycle, Danish architect Jan Gehl explains: “It keeps people fit, it doesn’t pollute, and it doesn’t take up much space. It’s a really smart way of getting around.” When Hustwit’s subjects express the advantages of cycling and the need to protect cyclists with such simplicity, the deplorable lack of adequate measures to safeguard Toronto’s cyclists is all the more galling.

Naturally, not all of Urbanized‘s segments are likely to resonate as sharply with Torontonians, but like its predecessors, the film is generally intriguing, inspirational, and richly informative without resorting to a stultifying barrage of statistics. And speaking of those predecessors, Hustwit will also be on hand to introduce screenings of Helvectica and Objectified on Saturday, January 14. Delving, respectively, into the worlds of graphic and industrial design, both films invite viewers to perceive their worlds in new ways by revealing the often surprising origins and debates surrounding the objects we take most for granted.

Helvetica offers a concise history of one of the world’s most ubiquitous typefaces, and examines its role in shaping countless corporate identities, from the strictly risk-averse (American Airlines) to the unabashedly risqué (American Apparel). Hustwit surveys both modernists (who generally revere it) and postmodernists (who generally revile it), as well as contemporary designers who delight in the challenge of employing timeless typeface in non-traditional ways. Objectified applies a similarly slick framework to the world of manufactured goods, offering an engaging exploration of the inspirations and techniques of the luminaries who bring those goods into being (including Umbra’s Karim Rashid and Apple design guru Jonathan Ive), and the ways in which they impact our behaviour, methods of interaction, and patterns of consumption and disposal.


  • Peter Smith

    BRT is antithetical to cycling, because buses are monster machines that scare the living daylights out of people. If drivers are scared around buses, why would we expect cyclists to have no problem riding next to them. Also, if we provide 50% of the road space to massive buses, how much is going to be left over for walkers and bikers? Essentially nothing. Just like in Bogota. Bogota and BRT are models of failed urbanism — they should not be emulated by Toronto or any other place on earth.

    The answer will always be clear — walking and biking, in that order, before anymore motorized infrastructure. It’s not profitable to the auto/gas industry, and it enables social and economic mobility, so it will be vigorously opposed by many sectors, but it still needs to be done.

    • Julian Carrington

      If a BRT lane is physically segregated by a barrier or curb (as in Bogotá), then I’m not sure it’s correct to say that BRT is “antithetical” to cycling. Nor does it follow that BRT infrastructure and pedestrian/cycling infrastructure need be constructed along the same routes.

      In any event, this article isn’t necessarily advocating for the specific adoption of BRT as a solution to Toronto’s transit issues. It’s merely striking that Peñalosa is so fervently committed to the democratization of transit, unlike our present incumbent.

    • qviri

      Errrr… what?