Thursday, September 26, 2013

My Log 380: Danish film about modern cities concerned with spaces between buildings, not with ovewhelming issues like over-population

Downtown New York
Downtown New York (Photo credit: sreevishnu)
Adult Education (song)
Adult Education (song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
-->Last night I attended a film about the human condition, called The Human Scale which has been screening all week, followed each night by a presentation about cities by the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre. This is a worthwhile effort at public education which reminds one of the old times, when adult education classes were held across the country by the CBC, and in other countries. I remember attending such classes ---not really classes, more like isolated lectures --- as a youth in New Zealand, and I actually went to a non-degree granting college of adult education for a year in Scotland when I was in my mid-twenties.  I am happy to report that last night’s performance attracted a sellout audience.
The film itself was a Danish production, made by Andreas Dalsgaard, a film-maker who also has a degree in social anthropology, and all of whose films have been exercises in that discipline. He says of this film: “I wanted to create a kaleidescope image and sound scape, where the audience can participate in a sort of meditation on modern life. The urban planners, thinkers and architects in the film make observations, ask questions about our lifestyle, and provide some possible solutions. But most of the answers are left for the audience. Who are we, how do we live, and where are we going as a species? And can we even do a damn thing about it?”
On the basis of the interesting meditation he makes about city life, it seems that although there are many things we can do to influence the direction of our society, in most cases we don’t do many of these things.
This is a subject around whose periphery I have been writing for at least half a century, so last night’s film aroused many echoes in me, many thoughts, relevant and irrelevant.
The film begins with China, where in the last 30 years a massive transformation has taken place: for one thing, the greatest urban migration in history, with hundreds of millions of people moving from the countryside to the newly built cities, a movement accompanied by the lifting out of poverty of 300 million people --- think of that number, more people than in the United States ---  with the promise of another 300 million meeting the same improvement in the next 30 years.
This is astonishing enough in itself, but one has to cringe slightly when confronted with the reality, the sheer overwhlming bulk, vast size of the cities that have been built to accommodate these people.
He asks people who have animated this change why the actual lifestyles of people have not been taken more into account, why these millions have been housed far from their places of work, so they have to be transported back and forth twice a day, why the spaces between buildings have not been better designed. What it brought into my mind was that when I was in China 35 years ago, they did, in fact, have a workable system. In the city where we made a film about a cotton factory, the apartments built to house workers were all built within cycling distance of the factory, and most of the workers cycled to work, or took the local bus. The so-called industial park so beloved of Western world planners did not exist in China at that time: factories, apartments, schools, shops were all intermingled in a way that made sense, especially when considered as a demand on energy. It was energy-efficient, compared with our current methods, in which houses are confined to suburbs, and work-places, especially industrial work-places, are situated at the other side of town.
The sequence on China ends on a Chinese planner reflecting morosely that they have simply copied the Western model, and have made all the mistakes that the Western planners made, without learning anything from them. 
The film moves around the world, picking examples from different cultures of ways that people live, and of successes people have had in adapting their cities and their living spaces to the sort of lives they are actually living, or would wish to live. 
I have to say that almost all the long shots of the modern megalopolis leave one with a vision of vast size, impersonality, and over-crowdedness that is, quite simply, horrrendous.  A great deal of attention is paid to New York, and transformations that have been worked in such iconic places as Time Square --- which, as the film-maker points out, never was a square, but rather an avennue for traffic, always full of taxis. Space has been made there, apparently, for people to walk where cars formerly drove; for people to sit and smell the coffee, as it were, where before they were crowded on to narrow sidewalks, surrounded by noise, hustle and bustle.
When the film-maker considers Bangladesh, it aroused another memory for me. In 1975 at an international  conference held in New Zealand of this same Human Ecology group, I was staggered when someone said that at the turn of the century Bangladesh would have a population of 125 million. Trying to find out how much land would be available for these people, I discovered that the country was about the same size as the South Island of New Zealand, which at that time could not have had a population of more than a million. (That, is, around 50,000 square miles, roughly half the size of England, Scotland and Wales). I worked out that to accommodate the coming population of Bangladesh, every settlement in the South Isand of 1000 or more would have to be expanded to hold a million people. In other words, the coming population explosion in Bangladesh was literally unimaginable. Today, a decade past the turn of the century, Banglaesh has more than 140 million people, who, as this film shows, are living so packed in against each other, and whose resources of food and other products are so limited, as to make life a sort of living hell.
Oddly enough, the film-maker switches from Bangladesh to Christchurch, New Zealand for his next example: the centre of this city, a quiet, thriving, English-style city of 376,000 people, was devastated by a terrible earthquake in 2010. And the film-maker was interested in the steps being taken to, first destroy what was left of the city centre, and then to rebuild it, according to the expressed wishes of the people. Everyone was asked to give his or her opinion, and the planners were confronted with 100,000 opinions of how the people would like the future to proceed.
Every other exercise I have ever encountered before of a similar nature has led experts to believe  that, if given a choice of  how they would like to live, most people --- at least in the western world --- will always opt for the little suburban house with a garden surrounded by a white picket fence. (This has been the desire on which the revolutionary hopes of such visionaries as Moshe Safdie have foundered. He believed he could solve the problem of good housing for the poor by the use of the mechanical inventions that he tried out in Habitat at the 1976 Expo in Montreal: unfortunately, though a wonderful concept, it has turned out to be nothing more than a living design for the wealthy.)
I didn’t get any clear idea of what the planners took out of the expressed wishes of the people in Christchurch, except that in the opinion of deep thinkers on this subject, to destroy what was left of the city centre would remove not only bricks and mortar, but also the memories of the people who had known it, and that this could be regarded as an irrevocable loss. As to how they are going to proceed in Christchurch, after sounding out the residents, I did not get a clear idea. (I ran across something relevant to this choice years ago when I interviewed the wonderful urban planner and architect, Richard Neutra. He was hired to rebuild the road network in Guam after the war, and discovered that everyone remembered what they had known, and wanted it recreated. Unfortunately the island had been flooded with Dodge cars, and the old network was inadequate as a response.)
My overwhelming impression from the film is that these deep urban thinkers are more concerned with humanizing the spaces between buildings than with attacking the root problems that have brought about the increasing anomie of the modern city. Basic to all of them is the problem of over-population, which is not mentioned in the film from beginning to end, not even in the case of Bangladesh. This seemed to me an extraordinary omission.
However, one has to praise the educational effort:  Mr. Dalsgaard does use documentary film for what I think it should be used for: that is, as a tool for social change.
But one last personal note: even the architect around whose innovative ideas the film was built admitted that he does not know his neighbours at all; and I find myself living in an environment that is posited by the film as the worst it could be. I live on the 15th floor of a high-rise apartment building, in a small one-bedroomed apartment, do not know any of the other persons living on my floor or even within my whole building, and have relatively little chance to meet other people in the city.
I like it a lot.
Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments:

Post a Comment