Experiencing the modern city

Of all the things that have had a persistent tendency to surprise observers, cities have been among the most prolific. Then again, they’d better be for all their social and economic complexity, for their capacity to be the seed of so many perspectives on human development. We shape our cities, which then shape us, and we shape our cities again in return. Even social interactions that we have on the streets, even the decisions we make about whether or not we feel like a walk in the city have to do with how we let our cities communicate with us*.

This is the idea that The Human Scale, a documentary by the Danish filmmaker Andreas Dalsgaard, explores – mostly through a comparative analysis of architectural narratives at play in Chongqing, Copenhagen, New York, Siena and Dhaka, together with the work of the architect Jan Gehl and his colleagues. Its storytelling is patient and sympathetic, and does a good job of providing curated insights into how cities are failing humans today, and how we’re failing the solutions we’re conceiving in response. While it elucidates well the social character that future growth reforms must necessarily imbibe, it also refuses to accommodate the necessity of industrial growth.

What follows are a few thoughts based on notes I managed to take during the screening.


An immersive experience

I watched it at Nextbangalore Gatishil, the name given to a previously open lot on Rhenius Street then repurposed to host small meetings centered on urban studies. As the Nextbangalore website puts it,

The Nextbangalore Gatishil Space is an urban intervention on an unused space in Shantnagar. During nearly three weeks we provide a space to share your visions for Bangalore, to discuss your ideas, and to improve them in workshops, events and meetings. With an additional toolset, we want to explose [sic] a citizens vision for Bangalore.

Jute mats were laid on bare ground to make for seating space. A bunch of short tables occupied the center. The setup was rounded off by makeshift walls made of a plain-woven fabric, stretched on bamboo scaffolding, on which testimonials to Nextbangalore’s work by past attendees were printed. A cloth-roof was suspended more than 15 feet high. Including a seven-foot-high yellow wall facing the road, the Gatishil was only barely disparate.

What this has to do with The Human Scale is that the sound of traffic was a constant background, and made for an immersive watching experience. When Dalsgaard traveled to Chongqing to have Jan Gehl talk about developing countries’ tendency to mimic the West, he pointed his camera at the city’s domineering skyline and traffic-choked highways. Looking up from within the Gatishil, you could see the three flanking apartment buildings, one to a side, and hear the cars passing outside. There were a lot of mosquitoes that hinted at a stagnant pool of water in the vicinity. No stars were visible through a big gap in the roof.

The result was that you didn’t have to go to Chongqing to understand what Gehl was talking about. It was happening around you. Buildings were getting taller for lack of space, making it harder for the people on the highest floors to spontaneously decide to go for a walk outside. Roads were being built to move cars, not pedestrians, with narrow sidewalks, wide lanes and opulent bends demanding longer travel-times for shorter distances. After you finally leave for home from work, you reach after dark and the kids are already late for bed. Live life like this for years on end and you – the city-dweller – learn not to blame the city even as the city-planners get tunnel-vision and forget how walking is different from driving.


Data doesn’t mean quantitative

One of the problems addressed in The Human Scale is our reluctance to develop new kinds of solutions for evolving problems. David Sim, of Gehl Architects, suggests at one point that it’s not about having one vision or a master-plan but about evolving a solution and letting people experience the changes as they’re implemented in stages.

A notable aspect of this philosophy is surveying: about observing whatever it is that people are doing in different places and then installing those settings that will encourage them to do more of what they already do a lot of. As another architect, Lars Gemzøe, put it: if you build more roads, there will be more cars; if you build more parks, there will be more people on picnics. And you built more parks if the people wanted more parks.

Gehl’s approach testifies to the importance of data-taking when architects want to translate populism to designing the perfect ‘social city’. In the beginning of the documentary, he decries the modernism of Le Corbusier and the contrived aspirations it seeded, including encouraging designs to be machine-like, using materials for their appearance rather than mechanical properties, the elimination of lavishness in appearance, and almost always requiring a rectilinear arrangement of surfaces.

Instead, he calls for retaining only one of its tenets – ‘form follows function’ – and retooling the rest to cater not to aesthetic appeal but social necessities. There are two interesting examples to illustrate this. The first is when deciding where to place a sunshade so that it becomes a small meeting-spot on lazy Sunday afternoons, or when building a balcony at the right place so that passersby find a place to sit when they’re looking for places to sit. The second is about building longitudinal highways in oblong cities but then also paving the way for latitudinal walkways crisscrossing the shorter breadths of the city.

Corbusier – and others like him – heralded a school of design that did not account for the people who would use the building. In effect, its practice was more-personal in that it celebrated the architect – his work – and not the consequence of his work, at a time when technological changes such as mass-manufacturing had the personal under threat. On the other hand, the more-personal populism – which aimed at honing social interactions – banked on the less-subjective character of surveying and statistical analysis to eliminate the architect’s aspirations from the designing process.


The question of modernity

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, was the only ‘developing city’ addressed in The Human Scale. And being a developing city, its government’s plan for it was obvious: development. But in pursuing the West as a model for development, the documentary focuses on how the city’s planners were also inadvertently pursuing the West as a model for flaws in urban-planning – but with an important difference. The Occident had urbanized and developed simultaneously; in the Subcontinent, urbanization was more like a rash on an underdeveloped landscape. In this context, Bangladeshi activist Ruhan Shama asks: “What does it mean to be modern?” The question is left unanswered, sadly.

Anyway, David Sim calls the imitative approach taking the ‘helicopter perspective’ – that we’ve been building things because we can without knowing what we really want. The result has been one of large-scale irony. According to Gehl and his supporters, today’s cities have coerced their inhabitants into a life of social austerity, driving even neighbors away from each other. But the cities themselves – for example, the Northeast and Taiheiyō megalopolises – and their corresponding metropolitan areas have started to move into each other’s spaces, not encroaching as much as overlapping. The Northeast Megalopolis in that region of the United States is a great example, with Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington already starting to merge. If anything, such dualisms (notably in the guise of Zipf’s law) have been the character of urban modernism.


*Much like Ernst Mach’s once-provocative idea that local inertial frames are influenced by the large-scale distribution of matter in the universe.