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Saturday, 16 November 2013

Weighed in the scales

This is a rating and review for The Human Scale (2012)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

16 November

This film was screened in a special session on Saturday 16 November 2013 at Aldeburgh Documentary Festival

A rating and review for The Human Scale (2012)

93 = N : 15 / M : 15 / C1 : 15 / C2 : 17 / E : 16 / F : 15

N = narration / script

M = material / use of material

C1 = cinematography

C2 = cohesiveness

E = effects / music

F = feel

9 = mid-point of scale (all scores out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)

According to Aldeburgh Documentary Festival’s leaflet, the writer and director of The Human Scale (2012) is Anders Dalgaard, whereas IMDb's entry calls him Andreas. (I assume that he provided the voiceover in what the leaflet tells me was the English language version.)

This is a film about architect Jan Gehl’s view of cities, how they can be reinvigorated, and what those practising around the world under the Gehl brand bring to projects. Some might disagree (as members of the panel afterwards did - please see below) with what those participating are included saying about, for example, what went wrong with modernist approaches to architecture or the nature of the interventions made, but the documentary is a coherent account, with an excellent soundtrack by Kristian Eidnes Andersen, which struck just the right balance of being perceptible, but not too evident.

The film slows and speeds motion, tracks, and puts the camera in place to give us before-and-after views, but all in a harmonious way that does not interfere with clear presentation of the subject. In China, perhaps some stock footage of a very different picture-quality could have been avoided, before we get on to seeing how cities have developed, but this is a minor criticism.

The film begins with the various speakers just on camera, almost all of them saying nothing, and then they are introduced in their turn, after Gehl has said some words about what matters to him in his practice, as each has something to say. Structured around five utterances, which some of the corresponding sections lead up to and close with, the film takes us all over the globe, giving examples.

It was in Siena that Gehl and his wife began studying the way that people use spaces in cities, because he perceived Italy as being a good place for people to live in, and we are shown the central square in the city, and how the notion of commonality, which they had measures for, works there. In Copenhagen, interventions in the harbour area, which had just become a big car-park, and pedestrianizing the main thoroughfare and the city square, restored people spending time in these places.

In New York, despite the outspoken views of a New York cabbie that no one wanted to cycle, a network of cycle lanes has been installed, Broadway was closed to motor traffic, and Time Square turned into a public space where people could sit and relax : the pedestrians, who made up at least 90% of the traffic there, were no longer being ignored in favour of a small number of motorists.

Likewise, in a project in Melbourne, which the mayor (?) had noticed was dying over the decades, street-life was introduced at ground-floor level by making use of the alleyways between buildings that had just been viewed as functional ancillary space : we heard figures of how two restaurants in such locations had become hundreds. In China, the traditional low-rise dwellings, where shops were a short distance away and people could look out for each other, were contrasted with the tower-blocks of Chongqing.

In one part of the city, one of Gehl’s people had designed improvements to a pedestrian route to make it more pleasing and accessible to all. Although they were made, on a return visit six months later they were found to have been undone… An imponderable is what will happen to the earthquake-damaged centre of Christchurch, when national government took responsibility away from the city council (but at least accepted that buildings would be limited to seven storeys, which people had said that they wanted when a survey was carried out, where another Gehl consultant had been at work), and some remained unconvinced that all buildings in the sealed-off area affected, including the cathedral, needed to be pulled down, although it might be in commercial interests to do so.

The note of pessimism in the film’s final section (and which had been sounded earlier on) was not, however, shared by the members of the succeeding panel discussion. Marc Vlessing hosted it, and although it was largely unrelated to the film, Ricky Burdett, of those on the panel (the others were Roger Graef and Sir Michael Hopkins), made most attempt to comment on it, and was also the most lucid: he thought that the future of the city is more rosy and that environmental concerns can be overcome, and that the human gestures with which the documentary ended were on a different level from the nature of the problems that faces cities (although he clarified, when asked by one questioner, that he had not meant to belittle those things).

All staunchly defended garden cities, saying that no one had intended to create a horrible place in which to live, but, having seen squalor in the Gorbals in Poor Kids, I remain unsure that those who implemented such schemes (which are shown being torn down) do not have something to answer for : the health and sanitation issues that caused parts of Paris to be rebuilt with high-rise buildings may have raised shockingly low mortality rates, but mould, damp and being cut off from things do not, in turn, make for good physical or mental health.

Weakest member of the panel was definitely Sir Michael, who did not seem prepared to answer questions, either from Vlessing or the audience, and started many answers in several different ways before determining what he wanted to say. Asked to handle the question whether architects are artists or providing a service, he eventually said little more than it worked on numerous levels. A question about designing public space he also fudged, and it was for someone else to give examples of buildings that seem to have a space before them, but it does not function and is not inviting.

As to questions (or ideas), some of the ones from Vlessing (who is chief executive and founding director of a private developer of affordable housing) found little favour with his colleagues. Even to me, it seemed fanciful that architects are too tired out by the planning process to fight for public space, and some of his other thoughts about planning were dismissed.

Interesting though it was to hear the panel questioned, one had to be grateful to Burdett for seeking to bring in the film, since, otherwise, it felt as though one thesis was being advanced that the panel was choosing not to engage with – a film about matters maybe new to the audience, and not digesting it (let alone its filmic qualities) before moving on.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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