Tag Archives: architecture

Review: The Human Scale (documentary, 2013)

This sleek documentary from Danish director Andreas M. Dalsgaard presents a set of well-established views in contemporary urban planning and design: 1) that cities have been planned around motor vehicles, to the detriment of people; 2) that a lack of planning for people impacts on quality of life and disables community; 3) that the current and anticipated future growth of cities worldwide is exacerbating these issues. While based on the work of the influential humanistic architect and urban planner Jan Gehl and the firm he founded, Gehl Architects, the film is not a biography of Gehl. Rather it picks up a series of Gehl’s ideas and methodological innovations, and applies them to the idea of the city today. The film asks: what is the nature of the contemporary city? What ways of living does it promote? What is the city’s potential; what is its future? The film is visually beautiful and slickly edited, but despite my interest in Gehl (and in particular, his development of methods for observing human activity in urban spaces), I did not find it convincing.

Besides Copenhagen, the film’s preferred cities are those with which Gehl Architects has previously engaged; including Siena, Manhattan (but not the East Coast megacity corridor), and Melbourne (but not its extensive suburbs). Christchurch in the post-earthquake reconstruction period is presented as a potential member of this somewhat Eurocentric club, but also as a potential “victim” of powerful business and commercial interests. The film’s dystopia is Dhaka, Bangladesh; which with its massively expanding population, environmental pollution, meteorological catastrophes and extreme poverty is seen to represent the modern city gone viral. This list should offer a few hints as to the film’s perspective on urban development, and its presentation of the desirability or otherwise of particular ways of living.

Promotional poster for The Human Scale (2013)

Promotional poster for The Human Scale (2013)

In highlighting the ways in which the development of modern cities has involved the destruction of traditional urban building patterns and their associated lifestyles and forms of community, such as the hutong lanes in China, the film is surprisingly nostalgic. Here The Human Scale appears to align with a privileged, liberal, left-leaning Western viewpoint that values the historic, aesthetic, and social qualities of the hutongs (and their various counterparts) over the highrise apartment buildings and office towers that replaced them. There is considerable emphasis placed on the alleged alienation and isolation of tower block living—a tenet of belief so well-established, and so likely to be well-received by much of the film’s audience, that it presumably was seen to require little nuance (although changing aspirations of young urban dwellers are briefly proposed at one point). One recalls the laments of sociologists at the destruction of East End row houses in London—while the former slum residents moved en bloc into their new council housing complete with adequate sanitation. The film takes it as read that many of the promises of urban modernity were, at best, never realised; or at worst, were outright lies. That assertion may be true, or partly true, but it is still discomforting to watch a series of “shock” facts about cities presented in such a way as to imply to the viewer that the mass of humanity should be somehow excluded from modernity and its comforts. Population growth in the developing world, combined with the prospect of significant climate change, represents a serious challenge to Western aspirations to a particular standard of living (high-quality, “human scale”), and this is an unacknowledged source of tension in the film.

The idea of the human scale as a guide to development in cities is presented in the film as an implicitly transcendental and universal premise, with culturally-specific examples represented as instances of the Platonic form. For example, in one section of the film, we see footage of Gehl Architects staff on walkabout in Chonqing, a huge municipality of some 30 million people. We are told that the firm has been engaged by the Chinese city authorities in an advisory capacity, yet in following the staff on their walking tour, we discover that the implementation of their suggestions has been actively resisted by some officials. The nature of this filmic “reveal” and its presumed truth—that a progressive intervention has been blocked—works to displace attention from the interesting and important questions of why and how this resistance occurred. Political interests; commercial pressures; cross-cultural tensions; sincere differences of opinion about the validity of the proposed changes—the no doubt complex reality of this scene is unfortunately never explored.

Issues of cultural bias become most pressing in the sequences set in Dhaka. A series of excerpted interviews shows Bangladeshi urban planners and activists openly critiquing the imposition of previous Western urban models as a form of cultural and economic imperialism. Their critique is presented as though it resonates straightforwardly with the film’s key message about the failures of modern urban planning and the need for “human scale” solutions. Yet the total unsuitability of the small-scale, European urban model as a “solution” to the problems of South-East Asian megacities is obvious. We see technology represented for the most part as a source of problems; but what about its potential to offer solutions? When I see images of a city like Dhaka, I want to think about how Gehl’s research on the human scale could be reimagined, to enable different kinds of social engagement independent of economic status. I want to listen to new approaches to reinventing traditional urban forms, as a way to help to promote resilience against natural disasters. I would like to hear proposals for how high-density living, rather than offering a nightmare of social isolation, could actually help to support a low-carbon, sustainable future.


InspiringPlaces#1: Grace Nicholson Building (Pacific Asia Museum), Los Angeles USA

The InspiringPlaces Mini-Project

For the next few weeks, once per week, I’ll be posting a short description of a building or a place that I’ve found intriguing, beautiful, or thought-provoking. One place, one photo, 100 words or less. I’m hoping this small set task will be a discipline that will help get me into the practice of regular writing. I’ll keep doing it until I start repeating myself or feel that the project has run out of steam. OK, so now for the first InspiringPlace (…drum roll…):

Grace Nicholson Building (Pacific Asia Museum)

I discovered the Grace Nicholson Building on a visit to L.A. in 2004. Walking in Pasadena, I was intrigued by its swooping roofline and inviting archway. Begun in 1924 by a local architectural firm, the building stands as a monument to a unique woman, Grace Nicholson (1877-1948), an art dealer and anthropologist who specialised in Native American arts and culture. The design is not kitsch; it is a carefully-researched example of traditional Chinese architecture and a peaceful sanctuary for the arts that is extraordinary in the context of L.A.’s glitz and grit.

Note: there are some atmospheric historic photographs of the building, some from the mid-twentieth century, at the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration.
Entrance to the Grace Nicholson Building, Pasadena
Entrance to the Pacific Asia Museum. Photo by Catherine Howell, 2004.

“flotsamandjetsam”: New exhibition by Alex Selenitsch

"dispersed brown slab" by Alex Selenitsch

A new show of works by Alex Selenitsch opens at Place Gallery in Richmond on 9 May.

Alex is a man of many talents: poet, teacher, architect, artist (in no particular order). Formally, his visual works often appear modernist in inspiration, but they also draw on the artist’s personal recollections and interest in identity and the history of place. Words and their placement are also important.

The title of his latest show, “flotsamandjetsam”, is testament to all this. The show promises mixed media, collage, intense colour harmonies – and perhaps a dash of agent provocateur sensibility.

Looking at Alex’s work, I am often reminded of Paul Klee. Klee also favoured mixed media, and his works on paper are characterised by texture and vibrant colour. “Abstract” forms break up and float free from the confines of the modernist grid. There is a sense of playfulness, a willingness to look differently at things. Alex’s work is very much his own, but I find similar (to me, admirable) qualities there.

Research Scholarship in Learning Environments

Windrush Room, OUCS, University of Oxford

A Masters-level research scholarship is available at the University of Melbourne, to study the role of learning environments in architectural education.

Funding for this post has been secured through the University of Melbourne’s Strategic Research Australian Postgraduate Awards scheme (STRAPAs). This is a prestigious scheme, specifically designed to help foster interdisciplinary research and innovative approaches.

The candidate will conduct interdisciplinary research in Architecture and Education, and will be jointly supervised by staff from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, and the Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

Interested? Please contact me to discuss the project: chowell [at] unimelb dot edu dot au.

Image credit: jisc_infonet on Flickr.com. Some rights reserved.

Reflections on Design Made Trade

Still reeling from the creative diversity at Design Made Trade, a trade fair run as part of the State of Design festival. Held in the gorgeous surrounds of the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton, this event offered a whistle-stop tour of innovations in Victorian design and design thinking. (Not forgetting our Belgian visitors, from the excellent Design:Made:Flanders stand!)

‘Education’ was not really a buzzword at this event, but ‘community engagement’ certainly was – particularly, engagement with environmental themes. And the most iconic material that emerged from this event would have to be, not FSC-certified timber, not some kind of techno-laminate, but plain old cardboard.

The best examples of this meeting of ‘wisdom of the crowd’ and environmental values came perhaps from Makedo. What a great project. It’s all about community and creativity, as much as it is about all things ‘green’. The Makedo concept is very simple – it consists of a set of plastic ‘pins’, that can be used to create assemblages of existing materials. It’s all about doing more with less, and recognising the value of the stuff that surrounds us.

Or if that sounds too worthy, there is always Baking Architecture – a fun collaboration between architects and chefs. This project created some of the best news headlines, and unexpected visual/sensory textures, of any festival event. (Sensibly, the curators enclosed the baked/built creations safely inside plexiglass-style boxes, to foil any inquisitive taste-testings).

Check out some photos of the event from Design Files.