July 1, 2008
New and notable DVDs on architecture, culture, and design
CONTESTED STREETS: BREAKING NEW YORK CITY GRIDLOCK
Cicala Filmworks/ Media Collective
Until the early part of the twentieth century, New York’s streets were largely dedicated to foot traffic. No more. As this documentary demonstrates, the rise of the automobile has had serious consequences for the city. (The advocacy group Transportation Alternatives acted as consulting producer.) Though plodding and somewhat pedestrian in structure—Schaefer front-ends the backstory into the first part of the film—Contested Streets does a good job of placing the local streetscape in historical context. A panoply of talking heads (Kenneth Jackson, Mike Wallace, and, in particular, the Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl) expounds on the virtues of pedestrian-centered urbanism, highlighting progressive planning initiatives from London, Paris, and Copenhagen as examples for a new New York.
ASPARAGUS! STALKING THE AMERICAN LIFE
Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly
For three decades, Michigan’s Oceana County has been the so-called Asparagus Capital of the World, and this award-winning “stalk-umentary” captures its love affair with the green vegetable. You’ll follow Mrs. Asparagus, a goodwill ambassador for the “food of kings,” and learn how to dance the Asparagus Stalk, a 1970s disco move. But with the U.S. government sending $60 million a year to Peru to wean that country’s farmers off growing coca, this Midwestern farm community has become a casualty of the war on drugs. It’s another reminder that ill-considered government policy can have negative effects on planning—and just like the familiar odoriferous product of asparagus consumption, this one stinks.
REM KOOLHAAS: A KIND OF ARCHITECT
Markus Heidingsfelder and Min Tesch
What kind of architect is Rem Koolhaas? He exists in a “strange condition,” as he himself likes to say: performing the function of celebrity architect while rising above it with substantive work that actually seems to matter. This German documentary offers plenty of fodder for lovers and haters alike, but an initially playful biographical sketch—postwar Rotterdam, a childhood spent partly in Indonesia, a “totally revolutionary” series of exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, an affinity for the avant-garde Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys—eventually trails off into hagiography. Before it becomes a graphically enhanced version of the tedious slideshows that architects present to other architects, though, the film is worth watching for its archival footage of Koolhaas’s early days as a lifestyle journalist, failed screenwriter, and boyish gadabout.
(Achille Castiglioni, Andrea Branzi, Alessandro Mendini, Richard Sapper,
and Ettore Sottsass)
Museo Alessi/Edizioni Corraini
It’s tricky to talk about these five DVDs as a series, since each takes an entirely different form. Sapper provides the best overview of his work, discussing his beginnings as a designer as well as his approach to the discipline—both methodically rigorous undertakings. Sottsass and Branzi offer something more like a theoretical lecture, given from a sofa in Milan. Sadly, Castiglioni—taped in 2000 and 2001, about a year before his death—gets only 12 minutes (the lovely soft-gray footage of the designer as a young man, examining a few of his lights, is some consolation). Each interview is documented in a lengthy companion book (complete with images from Alessi’s archives), but, given their nature, the DVDs are best regarded as fare for enthusiasts rather than the uninitiated.