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Updated 10:00 AM October 25, 2004




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Seeing the world through film
(Heather Webber, School Of Art & Design)

In a people-oriented discipline such as urban design, designers must familiarize themselves with the relationships between human activity and urban form. U-M's program in urban design uses the medium of film to enable students to observe and compare these relationships across an international array of cities and cultures—from postwar Vienna in "The Third Man" to the gritty scenes of modern-day Detroit in "8 Mile."

In the program's introductory Urban Design Studio I, students view narrative films set in cities in the United States, South America, Europe, North Africa and Asia. The films depict a diverse range of settings—some with a long tradition of architecture, history and culture, and others that are modern, fast-paced commercial centers. The scenes in the movies often reflect the experiences of the program's students, who come from around the world.

Each film is followed by a discussion. Together, students and the instructor examine the background elements of the film's story and cinematography, and they analyze themes such as space, landscape, skyline and traffic as they relate to the film's plot and character development.

Lessons learned from the films then are applied to studio design projects. Students create project storyboards similar to those made by filmmakers to help visualize their work and use them to clarify design intentions as they portray the projects in an accessible and compelling manner for a broad audience.

Roy Strickland, director of the Master of Urban Design program, began using film while teaching urban design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He introduced the medium to U-M's program three years ago. He explains that it is film's immediacy in relating characters and urban space that set it apart from other media.

Understanding the relationship between human activity and urbanism is imperative for urban designers, yet it is difficult because of its variations across locations and cultures, Strickland says. The use of film in the class marks the program's attempt to deepen students' understanding of the complexity and richness of the tension between urban life and urban form through a global survey of films and cities.

International exposure to urbanism is a challenging classroom task, but film provides a solution, Strickland says.

"Using film enables people to sit in one place and be in Beijing, Hong Kong or Brooklyn," he says. "Through film they can enter both the physical and cultural aspects of place."

Movies include "Good Will Hunting" (Boston), "Do the Right Thing" (Brooklyn), "All the President's Men" (Washington, D.C.), "Vertigo" (San Francisco), "My Beautiful Landrette" (London) and more.

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