With this companion film to his 1980 book of the same name, sociologist William H. Whyte makes viewers think about everyday things that often go unnoticed. Plazas, benches, ledges, hedges, fountains, sidewalks, stairs, and so forth. It sounds boring. Even typing that sentence was boring. But this documentary, produced by the Municipal Art Society of New York, is fascinating, funny, insightful, and even infectious. An expert “people watcher,” Whyte observes how strangers enjoy or avoid certain public spaces, starting with Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York. He then highlights trends in order to help urban planners, designers, and architects build more hospitable public spaces.
Some of Whyte’s findings are obvious, while others are real eye-openers. What’s most surprising is how many sleek modern buildings were seemingly conceptualized without people in mind. A plaza with ample space is nice, but what about ample seating or some shade? This isn’t hard science, but Whyte’s key points are measurable and repeatable, and his simple, direct, observational cinema is hard to resist. After all, why have public space if the public has no use for it? Also, does anyone else think Whyte sounds a bit like Jimmy Stewart? (Who did some people watching of his own in a little film called Rear Window.)