One of the best movies I have seen lately would be Play Time, a 1967 classic by French filmmaker Jacques Tati. It shows the mismatch between the modern city, modern architecture and modern society on the one hand, and human behavior on the other. It beautifully captures how people are – contrary to what modernists seem to believe – not completely rational and controllable beings, but that they have the urge to play, to be spontaneous, and to create chaos and disorder. It made me think of what Richard Sennett says about the relationship between urban design and human behavior.
Cities of progress or cities of process?
Play Time shows how architects, managers and others that plan and structure organizations, cities, and society, are constantly battling people’s need to disobey or be creative. The film is set in the 1960s, which was the era of advancement in and where everything had to go along in this progress, including cities, buildings, organizations, and people. But this is not how people instinctively want to live and how social ties, spontaneity and creativity are fostered best.
Play Time starts off relatively boring and slow, which I think is done deliberately by Tati to correspond with the boring and uninspiring modern environment. In this part of the movie, people act in line with the buildings they live and work in and the technologies deployed to make everything go more efficient. People move in straight lines and make ninety-degrees turns. They all look absentminded and now and then have to battle the nature of the buildings, pieces of furniture and technologies that are supposed to make their lives easier and more productive, but turn out to be obstructive rather than beneficial. There is also very little human contact, besides the interaction that is necessary given people’s part in the system.
Time to Play
The second half of the film becomes more surprising and chaotic. That’s also where the people stop acting the way the planners, managers and architects had in mind, and where people refuse to act in an ordered manner: chaos kicks in. The chaos, in the end, cannot be controlled by the people employed to preserve the order (the waiters, the architect, the construction workers, and the police officers), but creates a festive setting in which even the previously grumpy ones start dancing and singing. That’s where the people take back control of their living environment. I would like to see the movie as a homage to the homo ludens (“man the player”), ridiculing and opposing the homo economicus (“man the rational/self-interested”). I think Tati is criticizing a society that is increasingly arranged for production and consumption, basically numbing people and obstructing in their natural behavior.
That ‘numbing’ effect of the built environment on the human psyche is something I have been reading about earlier. In his wonderful book “The Conscience of the Eye” (1992) one of my favorite sociologists, Richard Sennett, explains that the modern man has and uses the capability to remove inconvenient parts of nature in order to create a workable landscape. Because the technological capabilities go hand in hand with the ideology of business enterprise, urban design is shaped in a particular way: highly rationalized and uniform. How come? In capitalist societies, undertaking business means that things have to be commodified in order to create exchange value. In order to be able to commodify and exchange, goods have to be comparable. This also goes for land and buildings, which need to be shaped in a somewhat similar way in order to be comparable and supplementing so that they can be exchanged. An ordered, standardized physical urban pattern is the result of these mechanisms. For capitalists, it is important to divide the land and buildings in such a way, that the balance between the amount of real estate property and value per property is optimized. That is where the mastery over nature comes in, to create a gridded urban pattern in order to create equivalent commodities. So a cynical conclusion here would be that in the end, all that urban space is about, is creating exchange value. Sennett based his theory on 19th century American society and urban planning, particularly the urban grid. It can be seen in all kinds of urban environments in all kinds of capitalist societies. Older (medieval) cities are less influenced by this rational environment, because urban space was less of a ‘tradable good’ back then. I think this reasoning is definitely also applicable to other eras of urban planning that came after the 18th and 19th century, especially modernism. In modernist ideology, the belief was that everything needed to be structuralized, rationalized and efficient in order to, in the end, let the economy flourish.
That’s why I had to think of Sennett’s theory when watching Play Time. An over-rationalized city, society or building, Sennet says, disorients the individuals that live and work in it. They cannot establish anything of real value in an endless, mindless and geometric division of space. Such an urban environment subdues and dominates individuals. At first, this was predominantly two-dimensional, but when the technology of elevators made it possible to create skyscrapers tens of floors high, it added an extra dimension to the abstract urban environment.
Sennett and Tati both in their own way argue that humans should not be confined by rationalized technologies and built environments. And if they are, creativity, joy and social dynamics simply are constrained. I couldn’t agree more.
Jacques Tati’s “Play Time”
Richard Sennett’s “The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities”