Text by Elisavet Skondra
I walked in to the RIBA theatre, in London, late but thankfully Jan Gehl was just starting.
“Jan Gehl (born 17 September 1936) is a Danish architect and urban design consultant based in Copenhagen and whose career has focused on improving the quality of urban life by re-orienting city design towards the pedestrian and cyclist. He is a founding partner of Gehl Architects.”
I loved his approach to Architecture and I wanted to share some of my notes from the talk he gave us.
“Good Architecture isn’t about form, it is about the interaction between form and life. And life is much more difficult to define and that has not been studied very much, on the contrary we get much more obsessed with form.”
He highlighted the fact that we are creating Architecture for people that move 60km/hour with large signs and no details, and not for people moving 5km/hour, which is when people walk.
His wife, a psychologist, when they first met, asked him “Why are you Architects not interested in people?” It was a question that shocked him and changed his view on Architecture forever.
He talked about Jane Jacobs, an American-Canadian writer and activist with primary interest in communities and urban planning and decay. She lived in little Greenwich area and opposed to the high rise development during her time. It was the only area that the development was stopped. Jacobs had said that “if the urban planners were to rule this world, it will be the end of great cities”.
He expressed his disappointment on how the planners have left the ground and are looking at the cities from the distance. He called it the “Brasilia syndrome” where Architecture is great from the plane but from the ground it is “shit”, in fact Jan Gehl labeled this kind of Architecture “bird shit Architecture”. “Architecture dropped in from the sky randomly like bird shit” he said characteristically and the full of the RIBA audience was laughing. Jan talked about the skyscrapers in Dubai and how each building looks like an expensive perfume bottle.
“Whenever the skyline is more interesting than, whatever we get at eye level, there is a reason to be worried” he said and now nobody is laughing at the audience.
He reminded that in 2004 he had been invited to draw a study about London and how we could improve the city. He had issued a study about it and has now return to find that none of the suggestions had been made or any other changes for that matter.
Jan Gehl talked about how there are five things we need to address:
1) Provide more lively spaces so that people can occupy the space.
2) Pay attention to the people scale. Less noisy, less pollution and with spaces with attractions for people to be. He talked about how throughout the years the no 1 attraction will remains to be…other people! Boys watching girls, watching boys.
4) A good public Realm is a crucial factor.
5) Health. He also pointed that even from an economical point of view that half an hour of walk equals 25cents savings in the Public health system. “Invite people to walk and cycle as much as possible in the course of the day” he said.
Jan Gehl talked about Copenhagen and how, 50 years ago, when the pedestrianizing the streets, was proposed, everyone was against the idea. “We are Copenhagen! This would never work! We are different than the Mediterranean!” and yet it did work and now it is the same people that would claim to have the idea. The huge difference in designing was that they gave priority to pedestrians and cyclists and not to cars. That enabled people to participate more in life and society. Unlike in the UK, Copenhagen cyclists have no special gear, they don’t cycle like they are in a sport! On a recent event where politicians and Royals where attending, they all arrived in bicycles. He talked about the issues that Copenhagen has now that the bikes overtake the roads, like the one for parking. We presented us with a slide of an inventive car that is really a parking space for bicycles is now on the streets.
Jan commented on it again with a joke saying “we need to work on the design but the idea works!”The talk went on about Melbourne’s successful story and even New York! How they transformed Broadway from a busy full of cars street to a street with more priority to people.
Jan Gehl concluded his talk by addressing our home city, London.
“Where car is king, with all the unnecessary footwear interruptions, with no pedestrian light, no human right when crossing the streets. A city without seats! With poor and unappealing street furniture.” He also reminded us that we have both the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister that are themselves cyclists and therefore it should be easier!
“You are not a pioneer, you are just lacking behind!” he shouted!
“Make London the best city of the 21st century! Get rid of the compromises of the 20th century! Start by pedestrianizing streets, making certain days only for bikes, like on Sundays. It shouldn’t be business as usual but new business!”
It was one of the most honest talks I have been to.