Saturday, September 20, 2014

Out with modernists and motorists, in with walkers and bikers

The other night at the Toldi Mozi (September 17), I had the privilege to hear a presentation by Jan Gehl, the Danish architect and leading light behind the livable-cities movement and the worldwide utility cycling explosion. He was in town for the recent publication of the Hungarian edition of his book, Cities for People (Hungarian title is Élhető városok which translates as “Livable Cities”. Parenthetical within parenthetical: Why is it that Hungarian translators take such liberties with titles??). At the start of his talk, Gehl told the 200 or so of us in the cinema’s big auditorium that he’d prepared a 1.5 hour Powerpoint lecture. However, he said he’d forego that because he’d given the same talk last September to what was probably the same crowd. Even though I’d missed his last appearance, I was very happy to skip the ppt and enjoy a free-wheeling Q and A with two Hungarian moderators (editors who’d worked on the Hungarian edition of the book).

At the outset, Gehl noted that this was his second big book on the subject of people-friendly urban design. The first was Life Between Buildings, published in 1971 and a touchstone text in contemporary urban planning. The most frequent question Gehl gets about Cities for People is, What’s the difference between the new book and the old one? “The answer,” Gehl said, “is 40 years.” That is, 40 years of not just research but actual implementation of his ideas in cities the world over, from New York to London to Shanghai.

"We wanted to go someplace where we could watch people. We didn't think we could do that in Denmark." -- Jan Gehl, on his early research trip to Venice

Cities for People is now out in 25 languages, which gratifies Gehl. “It’s so wonderful that this book is available all over the world in all these funny languages.” Gehl paused for a beat, as the crowd had a self-deprecating chuckle. Then he interjected: “I’m not talking about Hungarian. I’m talking about French!” This elicited a bigger, gleeful burst of laughter.

Gehl’s first book, despite its huge influence in many corners of the world, was not published in French until recently. And Gehl noted with some disparagement that the new French edition of Cities for People was published not in Paris but in Quebec. His fans in France have to import the book from Canada. “The French think of themselves as culturally self-sufficient,” Gehl said, over the crowd’s continued laughter.

With the book plug done, Gehl retold his famous personal origin myth: how as a university student, he was indoctrinated in the modernist school of architecture, which instructed that students should forget about designing cities and focus instead on buildings. Make things that look grand from a distance, don’t worry so much about the details. Gehl’s perspective changed dramatically after he finished school and married a psychologist. Gehl said his wife told him, “You learn so much about form and aesthetics and you know this much about people!” Gehl held up his hand, showing a quarter-inch between thumb and forefinger.

Another important influence in his early professional life was Jane Jacobs, writer of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Gehl described her as the “great grandmother” of people-friendly city design. “She said if you let modernists and motorists have their way, the great American city will be dead,” Gehl said.

It’s not a coincidence that the two most influential people during Gehl’s formative years as an urban design thinker were women. These days, Gehl presides over the prestigious firm Gehl Architects, with a stable of more than 50 consultants, many of them architects, but also including anthropologists and maybe even psychologists (Gehl admitted he wasn't sure if he had psychologist on staff -- but he said he worked with a multi-disciplinary group of people, which he says is important in his line of work). “You should come to my office in Copenhagen some time,” he joked to his young male interviewers. “Nothing but young women as far as the eye can see.” Gehl was being playful, but there’s a professional reason behind the feminine tilt, he said. “The girls in architecture school are interested in improving society, while the boys are more interested in building big steel towers.” 

Gehl said the best contemporary examples of cities designed for people are the Medieval centres of many European cities. His favourite is Venice, where he performed some of his seminal research on human behavior in cities many years ago during a six-month stay with his wife. “We wanted to go somewhere where we could watch people,” Gehl said. “We didn’t think we could do that in Denmark.” Another good laugh line -- even though Danish cities are no longer so devoid of people -- thanks in no small measure to Gehl's influence.

“Venice is a people city, designed for people, and it still works that way,” Gehl said. “Around every corner, you meet a friend and, of course, you have to talk a little. There are conversations going on all around you.”

The favelas of Sao Paulo, Brazil, are also examples of people places – in contrast to the urban centre of Sao Paolo. “The favelas were designed for people,” Gehl said.

My next post will cover the rest of Jan Gehl's September 17th talk at the Toldi Mozi.


Daniel Nashaat said...

"His favourite is Venice, where he performed some of his seminal research on human behavior in cities many years ago during a six-month stay with his wife."

Nice work if you can get it!

Greg Spencer said...

Yeah, Kristin likes to gloat about the class field trip she took to Venice when she was studying art history at CEU. By contrast, the students in the Enviro Sciences and Politics course have always done their class trip to the Budapest solid waste processing facility out by Budaors.

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