The Guru in Urbanism

Jan Gehl was recently named “the last living worldwide renowned guru in urbanism.” His fully-booked lecture at the Amsterdam Public Library on March 15 was part of public series jointly organized by the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture and the Amsterdam Centre for Architecture (ARCAM). His light and matter-of-factly approach, together with the audience’s outbursts of laughter, made for an engaging and entertaining experience. While a scathing critique of modernism no longer raises eyebrows in the architectural world, it is still surprising to hear sacred monsters like Le Corbusier being criticized within the walls of an architectural institution.

lecture Jan Gehl
Photo Credit: Emma Heinhuis (with thanks for publishing to ARCAM and the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture)

“Maybe if I twisted it in a more funny way than the other guy, then I would be more famous, more starchitect than him!”

I first discovered Jan Gehl when I was an architecture student. Exhausted by the endless focus on form proposed by the great architects of our time, I hung onto the figure of Gehl to remind myself that I had not chosen the wrong profession. Together with psychologist Ingrid Mundt, who is also his wife, Gehl developed an approach that integrates architecture, urban planning, sociology, and psychology, emphasizing both research and practice. His approach always resonated with my (wishful) understanding of what architecture should be. This is why watching him holding a water pitcher above his head while mocking architects’ usual obsession with form—“maybe if I twisted it in a more funny way than the other guy, then I would be more famous, more starchitect than him!”—felt priceless to me.

“When in doubt, leave some meters out”

At times, Jan Gehl’s revelations seem to have more to do with popular wisdom than with architecture or urban design theory. This includes his idea that we should build everything at a smaller scale than we think is needed because smaller spaces generate more intense interaction, whereas big empty spaces give people the impression they are missing out on something. “When in doubt, leave some meters out,” he suggests, and then proceeds to explain how the best location for a party of 50 is not a house but a kitchen.

“It’s like Henry Ford is still alive!”

His critical stance towards the technocratic approach of modernists, the inability to work at a human scale, and the inappropriateness of cities designed for cars in today’s society—“It’s like Henry Ford is still alive!”—should not surprise us anymore. The 82-year old architect and urban designer has been lecturing and writing about this since at least 1971, when his first book Life Between Buildings was published in Danish. And yet, after almost half a century, Gehl’s humorous words still sound refreshing. Maybe because we are surrounded by “birdshit architects,” as he affectionately calls them, dropping towers wherever they feel like, and turning places like Dubai into “collections of perfume bottles.”

But Jan Gehl is not an architectural theorist in his ivory tower. Throughout the history of his firm, he was involved with projects in cities all around the globe. The case studies he presented during his lecture, from his hometown Copenhagen to Melbourne, Sidney, Moscow, and New York, illustrate his approach to the city based on decades of observations on how people behave in public spaces. He gathered data about people’s behavior and engaged in an iterative process where research and urban planning support one another.

lecture Jan Gehl
Photo Credit: Emma Heinhuis (with thanks for publishing to ARCAM and the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture)

Attacks on great Modernist masters and a broader criticism of the star system architecture

And if interdisciplinarity is key to understanding how cities affect their inhabitants, I would have liked to hear more from Gehl about the influence of psychologist Ingrid Mundt on her husband’s work. His attacks on great Modernist masters resonate with a broader criticism of the star system architecture has become. Media and academic institutions continue to sustain the myth of the isolated genius instead of reflecting a much more realistic image of architecture and urban design as products of interdisciplinary collaboration. Even if the work of Jan Gehl reveals an innovative and interdisciplinary mindset, the way he is portrayed by the media corroborates the image of a lone guru.

Nevertheless, Gehl’s lessons are of great importance at a time when architects are just beginning to understand that building is not a cookie-cutter solution to every problem. By showing that an intervention on the built environment does not necessarily involve construction to have far-reaching effects on people’s lives, he demonstrates that it is time to stop “bending to Brasilia,” and start better understanding how we can create livable cities for people in the 21st Century.