Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Gehl at NLA

To a packed event at the New London Architecture galleries, where Professor Jan Gehl gives a talk to promote his most recent book Cities for People.

He's a terrifically engaging speaker, his command of English striking just the right balance between communicating well while remaining very Nordic and therefore inherently more plausible than a Brit on the subject of humane, people-centred urban environments. We've heard most of it it all before, but it can't be said often enough, and Gehl is the man who was saying it earlier than most and more clearly and consistently than most.

It became apparent that in spite of successes such as Trafalgar Square and Kensington High Street, London is pretty off the pace when it comes to tarmac-culling, pedestrian and cyclist friendly streetscape improvements such as are now happening even all over Manhattan, as well as in Scandinavia, Australia and elsewhere.

Gehl has reached the level of authority and seniority where he can take the mickey, in a charming manner, out of named as well as generic purveyors of form-obsessed urban soullessness. Those architects' drawings showing new urban environments implausibly overpopulated by people enjoying themselves - activity he describes as 'unspecified public life' - were ruthlessly contrasted with photos of the deserted reality.

He is clear that architects should spend less time obsessing about forms on the skyline and more time worrying about life lived with feet on the ground, but perhaps most striking was the thought that perhaps these two worlds have far less to do with each other than one might assume. The neglect of the public realm in design is not a necessary consequence of attention to other things (except insofar as there are only so many hours in the designer's day) - we ought to be able to have both.

The evening ended with reflections on whether economies such as China and India can learn the lessons sooner than we did, relative to their state of development. The signs are not hopeful. I was reminded of a story of an occasion when London's then Mayor Ken Livingstone visited Beijing with Richard Rogers. On a tour of the streets of the city, they exclaimed 'all these bicycles!' - but the admiring tones were lost in translation, and they were told 'Don't worry, we're meeting our targets for getting them all cars.'

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