This is a highly readable account of the work of Jan Gehl, one of the world’s most influential urban designers. Seven chapters dissect Gehl’s life revealing the influences that encouraged his people-centred view of architecture, not least that of his psychologist wife Ingrid. Gehl has had a lengthy academic career, written a series of influential books and has increasingly done more advocacy and consultancy work, changing both politicians’ mindsets and their cities, including Melbourne, London, New York and Moscow. Without being overly technical, the book emphasises how ground-breaking his earlier methodological studies of life in public spaces were. The interfaces and connections between people and public space had never before been so closely scrutinised. Published in 2016, the book now appears dated as we are more alarmed by the urgency of climate change, although the environment was never far from Gehl’s mind. It is no coincidence that Copenhagen, where Gehl was instrumental in documenting people’s use of city spaces, is now amongst the first cities to aim for carbon neutrality.
The genesis and scope of the various books by Gehl is revealing. Life Between Buildings (1971), Gehl’s critique of modernism and a handbook for urban design, was well received but for decades not well known beyond a few Northern European countries. It became international with English language editions some 30 years after its first Danish edition, and is now widely translated and the best known of his books.
Illustrations, pictures and plans are included in this book demonstrating the transforming effects of his ideas. The language matches his philosophy of making cities and urban design more accessible to ordinary people. It is clear that he also responded to opportunities as they arose, for instance encouraging Denmark’s response to the early 1970s oil crisis by ending motorway building and promoting car-free Sundays, 50 years ahead of the UK (which looked to North Sea oil and business as usual).
Gehl always wanted to engage people, and he encouraged residents of a modernist housing scheme to remake and humanise their environment by providing a much needed playground, decried by some as ‘an act of vandalism against architecture’. When Gehl retired from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ School of Architecture, many left and joined Gehl Associates, expanding his practice. A child of the 1960s, Gehl embraced people and multi-disciplinary working. He said ‘to be a good architect you had to love people’, surely a good test for all urban designers and built environment professionals.