Jan Gehl: «Architects know very little about people»

Jan Gehl on his passion and mission for liable and human scale cities

He likes high-rises only from far away, he thinks cars should be banned from city-centers and he wants the public space to be the «living room of a city»: The danish urban planner Jan Gehl visited Basel on an official mission. By Matthias Oppliger  in Tages Woche

Basile Bornand: Jan Gehl: «Traffic is like water, it goes where it can. And when it can’t go somewhere, it stops.»

As adress of welcome Jan Gehl hands a business card. Printed on its back is a photography. It shows the typical yellow-red tram from Baselland. «This should be in Switzerland.» Gehl gathered the various pictures on his business cards during numerous travels.

Despite his hometown Copenhagen being one of the most liveable places of the world, the danish architect Jan Gehl gets about a lot. With his company «Gehl Architects» he helps cities around the world to build «cities for people». A few days ago, he visited Basel on invitation from the local planning department. We met him outside the «Gundeldingerfeld», where he held a well attended public lecture about sustainable cities the day before.

Jan Gehl, how many steps did you walk so far today?

I know that precisely (he fumbles for something and brings out a little red device). This is called a pedometer and it was given to me by the mayor of Kaliningrad. It says I walked 5000 steps so far, but actually it should be more. So I have to walk another 5000 steps today. You get seven more years to live, when you walk 10’000 steps a day.

Where have you been?

I have been walking around with these crazy people here all over this neighbourhood (Gundeldingen).

I’ve read somewhere that you like to stroll around a city and that you always bring your little camera along. What pictures do you take?

People mostly. People using public spaces. And I’m also interested in good solutions to planning problems. Or, of course, in silly solutions. I use this pictures in my presentations as I did yesterday. Or in my books. I’ve done this on five continents for fifty years. So I’ve got a lot of pictures by now. Pictures of people are always interesting. You can go on for hours looking at them, but by looking at pictures of houses or motorcars you will get bored pretty soon.

Did you take a picture in Basel too?

I haven’t had time to take many, because we worked a lot during my stay.

«The mutual love affair between people and their cars has waned.»

But did you take one? What drew your interest walking through the streets of Basel?

The first picture I took was of the little ferryboat on the Rhine, which was not propelled by anything but the sun and the streaming river. It’s genius. And I also took one of the Münsterplatz. I like it, it is a fine example of a good old city square. Its dimensions are within the human scale. You can still see the people standing at the far end. Modern squares are often built outside the human scale and therefore you lose sense of its dimension.

Just a few years ago, this exact square was regularly used as parking space. Now we have somehow managed to get rid of them.

This is a general pattern all over the world. The mutual love affair between people and their cars has waned. People start to think there might be other qualities in cities than just making space for cars.

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