Jan Gehl is an urban design consultant and a professor of urban design at the school of architecture in Copenhagen, Denmark. He runs his firm and constantly researches and learns about people’s approaches through his books and lectures. In 1960, he graduated with a BA and MA in Architecture from the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. On marrying a psychologist, he encountered inquisitive young psychologists, who, with their questions about why architects never understand human behaviour, nudged him to go in the direction of research. Hence, he got a 5-year grant from his former school to study form and usage of public space. He further published his first book, “ life between spaces” in 1971.
As a young graduate that was so hopeful of creating real-world modernist buildings, which were largely being practiced to accommodate for the sudden growth in the population, Gehl eventually realized that as much as these modernist ideologies account for the problem at hand. The collateral for a modernist world inevitably became the people and the humans that inhabited it. Gehl goes on to talk about how before the world war II, there was a different way of designing, which was by installments, urban planning was not done through an airplane view of the spaces but by walking around the place, figuring out what is the best-suited location for each space based on how the eye perceives it.
Modernist ideas suddenly believe that we are new people, people of changed ideas, changed dimensions even if not quite literally, and that we are evolved to suddenly have large volumes, these skyscraper-like monumental structures. However the modern man was still the same person, architects just took the easy way out of accommodating these people in huge boring buildings that did not relate to a human.
Jan Gehl talks about how before the world war, space was something that was created completely keeping in mind the human body and how it functions, for example, the street is linear, because of how the legs move linearly, and an activity that needs focus is round and closed because of the cone of vision of the eye. He remembers how the world seemed to get caught up with the new inventions of the time, like how mass production and new materials allowed architects to experiment with the type of buildings they built. Similarly, the invention of automobiles also changed things for us.
Suddenly the focus changed on the number of cars the road has, and how to accommodate these moving vehicles, hence came really large scale roads with large signs, and large turns to maneuver in. This confused architects and planners as to what scale takes precedence, again, the human scale took a back seat. We started designing based on how people see while moving through a 60km/hr vehicle but completely forgot about the people that have only 5km/hr.
Gehl stresses the importance of man throughout the talk, he says that we have not only failed to acknowledge and cater to our users well but also failed to understand homo sapien and that they are the primary focus of the world that we live in. furthermore he emphasizes that form, without the interaction and dialogue of a human is merely a sculpture. He states that the preference should always be people, space, and then building. He also gives sufficient examples to prove his point.
The speaker with his wit, and ability to break down large ideas on which one plans a city, breaks it down to such simple concepts, that anyone would understand and makes one question are architects designing for people or themselves. Starting with what is the perfect habitat for a homo sapien, Gehl goes from the pedagogy of modernism to Dubai having barely any human-scale structures, or how buildings that are viewed from an aerial view are not the best way for architects to design, Gehl covers it all.
As an aspiring architect and someone that has a passion for psychology, it has always made me wonder why we don’t study our users, it’s simple right? Similar to how in business, the customer is king. It’s essentially the same in architecture as well, we create forms and spaces for humans to inhabit but somehow we never learn about the psychological aspects of a human, even in our pedagogy, psychology is rarely taught. Jan Gehl’s talk makes one question why? Architects are thinkers, we do try to question social constructs and change perspectives but for one to think outside the box, sometimes you need to know the box well.
Architecture students are not taught about humans, it’s not just about anthropometry or basic knowledge, as Jan Gehl mentions it’s about the connection between mind and body, the interaction between a homo sapien and the built environment, and its evolutionary, it cannot be assumed by just trying to be empathetic. Therefore I urge every design student to watch this talk on how important the human scale is and how the quality of life is not something that can be achieved by playing with form or sticking to structure but by creating experiences, experiences that are tailor-made for the human body, mind, and soul.
- Search, I. (2015). In Search of the Human Scale | Jan Gehl | TEDxKEA. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://youtu.be/Cgw9oHDfJ4k [Accessed 10 Dec. 2020].