For the last half-century, Jan Gehl, Hon. FAIA, the founder and senior adviser at Copenhagen-based urban research and design consulting firm Gehl, and author of the seminal book Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, has championed livable, well-designed cities. One of the winners of this year's Collaborative Achievement Award, he responds here to our architect's version of the Proust questionnaire.
What is your greatest achievement?
What has been accomplished in Copenhagen in terms of making it one of the most livable, people-friendly cities in the world. Our research at the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts has had a noticeable impact on the city planning ever since I/we started this research in 1966.
What is the most memorable moment of your career?
To see my closest collaborator (and old student) Camilla van Deurs becoming the new city architect of Copenhagen in Feb. 2019. (Receiving the key to the city of Sydney in 2017, and being told that it now had valuable contributions from not only one but from two Danish architects, was not a bad moment either.)
What was your most rewarding collaboration?
Most rewarding collaboration have been with the City Architect of Melbourne, Rob Adams; Professor Peter Newman in Perth; and Sydney Mayor Clover Moore. In short, I have worked with all the mayors of cities in Australia and New Zealand (except Canberra, which in my opinion is a lost case like most other instant capitals around the globe).
What is the greatest ambition you have yet to achieve?
To have time to be more proficient with my (jazz band) trombone.
What is your greatest regret?
We did a big study with recommendations for London in 2004 for Mayor Ken Livingstone. Then Mayor Boris Johnson took over! Not much has happened, as opposed to New York and Moscow, where great improvements have occurred.
What, if anything, would you change if you were to write Life Between Buildings today?
This wee book (actually my PhD Thesis from 1971) is still widely available and is still being published in new languages (lately Icelandic, next Arabic). I have over the 48 years changed quite a few of the photos but have strangely found no reasons to change much in the text. Basically this book is about how Homo sapiens use cities, and Homo sapiens have not changed noticeably in this short period of years.
What progress has been made in urban design since you wrote the book?
Actually impressive progress have been made. Especially in the years after 2000 a noticeable change can be seen. The direction of the wind has definitely changed from headwind to tailwind. More and more cities are now doing a great effort to put people foremost in their city planning.
What project best encapsulates your firm’s approach?
All, I hope.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
I hope to be remembered as one of the architects who brought back concern for people to our profession, after the many year of technocratic modernism.
What is the greatest challenge facing architects today?
After the many successful improvements in in historic areas of existing cities, I am increasingly frustrated to see the lack of human quality in the many new town of our time. We had in our office a plan to write a book on "Great New Towns of the 21st Century.” Very quickly we realized that there were only six to seven projects worldwide worth talking about and quickly we abandoned the idea. Using what we know now on humanizing cities in new projects is a major challenge to the architectural professions in all parts of the globe. No more Dubais please.
When did you first realize you wanted to be an architect?
This happened rather be incident during my high school days in the 1950s. There were no architects anywhere near in my upbringing.
What jobs did your parents have?
My father was a lowly government official. My mother looked after the home, as women did in those far away times.
What would you have been if not an architect?
I was too young at that time to think about it.
What keeps you up at night?
Listening to good ol' time New Orleans Jazz.
What is your favorite building?
Sydney Opera House.
What is your most treasured possession?
Three children, seven grandchildren, all living inside bicycle-striking distance in Copenhagen.
What is your greatest fear?
The climate challenge becomes more and more worrying.
Which artists do you most admire?
The expressionistic painters from the Faroe Islands.
What’s the last drawing you did?
Many watercolors over the years, but basically I do the talking, someone else does the walking.
Which five architects, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
Ralph Erskine, Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA, Rob Adams, Toshio Kitahara, Camilla van Deurs.
Which book(s) are you currently reading?
The Globe Seen from Greenland, by Minik Rosing
What does winning the Collaborative Achievement Award mean to you?
This would definitely be another highlight of my professional life. Graduating in 1960, I have been a full-time architect for 59 years, working with students, fellow architects, other professions, colleagues, citizens, and politicians on six continents, as well publishing professional books in more than 40 languages. It has been quite a journey. Deep inside I am quite proud about what have been achieved concerning turning architecture, city planning, cities, and places in a more humanistic direction and it has been teamwork all the way along—a very fortunate and wonderful life. More to come …