We learn by observing, analysing and acting. The disaster of modernism has been the closing of minds to the rich lessons the past can teach in understanding urban form. This is reflected in several generations of architects who fervently believe that design informed by earlier traditions is ‘mimicry’, ‘mock historical’ or ‘replication’, and without intellectual legitimacy.
This has led to a belief that only a certain type of contemporary architecture, informed by an emphasis on the building as an isolated statement of ‘originality’, is legitimate. It broke a chain of evolution from antiquity to around 1940 where an understanding of the primacy of urban form and place making over individual architecture was well understood by architects.
The pervasiveness of contemporary object oriented architecture establishes a mind set that privileges design statements over habitable urban form, superstructure over street level interfaces, ‘bold’ design statements over expression of habitability.
This approach is consistently reinforced by architecture design schools. Graduates are empowered to believe not only in their capacities as object makers, but with a false sense of entitlement. There is inadequate regard for the fact that cities are places owned by everyone, and demanding that those privileged with influencing the form of those places care deeply about the human experience of those places.
It is into the context of a deskilled profession that Jan Gehl’s book Cities for People must be seen. Gehl must start from a very low base in rebuilding understanding of what makes city spaces work. Concepts that architects of the pre-modern era would have known intuitively or learnt through observation, now have to either be spelt out, or given scientific rationalization.
This context also informs a core concept of the book, a statement of priority: ‘life, space, buildings, in that order’. This concept would have been ridiculous to past architects, and is largely contradicted by topics covered in the book that show the critical role buildings have in framing space and housing life. Clearly, these elements must be considered together in an iterative process, and elsewhere the book acknowledges this. But the statement is still important and true in prioritizing thought processes. For a generation of architects whose statement of priority has been ‘object, justification, photography, award, in that order’ it forces the thinking process to start at life, to start at urban space, to give these priority over singular architecture to create a constructive, rather than destructive, engagement with the city.
The problem for Gehl, however, is not only the low base from which he must start, but his realization that to engage his professional audience, he cannot alienate them. There are ample examples of good, human scale urban form making, and while these are popular with the general public, they carry a lot of baggage for architects.
New Urbanism, for instance, confronts architects by rejecting the idea that reference to earlier design traditions is mimicry. It acknowledges that those traditions embody all of the elements Gehl spells out in his text: vertical proportions, urban spaces at human scale, small modules at street level, detail and delight at the footpath, a rich array of urban types, from street to lane to square to mews, a range or strategies for creating defendable transition zones, such a colonnades, verandahs, bays, loggias and porticos. By adopting vernacular and traditional architecture as a starting point, New Urbanism creates a kind of shorthand for re-establishing the primacy of urban form over object oriented architectural form making. While at times this approach can result in a certain cuteness or twee character, at least the fundamentals are in place.
However Gehl references New Urbanism only once, and then dismissively: the introduction to the book by Richard Rogers, whose work could not be more antithetical to Gehl’s agenda, points up Gehl’s need to remain within the ‘club’, to try to reform from within. This leads to reliance on some rather weak contemporary examples of good urban design, which look very sad next to the images of traditional cities and towns that Gehl also references.
The contrast points up a fact understood by New Urbanists but still not understood by other contemporary architects: it is not enough, for instance, to create an active street edge, that edge has to have a generous and engaging quality. And the reality is that while the work of architects such as Ralph Erskine that Gehl cites approvingly is meritorious for at least trying to break the modernist object oriented mould, the streetscapes created by the constituent architecture are still relatively joyless and bleak.
To create those great urban boundaries, the soft boundaries with thoughtful transition spaces that invite habitation, the variety of detail that invites exploration, the diversity of urban spatial types, requires a design language that has a rich palette to draw from, and this is where Erskine’s work ultimately fails. Shopfronts are mean, there are few cafes spilling out under protective canopies, windows are standard modernist horizontal rectangles, cues to human scale are few, blank walls and grim undercrofts are too common, and there are frequent problems with street edge activation and corner reinforcement.
Gehl’s book remains valuable however. It provides some solid evidence to support the characteristics of good urban form, based on observation of human behaviour in various urban contexts, and these are some of the most useful lessons in the book. It is probably best that Gehl seeks to remain within the ‘club’, clearly a more confrontational approach such as adopted by many New Urbanists and critics such as Prince Charles has not opened the professions eyes to its failings, but rather generated a range of extreme defensive positions that have made constructive dialogue all but impossible. What is needed is bridge building between the need of communities for good urban design and the re-education of architects and designers to both prioritize this in their processes, and learn once again how to do it, and Gehl provides some good starting points.