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Jaywalking The Canals in Venice

Jan Gehl, champion of the pedestrian and the human scale in urban planning, is celebrated by an exhibition in Venice

While the architects in the Giardini and Arsenale offer their interpretation of Chipperfield’s theme for this year’s Venice Biennale, a show on Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore explores the principles of an architect whose life’s work is dedicated to challenging the stealthy reduction of people to bit players in urban space. Life between BuildingsGehl Architects is an articulation of the vision of Jan Gehl, the Copenhagen architect and forefather to a generation of architects interested in the life of cities beyond buildings themselves.

Presented by Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, a 270-degree spatial installation − 12 metres in diameter − offers a succession of small narratives of images, film and sound; about the city as a meeting place, the establishment of green oases, easy opportunities for mobility, and new ways of creating atmospheric, living, playful places.

The installation provides a taster for its companion, The Human Scale, a feature-length documentary that premiered in Venice during the Vernissage. This independent film presents the work of Gehl’s eponymous practice through the efforts of several of the cities the practice has influenced. Its director, Andreas Dalsgaard, a Danish filmmaker and anthropologist, assembled his story after a two-month immersion in the architects’ office, gathering facts and an understanding of how they work.

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Gehl’s 270 degree installation

My own first encounter with Jan was over 10 years ago when, with Transport for London, we commissioned him to cast his forensic eye over central London’s streets, observing, enumerating and critiquing conditions and people’s behaviour in the space left after we’d taken good care of vehicles. ‘I’m looking at London with fresh eyes and I don’t like what I see,’ he scolded.

Gehl has studied human behaviour in cities in this way for four decades, blending detailed observation with statistics, creating a picture of what is present, as well as absent, and what that tells us about a place.

He niggles away at the status quo, asking different questions. ‘Why are your traffic engineers legal graffiti artists?’ he once asked me during a drive around London, gesturing to the sheer amount of paint on our roads. The documentary picks up on this approach, challenging our assumptions about modernity, and exploring what happens when we put people at the centre of our equations.

Dalsgaard chose his cities to reveal the extent of the problem, as well as the potential for change. ‘America is the country of the car, so it was important to show what New York has achieved,’ he explained. He also wanted to consider the issues facing second and third world cities.

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An Alternative Times Square

New York features Times Square, where until recently 356,000 people walked through daily, equating to 4.5 times as many people as vehicles, yet only 11 per cent of the space was allocated for pedestrians.

Tim Tompkins, President of Times Square Alliance, had long campaigned to act to reduce the resulting ‘pedlock’, supported by Transportation Alternatives, the creative campaigners for a walking and cycling-friendly New York. But getting the city’s attention was tough, until Mayor Bloomberg’s vision of a ‘greater greener New York’ put quality of life − and good public space − centre-stage in his policy making. Enter Janette Sadik Khan − Bloomberg’s no-nonsense Transportation Commissioner − who heeded Gehl’s advice to remove traffic from key sections of Broadway, pedestrianising the strip of Broadway that forms Times Square’s ‘Bow Tie’. Now people sit, meet, daydream and enjoy performances and art installations in this heart of Manhattan.

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Jan Gehl ‘s Film featuring images of Dhaka

At a totally different end of the spectrum, we visit Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. Here, the NGO ‘Work for a Better Bangladesh’ is inspired by Gehl in its struggle to keep authorities focused on creating sustainable solutions for all people, not just those who can afford a car. We see how, in an effort to reduce vehicle congestion − primarily due to chaotic, unregulated parking − the government has banned rickshaws. At a stroke this has condemned 600,000 rickshaw drivers to poverty, and left millions of people without adequate transport.

Elsewhere the film tells of change, or the struggle for change, in Chongqing, Melbourne and post-earthquake Christchurch, interwoven by supporting statistics and images of Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Beijing, Shanghai and Siena − where Gehl’s people-focused journey first started.

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Jan Gehl has spent his career attempting to carve out more room for the human from the toxic congestion of urban spaces

Threaded throughout the film is the importance of leadership in achieving change. From the courageous young Bangladeshi woman fighting huge odds in Dhaka, to risk-taker Janette Sadik Khan, we see examples of, and the need for, good leadership in our cities. Strong civic leaders, prepared to take risks and a long view, have been essential to sustained success in Gehl’s efforts.

But leadership alone is not enough, according to Dalsgaard. ‘Yes, we need good leadership. And tools. Leadership is about one unique person that you can’t copy.’ But by providing tools and ideas on how to think differently, ‘We can allow people to break the mould.’

For most architects, thinking differently is the relatively easy part. Implementing this vision isn’t so easy. This exhibition, but more importantly, the documentary is both a rallying call and an inspiration.

Life between buildings – Gehl Architects

Venue: Fondazione Giorgio Cini

City: Venice

Dates: Until 25 November 2012

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