Jan Gehl: The Modern Movement Put an End to the Human Scale

On Thursday 29 of June, Jan Gehl the Danish architect and urban planner, spoke at the Conference “Thinking urban: cities for people” organised by UN-Habitat and the Official Architects College of Madrid (COAM as it is abbreviated in Spanish) about the urban transformations that have occurred in Copenhagen as a result of the errors of the modernist movement and the challenges facing the cities in the 21st century.

In a prior discussion with José María Ezquiaga (dean of COAM), and José Manuel Calvo (councilor of the Sustainable Development Area at the Madrid city council) at the Conference, Gehl highlighted the urban paradigm at the time of his student years, which is referred to as the Brasilia syndrome. 

When I was a student, Brasilia was considered the ideal city. It was fantastic from a plane, designed in the shape of a big eagle, with the head being the parliament building. It was beautiful! Especially if you travel in helicopter you can see the government buildings designed by Niemeyer, you can see huge blocks. In helicopter it’s great, but down below where the people live, Brasilia is shit.

Not everybody could afford to ride in helicopter in order to be able enjoy Brasilia. When I was there, I had a broken leg and it wasn’t very friendly. There were no trees, no shade, it wasn’t very nice. 

According to Gehl, the Brasilia syndrome is a reflection of the main flaws of the modernist movement:

My conclusion about those years is that the modern movement put an end to the concern of people in cities. Instead, it was concerned with the modern man, where form followed function. The modern movement also put an end to the human scale, where suddenly instead of making places, we decided to make individual buildings and then the buildings got bigger and bigger. We used to make places, now we make places with the space that is left over in between buildings and the notion of human scale is closer to disappearing in its entirety. In reality I would say that the architects and planners of the modern movement were completely confused with what was a good scale. 

See Jan Gehl’s complete presentation and the prior discussion in the video above.

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