In August 2006, I was delighted to take up a four month position as a visiting Professor in the Centre for Public Space Research at the Royal Academy of Arts; a centre set up and led by one of the world leaders in urban theory, Jan Gehl. One of the benefits of working in a city, particularly a city such as Copenhagen where 30% of the population cycle to work, is that you get to see the workings of the city up close. What was soon revealed is that Copenhagen is in the process of change. But this change seemed to reflect a loss of confidence in the direction it had championed for the last 40 years; a direction that as late as September 2005 saw it awarded European City of the Year by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Small signs are starting to emerge that are a cause for concern: for example increased car usage is starting to impact on the city’s bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure; new development along the harbour designed as stand alone ‘Architectural objects’ rather than buildings defining quality public space; developments such as the ‘Silos’ that have a six metre solid concrete facade fronting the entrance to a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the harbour; proposals for high rise in the Tivoli Gardens. While all these trends are present in other European cities their appearance in Copenhagen was disturbing.
Copenhagen had always been constructively advised and defended by champions such as Gehl and his team at the Centre for Public Space Research; so what had changed? Why is Copenhagen changing course and joining the shallow strategies of the ‘Edifice Complex’ builders? The current thinking in Europe seems to be that to be ‘Modern’ and save your city you only need to call in a ‘Star’ architect to design an extraordinary building and all your problems will be solved. It worked in Bilbao didn’t it? This thinking was evident at the 2006 Venice Biennale. Here, the curator exhibited a highly intelligent exhibition on 16 world cities, while next door contrasted schemes by Renzo Piano and Norman Foster for Milan. These schemes look back to built form solutions that demonstrably failed in the 1960s.
A legacy squandered?
While in Copenhagen I was sadly reminded of this when in the last months of 2006 the Royal Academy, following the retirement of Gehl, systematically muted the Centre for Public Space Research. The Centre was originally made possible only by the tenacity and efforts of Gehl and his team who developed the idea and sought and received independent funding for public space research. It would appear that, as with the earlier urban design course, the centre was begrudgingly tolerated but never given an internal value to match its international regard.
Within two months of Gehl’s departure the future of the entire team at the centre was at risk. Staff contract extensions were threatened and the research program previously agreed between the Academy and the funding Foundation was compromised. This left the team with no option but to resign. Future funding for the centre was withdrawn by the Foundation, effectively closing down the centre in all but name.
The Academy, like the city, did not appreciate the global influence that the Gehlian philosophy has played in assisting Copenhagen’s reputation as a progressive city. Add to this the influence this philosophy has had in assisting other cities such as Melbourne, and it is not hard to see how their passing is perceived internationally as a ‘loss in the family.’ It would seem that both the Academy and the City place greater value on big ‘A’ architecture than on the incremental workmanlike toil of creating a quality public realm.
What gives this loss such resonance is that in a world awakening in 2007 to the issues of global warming, all the remedies for achieving the sustainability of our cities can be found in the principles espoused by Gehl, Jane Jacobs and others. The one-off high-rise solutions currently being touted as ‘Modern’ would have been so at the end of the 19th century. In the 21st century the term modernity will more correctly be applied to those cities that achieve zero emissions and provide liveable environments for their citizens.
While this sounds like an impossible dream, it is in fact closer than we realise. Cities that are compact and diverse, with easy accessibility and which have the capability of using natural energy, will emerge as front runners in the next few decades. Barcelona, Copenhagen, Paris and many others were well on the way to achieving this, but seem to have been distracted by so called quick fix solutions. Commercial towers, like fast food, have replaced the staple diet of common sense city building and despite the fact that over 85% of the population of cities like Copenhagen rejected them as an appropriate response; they are still under serious consideration as a solution. We can only hope that Danish common sense prevails. The time has come to support the tried and tested approaches put forward by Gehl and others rather than the unsustainable glory projects of the ‘Edifice Complex’. Our cities and universities need to rethink their priorities and support real long term solutions rather than short term fixes.