Idea of the Day: Brasilia Syndrome

28 Nov

Meet Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl. If you have about 30 minutes, he can explain why the parts of a city that look so appealing on the approach from an expressway are often so boring to be in. He calls it the Brasilia Syndrome. If you don’t have that long, it works something like this:

Around 1960, Gehl says, architects and planners began designing streets and developments as compositions of landmark buildings, or with an eye toward how they could best accommodate the movement of cars. Other uses were given little consideration, if any.

Density was moved from horizontal to vertical as free-standing towers replaced smaller buildings  placed close together. Buildings were pushed back from the street. Banks, food courts, dry cleaners and post offices were added inside so that people could go the entire day without ever being in the surrounding neighborhood.

Planning cities “to make cars happy,” as Gehl describes it, resulted in a landscape meant to be viewed at about 40 miles per hour (think of an office park or strip mall – large signs, little detail, buildings seen best from a distance) instead of a pedestrian’s pace of around 3 miles per hour.

In extreme cases this type of planning produced the “helicopter urbanism” of cities planned entirely from the air, like Brasilia, or more recently, Dubai.

To see this effect locally, walk from one end of Atlantic Station to the other, down 14th Street between Piedmont and West Peachtree, or on Peachtree between Piedmont to Lenox Roads. Any of the three make for good skyline photos, but once on the ground, about the only excitement they provide is when you have to guess whether the driver making a left turn is going to wait for you to walk across the intersection or hit the gas to get there before you.

Those areas are largely lacking what Gehl calls “the number one attraction” in any public space: Other people. Not because there are no people around, but because they’re mostly in the cars whizzing by. Not much thought was given to creating places for people to linger and interact, so they don’t.

On the other hand, think of neighborhoods that people like to live in and visit: EAV, Kirkwood, Virginia-Highland, Inman Park, the Decatur Square. They’re no one’s first choice for a music video shoot, but offer a lot of opportunity for pedestrian-paced activity.

More of Gehl’s talks are here in Melbourne and here at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. His book Life Between Buildings is available at the central library – or it will be in about two weeks, when the OO has returned it.


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