Architect Jan Gehl is best known for his people-centric approach to cities, which is now copied worldwide. He talks to Madeleine Bailey about why he has no plans to retire, his greatest inspirations and the benefits of ageing.
You’re 78 and still working – that’s 13 years longer than the average Danish man. What do you love so much about your job?
Architecture can give people a better quality of life. For the past 50 years, I’ve been researching how buildings and public spaces can influence human behaviour and improve lives. For instance, with high-rise buildings, flat lawns and wide, open spaces, people tend to stay indoors and drive everywhere, resulting in congestion, pollution and isolation. But replace them with low-rise buildings, cycle lanes and pedestrianised areas and people will spend more time out and about, enjoying public spaces. They will walk and cycle, which is good for their health as well as the environment. It also makes cities safer because there are always plenty of people everywhere.
However, it’s mainly over the past 10 years that these ideas have gathered momentum. My books are now out in 35 different languages – the latest are Mongolian and Malaysian. It’s immensely satisfying and gives me enormous joy to see that my work is now being recognised all over the world. As a result of this, I feel that I’m making a useful contribution, which is motivating.
So you’re not planning on stopping any time soon?
As long as the going is good, I will carry on working. But I’ve scaled down my workload. It’s a great day if they see me in the office before 10.30am and sometimes I work from home. But the main difference is that now I just do the work that I’m passionate about.
Do you think that working into the 70s will become the norm as Western societies continue to age?
Older people are already contributing so much more than in previous generations, thanks to increased longevity, better health and more opportunities. There’s been a huge change in attitudes to older people during my lifetime and this will continue – societies will need agile older people in the workforce because there won’t be enough younger people.
It will become easier for older people to work part-time and I think that the retirement age will become flexible. You don’t necessarily have to continue in the same job either – you could find another that’s more appropriate.
It’s good for self-esteem to feel that you’re making a useful contribution and that you’re still needed, and it also keeps your mind alert and gives you a purpose.
Do you think age is generally undervalued?
There’s been a positive change in recent years in the way that both middle-aged and older people think of themselves, as well as the way others think of them. When I look at old pictures of my grandpa and other relatives taken in the 1910s, they looked and dressed old and had walking sticks, even though they were probably only in their 50s or 60s. Health has improved, so people tend to be more agile, and there’s also been a liberation in clothing and leisure.
Do you make a conscious effort to stay fit?
It’s the years of good-quality life that matter, not the total years. No one wants to live a long time with a poor quality of life. So yes, I do try to stay as fit and active as possible.
What physical activities do you do?
Copenhagen is designed in a way that encourages healthy living – walking and cycling rather than sitting in traffic, inhaling fumes.
I walk as much as I can. I cycle but only locally as I prefer to avoid the congested cycle lanes in the centre of Copenhagen. Cycling here is now so popular that congestion with bikes, rather than cars, is a problem! I also play friendly tennis games at my local club.
What do you do when you’re not working or exercising?
I play the trombone and am in a jazz band. We perform in public but just for fun. It’s traditional, old-fashioned jazz music – Louis Armstrong, Chris Barber, that sort of thing.
I also have a lot of friends who live nearby. My wife, Ingrid, and I have lived in the same place for 50 years and our three children and seven grandchildren also live nearby, along with other extended family.
We have a regular dinner club with about five or six local families who take it in turns to cook. It’s good to have a close social network as you get older.
How does the reality of ageing compare with your past expectations?
I probably didn’t think about it too much when I was younger. What happens is that things tick along and you feel much the same at 65, for instance, as you did at 35. You’re on a plateau and feel as though things will always go on in the same way but then something happens that reminds you that nothing in life is constant.
In our case, Ingrid suffered a blood clot on the brain three years ago, which meant that we had to make a few lifestyle changes. But when the going is good, age is far away even if the years are mounting up.
What’s the most positive thing about ageing?
It’s the enormous experience you gain. By a certain age, you’ve seen and heard most things and you know how to tackle situations and can help younger people to do so. We are the bearers of history, we can remember life over eight decades, including events such as the second world war. That gives us a much wider perspective than younger people.
Looking back on your life, is there anything you would do differently?
Sometimes I think I may have spent too much time in academia. I spent 40 years doing research and only began my private practice aged 63. I wish I’d started this earlier. However, I still enjoy research and find it very satisfying.
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?
My mother had an insatiable curiosity. She didn’t have a further education yet she took such an interest in everything and everyone. She knew the names of stars, flowers and birds, as well as lots about history. One of my daughters is a cancer research doctor. She believes that we’re both doing the jobs we do as a result of my mother’s curiosity.
And what would you say is your biggest achievement?
Having children. It’s been a great privilege to see them grow up and in turn be supported by them in various ways. Also, the partnership I have with my wife is so important to me. Family, friendships and people are what matter most.