David Sim is Creative Director at Gehl Architects and one of the most distinctive figures of the firm. He joined the international urban development company in 2002 and since autumn 2012 has been Partner and Creative Director. In this interview he explains his formula that "must include diversity" and why he likes Lund in Sweden and a bookshop and garden in Tokyo.
1. Please describe the philosophy of Gehl Architects.
Our philosophy at Gehl Architects is centred around people. We seek to understand how built environment affects public life through observation, experience and research, and develop long term, holistic solutions to improve the quality of life in cities over time.
2. What is your contribution and your philosophy since you’ve stepped in as partner in 2012?
Since I became a partner, I have become much more aware of how I work as a part of a team. The key thing is about figuring out the best way to share my knowledge with my colleagues and develop projects together. My particular interest and the focus for much of my work is about how to achieve denser neighbourhoods while maintaining a high quality of life. As part of this, I am writing a book, which focuses on a theory I have about quality of life in cities, and makes suggestions for simple ways to implement this theory in practice. The discussion about designing cities is often centered on urban models to achieve density. There is a lack of focus on what these various models do; that is, what are the affects of the different models on daily life and what types of qualities do they support? My formula for a high quality of life must include diversity. It can be communicated as density + diversity ~ proximity. That is, density combined with diversity increases the likelihood of proximity. Cities have to be designed to accommodate a high quantity of everyday life for people, but more importantly all kinds of people doing many different things in close proximity to each other. Having neighbours who are different from you, as well as a diverse range of opportunities nearby are two of the biggest advantages of living in a city, and are key components for a high quality of life.
3. Gehl Architects is known for its people-first and interdisciplinary approach: please explain based on a project as an example how that works.
Gehl architects are teamplayers and the specific context of every project is vital. Every project is vastly different so we try to seek team members with complimentary skill sets that work to the demands of each particular challenge. I think every project is as much about process as it is about the final product. We spend a lot of time considering how we take team members on a journey. This includes working closely with other professionals, city officials, and even members of the public. A great example of this process is St. Sauveur project that we won as a part of an urban design competition in Lille, France. We competed as the only foreign team, and were selected in the first round from 80 teams, and then later down to us and 3 French teams. Part of our success can be attributed to the strong interdisciplinary team that we built including local architects, local engineers, French landscape architects and local environmental specialists. The client, the development wing of the city, was also a part of the team so we thought it was critical that city officials from the different departments and administrations were included in the process so that the design decisions that we made were in line with the way that the city operates.
4. What are current projects and what are you planning for the future?
Right now Gehl has active projects on all five continents. These vary greatly and include both working with developing existing places as well as creating new places. We have broad range of clients, in the public and private sector as well as NGOs, institutions, and foundations. Some of our current work includes downtown Tokyo, which is going through exciting phase of development leading up to the 2020 Olympic games. We are also working on a development strategy for Borås, a provincial Swedish town which faces the challenge of growing by several thousand new residents. Another particularly exciting challenge is designing a brand new village inside a national park in Scotland - the first time something like this has been attempted. In the future we will be working more and more with the challenges of mobility, densification and climate change.
5. Where is your favourite spot in your hometown and why? Your favourite location abroad?
I live in the small university town of Lund in Sweden, one of my favorite spots is the south facing wall of the cathedral. Here there is a long bench facing a square and whenever the sun is out any time of year it is a great spot to sit, enjoy the weather and watch people. One of my favorite new places abroad is the T–site bookshop and garden in the Daikanyama neighbourhood of Tokyo, Japan. This is a great little cluster of dense and diverse pavilions containing bookshops, restaurants, cafes and speciality stores around a garden. They even have a small park for dogs. It is very refreshing to find a new commercial place which offers so much to the public – to a broad range of people – that invites them to come and spend time in between the buildings for free.