CABE’s apparently enlightened opinion that architecture is a force for social good conceals a totalitarian approach to human nature. Luckily, however, it’s wrong

Early 20th-century America felt good about itself, so skyscrapers and functionalist villas became synonymous with success. Post-war Britain’s council tenants were pleased with their spacious, sanitary and architecturally mediocre tower blocks, but by the 1960s and 1970s they were generally low-paid and hard done by. So, unsurprisingly, they looked on their system-built, modernist flats as vertical prisons.

Opinion has again changed, with the speculative appreciation of places like Trellick Tower, and the creative genius of dead architects like Erno Goldfinger. Where once there was unemployment, the promise of telework and loft living has helped many a post-industrial wasteland to be re-imagined and colonised as an attractive “community”.

The buildings are essentially the same, but the people in them were and are on a different trajectory, which is what informs their view of their environment. Regeneration is far less permanent than the refurbishment of buildings and paving.

The unelected CABE doesn’t like this messily democratic subjectivity. It doesn’t accept that behaviour is born out of changing social circumstances and completely beyond the architect’s control. Visit CABE’s website, and read the plethora of publications about “evidence-based” design principles for building types. It is clear that CABE does think that hospitals heal and schools teach, that libraries are “ideas centres”, town halls encourage participation and parks control criminality.

Imagine if the wonderfully awkward fact of human subjectivity did not exist, and it was possible for CABE-minded architects to determine how building users behave. Hospital design could make patients get better quicker, irrespective of what the doctors do. Nurses might be so manipulated by the ward architecture as to put up with low pay, long hours, and key worker housing. Indeed, the social engineering would continue in microflat design.

Libraries could aid learning without anyone going to the inconvenience of study. Teachers would be less important than their classrooms in delivering the national curriculum. A cleverly landscaped park could sustain civility, as might a footpath. The right road layouts would mean that children played in the streets. All in all, if designed by experts versed in the manipulation of human behaviour, entire sections of the city might be vibrant communities and everyone would be a nicer person.

As my colleague James Heartfield observed, when buildings go out burgling people, then it is possible that architects will be able to solve crime

As my colleague James Heartfield observed, when buildings go out burgling people, then it is possible that architects will be able to solve crime.

CABE’s conceit is obviously the self-flattering fantasy of creative types, yet CABE requires architects to believe the deterministic fallacy. They seem to find ready support for that delusion from the RIBA through the Building Futures collaboration.

Of course, architecture moves us to some extent. As the Daniel Libeskind show at the Barbican demonstrates, that fact can be used. But it is what people bring to architecture, and how we choose to behave in it, that is decisive. The redevelopment of Ground Zero in New York will be partly about Libeskind playing with people’s emotions, but mostly it will depend on how people act. As time goes on, the accommodation will be used in ways that can’t be determined by a designer.

If it were otherwise, all sorts of neat behaviour and social outcomes could be designed into the objects that make up the built environment. In a determined world it should be possible for CABE to identify the “evidence-based” principles with which to create a perfect parliament, and thereby design out the potential for British government ministers to undertake, say, a bloody foreign invasion. Of course, no building has such power. Unfortunately the appointees at CABE seem too blinkered by their deterministic design propaganda to investigate what architecture can and cannot do. As Iraqis are expected to behave according to the American military’s idea of peace, building users are expected to behave as the CABE-approved designers have determined. The possibility that they may think for themselves has been officially written off.

Ian Abley is an architect and co-author of Why is Construction So Backward?