Water cannon, curfews, burning buildings, rubber bullets, widespread looting, wanton vandalism, evacuated residents and calls for the army to be deployed. Just five days ago the thought that any of these events would occur or have the potential to occur on the streets of London would have been utterly unthinkable. And yet in the space of just 96 hours London has descended into a terrifying vortex of violence and destruction as it suffers its worst peacetime collapse of public order in modern times.

Even worse, the riots have now spread across the country. The reasons for them are already mired in controversy, recrimination and debate. The results however are far clearer. There has been appalling physical destruction to residential and commercial property across the capital and elsewhere. Residents and shop-owners have been left homeless overnight. London’s public transport network and everyday London life have been gravely disrupted with sporting fixtures such as yesterday’s England friendly cancelled.

And with the IOC yesterday insisting unequivocally that responsibility for security at next year’s Olympics is a “local matter” amid images of a burning London being beamed around the world, there is now a real threat that London 2012 could yet turn into the biggest PR disaster in history.

The role that architecture plays in all of this is of course limited. New business eventually accrued from rebuilding destroyed buildings will have a negligible effect on the construction economy. So far the London riots have claimed two historic landmarks, the Victorian cottages at Croydon’s Reeves Corner (1867) and Tottenham’s Art Deco Union Point (1930), both of which survived the Blitz. But this physical loss of course pales into insignificance when compared to the havoc wreaked on livelihoods and the potential for loss of human life.

But the riots have exposed curious anomalies about the relationship architecture maintains with society – at least in London. Tottenham, where all the trouble began, is in the borough of Haringey, one of the poorest in London. And yet Haringey also contains desirable suburbs of prodigious wealth within a stone’s throw of the initial riot zone, such as Highgate and Muswell Hill. This diverse economic mix, with its endemic rejection of ghettoised segregation (as in Paris’s infamous banlieue) is replicated across the capital and has long been considered one of its great social strengths. 

Tottenham may also be a relatively poor area but its urban fabric is in a far better state than it was when it was last besieged by riots in 1985. Then, the notorious Broadwater Farm Estate where the last riots began was a crumbling cauldron of urban menace and decay. Similarly Tottenham High Road was crippled by municipal neglect.

Today, a massive £33m regeneration programme has transformed Broadwater Farm and ensured that crime rates across the estate have been slashed. The English Heritage HERS programme (Heritage Economic Regeneration Scheme) has restored several of the Victorian shop-fronts and facades along the High Road, building on the success of its earlier work in another deprived London neighbourhood, Forest Gate. The Tottenham Hale Retail Park, scene of an unprecedented and unimpeded seven hour looting rampage on Saturday night, has recently been expanded.

Haringey Council was also in the process of preparing Tottenham’s application for Enterprise Zone status, which would have provided vital tax relief and triggered desperately needed local investment. And Tottenham Football Club finally looked set to abandon their moronic fixation with the Olympic Stadium and commit to redeveloping White Hart Lane, thereby unleashing a massive wave of urban regeneration.

And yet the riots still happened. And with tragic irony, they eradicated overnight much of the progress that had been made since 1985. The message for architects, planners and developers is a chastening one. As Churchill famously intoned, we shape our buildings and then they shape us. But they do not shape us alone.

Of course the original Broadwater Farm itself and the legion of similar dystopian housing estates built in the 1960s are incendiary examples of how bad architecture can foster urban spite. Architects also have a clear social responsibility to improve the built environment and nourish a collective sense of citizenship and community. But London’s riots have savagely exposed the humbling limitations of this covenant, there is only so much architecture, however well intentioned, can do.

What then can be done to prevent the kind carnage we have witnessed over the past few days from ever happening again? The relative calm we mercifully witnessed in London last night, although sadly not elsewhere, is a clear indication that more robust policing, or at least the threat of it, works. Regrettably, had that line been adopted in Tottenham on Saturday night, then the deluge of disorder that followed may well have been averted.

Some, such as our former mayor, have already been quick to try and seize political capital out of the tragedy, impassionedly blaming austerity cuts and unemployment for breeding a nation of disaffected youths. Of course London still harbours intolerable levels of deprivation. But this spurious and superficial analysis fails to explain why London’s worst rioting avoided both Newham (its poorest borough) and the Great Depression.

Countries with economic woes and unemployment levels far greater than our own, such as Portugal, Ireland and Nigeria (to name but three) have also remained, as yet, riot free. Furthermore, it is difficult to envisage how the cited withdrawal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) would spurn an otherwise diligent student into burning down his local Halfords.

London’s strength lies in its tolerance and diversity. It remains an instinctively humanist, inclusive and resilient city, as reflected by its continually evolving architecture and by the hundreds of Peckham, Clapham and Hackney residents turning up with brooms and wheelbarrows to help clear their battered streets. Furthermore, the civic jubilation prompted by the Royal Wedding barely a few months ago remains a far more accurate depiction of the city’s social cohesion than running street battles or burning shops.

But brazen criminality on the scale we have recently witnessed marks a new and disturbing shift in London’s civil order. A line has been crossed and a precedent set. To understand why we must first accept that discipline, morality and responsibility are not determined by cuts, class or consumerism and should not be taught by the government, the police, youth workers, judges, role models, teachers or celebrities. They should be taught at home. And until they are, no amount of good architecture or government spending will diffuse the rage and barbarity that has ripped our cities apart.