Two weeks ago, Ian Abley wrote a column accusing CABE of trying to use architecture to control human behaviour. Here, the commission’s chief executive responds
The year: 1983. The place: a system-built tower block in Canning Town. The crime: a machete attack. The victim: a close relative. The cause: rainwater had penetrated two floors through a badly designed and built structure, and had led to the misperception that a bath had overflowed.
The year: 1971. The place: Park Hill and Hyde Park council estates in Sheffield. The problem: only 4% of residents remember that deck access makes it possible to stand and talk to neighbours. Seventy per cent complain about the appearance of the buildings. The designers’ response is to build in taller blocks so “the vertical treatment will contrast with the horizontality of Park Hill to complete the visual composition on the hillside”. This does not achieve the goal of providing humane, civilised places and homes, but we’re working to turn this around.
Can we blame the Canning Town block for containing a madman with a machete? Obviously not. Can we blame its designers and builders for creating the flashpoint that triggered his aggression? I think there is a case to answer.
If Sheffield shows that the new tenants were not universally happy with their “spacious, sanitary homes”, it also demonstrates that architectural determinism as a unique actuator of behaviour doesn’t work. If you couldn’t remember that the architects told you it was all hands on the deck to form a community, you weren’t going to work it out from the design cues they thought you should follow. Maybe listening to the people who lived there would have told the architects this.
Which brings us to CABE. CABE believes in learning. Learning from the past, learning from those with good new ideas, learning from professionals and academics and people who live in towns and cities. CABE does not, of course, believe that bad teachers in a well-designed school would produce good educational results, nor do we believe that well-designed homes and public spaces will turn bad people into good people. What we think – and there is evidence to support this view – is that quality of environment can contribute to better outcomes. That people’s lives are enriched by good design and that it creates pride in place, which contributes to civilising our towns and cities. Elected politicians think so too, which is why we are enjoying so much investment in schools, hospitals and homes.
Unaccountable critics who say CABE is unelected ignore the fact that we are answerable to an elected government
Unaccountable critics who say that CABE is unelected ignore the fact that we are answerable to an elected government that expects us to help improve the quality of the environment. Why is this democratic leadership and accountability important to us? People make and modify their habitats socially. We learn how to do this by a combination of experience and creative imagination. What we build and how people behave in what we build are bound together by this process. In our culture, we mediate this social act of creation through the market, through professional creativity and, vitally, through our democracy. Good design and strong communities thrive where business leaders, communities, professionals and politicians have the skills and vision to demand it. Perhaps it is no surprise that these are also often the people who know how to build and sustain strong communities and public services. Designers cannot stand back from their responsibility for the outcomes of these complicated engagements any more than CABE can.
In doing so we must continue to learn from experience and exercise imagination intelligently. We can be objective about those things that can be observed and measured and we can learn from failures and successes. CABE believes this is a valuable and useful conversation, which should help to moderate the balance between behaviour and built form. But we also understand that there are no metrics for beauty, inspiration or delight. Make no mistake: we take great satisfaction in encouraging design that acknowledges the unpredictable nature of human behaviour. It’s what makes cities so compulsive, and urban planning and design so fascinating.
Richard Simmons is chief executive of CABE