The reaction to the demise of Cabe in last week’s comprehensive spending review has proved that the design watchdog has the potential to be as divisive in death as it was in life. Many have celebrated the abolition of what was frequently seen as an arrogant, impotent Old Boys Cabal that sacrificed impartiality in favour of nepotism and bias. Others have lamented its passing and predicted that the absence of a design regulator will lead to the proliferation of poor architecture and insensitive design. As with most obituaries, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Cabe accomplished many things. It undoubtedly raised the profile of high quality design and forced many architects to consider criteria that may otherwise have been ignored. Its enabling programme often provided a valuable resource of design expertise. And perhaps most significantly, its obsession with the public realm, though irritating to many architects, was founded on the righteous belief that the key to unlocking the potential of our built environment lies not just in buildings but in the spaces that surround them.
But history will not measure Cabe’s success against its edicts but its actions. And as its core aim was to raise design standards nationally it must ultimately be judged a failure. Why? For three main reasons. First, despite strenuous appearances to the contrary it had absolutely no power. Unshackled by statutory obligation, architects tended to treat Cabe with a mixture of indifference and resentment, like parishioners who would listen dutifully to Sunday sermons then spend the remainder of the week gambling and fornicating.
Secondly, Cabe eventually became obsessed with itself and its core group of sycophants, acting as a self-appointed architectural politburo determined to impose its totalitarian Establishment aesthetic on the unenlightened masses. Any organisation set up to police another is bound to make enemies. But Cabe’s unique ability to hijack design as a tool to enforce all manner of prejudices from style to tall buildings, destroyed their objectivity, alienated many and reeked of cronyism.
But perhaps the most damaging indictment of Cabe wasn’t even really its fault. And that is the fact it was always a poor substitute for what we really need – a planning system that works. If our planning system had the skill and inclination to consistently demand and realise design quality, then we would not need Cabe or any of its inevitable successors to commoditise it as a separate entity. Cabe was ultimately corrupted by the illusion of power. But it was the illusion of acceptability that Cabe lent to the planning system that did far more damage.