All in all, it was time for Cabe to go
Cabe accomplished many things. It raised the profile of high-quality design and forced many architects to consider criteria that may otherwise have been ignored. Its enabling programme provided a valuable resource of design expertise. And perhaps most significantly, its obsession with the public realm, although 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 around 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 its strenuous creation of appearances to the contrary, it had no power. Unshackled by statutory obligations, 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.
Second, Cabe eventually became obsessed with itself and its core group of sycophants, who acted 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 its objectivity, alienated many and reeked of cronyism.
Perhaps the most damaging indictment wasn’t even really its fault. And that is the fact that it was always a poor substitute for what we really needed - a planning system that worked.
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 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.