Fantasies of urban order

Gove’s Cambridge dreams reek of desperation

Artillery Row

One of the truly unnerving and yet very human aspects of AI visualisation is that it struggles in rendering hands — often adding extra digits. In the images produced by top Tweeter and housing advocate Sam Bowman, to celebrate Michael Gove’s announcement of a new urban quarter in Cambridge, it also struggles with bicycles and railings. These computer drawings were truly an artefact of our age. Gove stated that the new development Cambridge 2040 would deliver between 200,000 and 250,000 homes that must be “beautiful”. The watercolour effect AI generated images of impossibly distended Victorian mansions were not ugly, but they were like all AI visualisation: weird and unconvincing — and not just because of the bikes without wheels or railings that had weirdly run riot.

Major planning reform was absolutely bottled in 2020

The images were a digital rehash, and I don’t just mean the architectural pastiche of late 19th century red brick mansion blocks. These Midjourney generated pictures are the crowdsourced ghosts of Tory housing policy using the technology of the day. When it came to power in 2011, the Tories faced a generation of under-delivery. They quickly realised they needed to build thousands of new homes, in places that generally delivered Tory MPs. Faced with a planning system that gave huge powers to local protest groups, and constituencies that would throng to local protest groups at the drop of a hard hat, they adopted a dual pronged approach. Firstly they would reform the planning system so local authorities would designate where houses could be built and not be susceptible to protest, and secondly they would encourage beauty.

The proposals that Michael Gove announced this week were not a final flourish of a philosophy, but the dragging out and dusting off of a failed policy: an attempt to rescue a total collapse on a key issue prior to the election. Major planning reform was absolutely bottled in 2020 in order to keep the party together after the demise of Boris Johnson. Meanwhile the commitment to politically own the concept of beauty — to weaponise the term before a generally lefty building design profession who were admittedly disinclined to use the concept — looked initially like a clever strategy … if you don’t mind strategies that are socially divisive and inaccurate. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which was launched in 2018, was initially headed by Roger Scruton. It promised a certain sophistication.

Even before he was booted out though, Scruton declared that architectural beauty was largely urban in intention. It was dense, large scale and ordered: the crescents of Bath and so on. Given that the vast majority of new houses would be built in suburban areas, Scruton and subsequent chair Nicholas Boys Smith were strangely resistant to addressing the type of housing that the vast majority of the English live in. Perhaps because their urban model was not that far removed from the third generation modernists they insisted they were so different from in terms of aesthetics, no one really raised an eyebrow. A fair few rightly thought they didn’t have the guts. The AI images are effectively telling us that we cannot live in our 1960s bungalows or Victorian semi-detached any more. Hunker up. The future is going to be cosy.

Labour should hang up Bowman’s fantasies of urban order in Whitehall

The real problem, though, is that this argument about beauty took place entirely in the abstract. We didn’t move on in any constructive way in the last 13 years. Whilst images of red brick apartment blocks with marble porticos (as if) get certain policy wonks excited, we are no closer to them being actualised than when Cameron walked in the door of Number 10. The abysmal design of new housing in the UK is not due to some aesthetic anomaly. It is entirely down to the monopoly of large house builders who, because they can wait out inquiries and protests, are the only actors able to build in this environment. Thus they can get away with any old shite. They have no competition from smaller scale insurgent competitors. Without that reform, all the talk about beauty is … talk. All the AI images, no matter how fervently the prompts were conceived and fed into the machine, convey the nothingness behind.

Ironically, Cambridge, thanks to the university addressing its own needs for cheaper housing for postdocs, is one of the only cities in the country that has built an urban extension into greenbelt (the lowrise modernist exclave of NW Cambridge). This makes Gove’s traddish AI images all the more forlorn. They are important though: a reminder to us today of all that has not happened. In 2015, David Cameron set up the National Infrastructure Commission. One of its major proposals was a new, infrastructure-driven rethinking of the link between Oxford and Cambridge that would become a new space for jobs and homes. The government pulled out of commitments to the Oxford Cambridge Arc from 2021 to 2022.

Should they win, Labour should hang up Bowman’s fantasies of urban order in Whitehall. The new government can gaze at the AI generated paintings in which buildings comically lean off in weird directions, aping the cheap photography they were gleaned from. They can take them down after they have delivered new legislation, and we can begin to imagine what England will become. We could entertain the Tory boys’ unsuccessful attempts to foist their image of urban order on unruly stretches of England. We can also discuss it as we build the real beauty of English suburbia: its generous gardens that give an opportunity for idiosyncrasy and individual self-expression.

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