Pale Future Ruins

Urban developments don’t only reflect needs; they create desires.

When I was growing up here, Cambridge train station was like a desert outpost. Surrounded by brownfield, it was just a place to nick bikes, or to get your bike nicked.

Now the entire area, about half a kilometre across, is unrecognizable. I’ve seen it changing over the years, but since 2017, when Amazon and Deloitte moved into the main office block, even my memories of what was there seem to be impossibly distant.

The project was begun by Ashwell Property Group in 2004, when they hired the Richard Rogers Partnership to create a masterplan, which was rejected. But renewed plans were accepted in 2008. More hindrances came when Ashwell went into administration. The same managers started a new company, Brookgate, and in 2010 began constructing the £725 million development, by this time having broken ties with Richard Rogers and hired different architects for each building.

The project, confusingly named CB1, the postcode for central Cambridge, has made many headlines. The Guardian called it ‘an embarrassment to the city’ on the way to being ‘a future slum’. Cambridge News agreed, quoting locals saying that ‘Brookgate’s arrogance in refusing to engage with residents regarding the problems they’ve made is extreme.’

At first sight, it seems like every other business-focused development of hegemonic neoliberal architecture.  It is all pale, chalky and soft. The buildings are simple rectangles with smooth and safe additions – a meagre nod towards the jarring spikes of modernism that Owen Hatherley calls ‘pseudomodernism.’ The office directly opposite the station, with its fittingly pale logo “One Station Square,” is principally an advert for the signs stamped onto its cheap stucco: Caffe Nero, Pret a Manger, Sainsbury’s. The only possible place of social meeting is a chain cafe.

As is now the staple of urban design, participation in public life requires consumption. Between One Station Square and the station is a taxi rank. At least the CEO of Brookgate, Sven Töpel, says the piazza is ‘only 60%’ taxi rank. And 40% nothing.

Urban developments don’t only reflect needs; they create desires. They write a future dream into the mythologies of capitalist life – the private garden, the parking space… The dream of sexy stock words used to sell houses on the developers’ website can only be achieved if you have one of these properties, if you are included in this mythical community through common indebtedness. Everyone shares the burden of a mortgage on this estate. No one has inherited these homes, and no one ever will because they won’t last that long.

we’re friendly, we’re private, you’re observed
a bench with a view (of traffic)

This estate, designed to look and feel like a shopping centre, encourages this kind of mythical becoming. It does not elicit communal human life from its residents. It has nowhere for human life to be lived. Even their balconies are boxed in by hefty walls, each covered on a different side so neighbours are never seen.

the safe nothingness of CB1   

There are occasional moments when a structure seen from afar seems to welcome life. A series of steel arches rising out of bushes on a stone pedestal looks like a beautiful, industrially-infused classical garden where people can meet with some privacy under the beams. When I get close and see what it is I burst out laughing. It is the entrance to a car park.

boxed-in balconies

In a similar case, two pale blue fences circle a single tree each on a little mound. From below it looks like an ideal space for benches, maybe with a different aesthetic in each circle, one designed for young family life, one for teenage gatherings. Again, the shopping centre housing estate provides the depressing punch line – it’s a car park, stupid!

   ring a ring o’ Peugeots  

Life here is designed to be invested in as a site of nothing but accumulation and consumption. The design fundamentally misunderstands what a train station is. The developers clearly think that this is a transient place, but a station is a place of waiting, not a place of movement. It is where you meet your friend who is coming to visit. It is where you get a long thin can of G&T for the train to wherever with your lover.     

The crucial limitation of all these features is that CB1 isn’t housing for living. This is housing on a guided track of aspiration, taking the junior academics or commuting London lawyers who live here to the other half of the development: the offices.

On the south side of Station Road it’s all Brookgate’s idea of houses, on the north side it’s offices, bicycle and car parking and the predicable, offensively simple open billboard of consume-over-all-else ethics, the Caffe Nero and Sainsbury’s.

The houses seem like appendages of the offices. At eye-level, straight in front of the station, there is consumption. A coffee van, a cafe, a stock-copy pizza place, an entirely glass-walled bar (how does anyone still believe that glass is revealing and inviting? It makes everything opaque, unaged, unbelievable as a site of possible contact – too much like a trading floor or a Hollywood actor’s new plastic head). Second is production, or more accurately value-reproduction, as nothing here is produced, rather existing capital is circulated, bet on and strategically hidden.

The office is the central hub of this community. It’s what used to be the working men’s club, the bingo hall, the pub, church or school. Now the only place outside the office where it’s possible to come across another conscious human is the gym, but they’re all plugged-in, hard at work on perfecting the machine.

Third, at the bottom of the order of importance, are the houses. Their main function seems to be training people to live in isolated privacy, to believe in nothing but the supremacy of homeownership.

Architecture, clearly, is not just a process of satisfying the need to be sheltered. Architecture is the excess of that need. Humans need to be housed, and architecture is the structure containing that central point of need. The building is so much more than a place to not be outside. It constructs the very idea of outsideness, of insideness, of community and space and the relation of the body to every other part of society.

CB1 has no excess to it. Not just excess in terms of postmodern frills like the random walls on balconies or multi-coloured buildings, but excess in terms of a structure that creates. A development this size is the opportunity to actively redefine what housing means. And this place fails. It creates a capitalist mythology in which housing is simply a place to wait until consumption can begin again. It is life as a shopping centre, basically indistinguishable from Westfield or the ground zero of crap design Cambridge-style, the Grand Arcade.

In the 1960s high-rise boom, “daylight cities” like Croydon were built only to be worked in. They were made for people to drive in to, work in a big office block, and drive out of again, to a secluded suburb made only for living. While Cambridge remains divided between the working centre and the living periphery, the CB1 development does try to unite these worlds. Housing, work and consumption are built together.

But it fails. The consumption space is as distant as it’s possible to be from a social space. This is designed so people buy quickly and leave. The space between the glass pub, the glass cafe and the station is a taxi rank. Nothing invites you to sit down and take a break. Here you are not a neighbour, but just another customer.

This isn’t even housing as an investment opportunity, as is so common in new London developments – returning the colonial concept of terra nullius: unused land, left empty; just shells for self-reproducing investment capital. These houses won’t last long enough to be inherited.

Designing spaces where the citizen is only a consumer, where office blocks and stock restaurants are the apex of the path away from shopping centre housing, will perpetuate its own fallacy. A return to the desolate car-and-office-focused designs of the 1960s will result in the same thing as it did last time. No communal space, unliveable cities and the wholesale absence of any community, which will all be pulled down again and rebuilt to suit the manic machinations of capital, again reformed in another plastic disguise after the next inevitable crash. Architecture and urban design create the life that lives inside their structures. So wouldn’t it be better to make spaces where life is actually for living, for being, for enjoying? For now, life remains a shopping centre.

Article and Photographs by Elliot C. Mason. All Rights Reserved.