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We built this city

We should start to think about how to design our cities as if they mattered.

“A desert of magnificence, a glittering waste of laborious idleness, a cathedral turned into a toy shop, an immense museum of all that is most curious and costly, and, at the same time, most worthless, in the productions of art and nature.” So wrote William Hazlitt just under 200 years ago as he wandered around the fire sale of the property of the richest man in England, William Beckford.

Beckford had gone bust building a tower on top of his country house, Fonthill Abbey. Five hundred workmen toiled night and day; the stained glass cost £12,000 alone. At first, a wooden tower was planned that reached 30 metres high before collapsing, but as Beckford’s hubris grew it was replaced by another spire rising 90 metres, which also fell. In the end, it was rebuilt in stone but at a cost that not even a young man in possession of £100,000 a year could sustain. The parallels between the age of Beckford and today are difficult to avoid. In the past weeks, there have been three events that prove history does not learn the hard lessons when vanity and money are involved.

The owners of the Shard in London have started to sell the view from the 72nd floor; tickets will cost just under £90 for a family of four. On a clear day you will be able to see the edge of the metropolis in all directions. But despite the panorama, the one thing missing will be the Shard itself; it was built for one reason – to be seen, to impress, to be an icon. Already Renzo Piano’s building-object has come to symbolise the confused and anxious state of the city.

The architectural hubris of the previous decades has turned our dreams into steel and glass and has changed our ideas of what a city should be. In 2004, Norman Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe – the Gherkin – changed the game. Here, everyone agreed, was a building so well designed that it symbolised the new city; it was 21st-century London. But what did this mean? What kind of city have we built for ourselves? Since 2004, the old fabric has been replaced by towers and blocks that intend to compete not just with New York or Paris, but Shanghai, Singapore or Dubai. Markets get the architecture they deserve, and the towers and malls of today are the follies of the last economic cycle, illusionary temples built with imaginary money.

These monuments to capital are less than the sum of their parts; it is not just that the emperor is naked, it is that everyone else has to lose their shirt as well. But the emptiness of these symbols were filled with other signifiers: the fame of the staritect; a cuddly name that suggested the shape of the building as something else, on a massive scale: Walkie Talkie, Razor, the Hubbly Bubbly. When a building has become known by its official given name, it is more often a brand: Westfield, the O2, Tate Modern.

In the woozy hangover of the Olympic summer, a warm feeling for iconic architecture might still remain. The London Olympic Park was a triumph of public planning, delivered on time and on budget – against so many expectations. But until the Opening Ceremony the stadium was an empty bowl. Danny Boyle’s success was to use the feeling we had for the NHS to overwrite our ambivalence towards the Games. After that, to criticise the Games was to question our very national identity and this feeling attached itself to the building. But already these architectural objects feel like relics of a previous era.

There is a relation between the iconic eruptions in the metropolis and less headline-grabbing transformations within the suburbs. What happens in the centre has a powerful impact on the periphery, and this has had a huge impact on how we live and the place we call home – as can be seen in recent announcements from both sides of the political spectrum.

At the Labour party conference, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, proposed to relaunch the economy with a massive house-building programme. In recent weeks the government has announced that it is willing to relax planning laws to boost the construction industry. Both pathways hope to restart the economy through bricks and mortar. Balls’s vision has a sprinkling of social policy, with the promise of affordable housing and community building. He would use the money from the sale of 4G networks to build 10,000 new homes. There is a desperate need for housing – according to the National Audit Office, by 2017 half of all the local authorities will have twice as many people on the waiting list than in affordable or social accommodation. Even “affordable” housing, with rents marked at 80 per cent of the market rate, is becoming unaffordable for most.

Meanwhile, Chancellor George Osborne wants to take away the red tape that regulates building. So far, there has been a relaxation of all planning restrictions on extensions; the new guidelines will tear up even the most recent standards on energy efficiency, as well as rules on disability access, fire regulations and even the provision of affordable housing. In this dream, developers will suddenly find the means and the method to fill our green-belt and brown-field sites with new, glistening housing.

The economic crisis rose and fell on a housing bubble, floated on easy money and the aspiration of owning one’s house. It was a repetition of what was happening at the centre of the city: our houses became our most valuable commodity. This hyper-monetisation of the family nest had an impact on how the house was designed. According to a Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) report of September 2011, in a survey of 80 different developments around the country, most of the houses being built are smaller than the regulatory (London) minimum standards. Each new house is missing the equivalent of a small single bedroom in order to cram more housing on the same ground.

So if we plan to build 10,000 new houses, who is to say that they won’t be of the minimum standard, with barely enough space to swing an estate agent’s necktie? And if regulations are allowed to be relaxed, surely space will be even tighter. Developers are not known for being generous for the sake of it. In both cases the health of our cities has been put in jeopardy in the hope of kickstarting the economy.

But this is also an opportunity. We should start to think about how to design our cities as if they mattered. In October, Riba released another bulletin, the Future Homes Commission, demanding a £10bn pot for investment, with plans for 300,000 new buildings a year and a renewed emphasis on design emphasising space, storage, privacy and flexibility. It is a well-intended report but it has no teeth. We need to fundamentally rethink what kind of place we want to live in, a place that deserves to be called home. If we do aim to rebuild the economy with bricks, we have to start with the realisation that cities are made out of people not buildings.

Leo Hollis is the author of “The Stones of London: a History in Twelve Buildings” (Phoenix)

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?