Despite the burgeoning literature on creative cities, seldom explored is the context of cities rich in cultural capital but more orthodox in their approach to preserving the autonomy of culture. This article discusses the status of artistic spaces occupying abandoned industrial premises (‘creative brownfields’) in historic cities that traditionally shape their policies around prestigious cultural institutions (‘cities of high culture’). Based on comparative insights from St Petersburg and Lausanne, the article explores the relations and tensions between mainstream cultural governance and creative brownfields. While there is no lack of creative brownfields in these cities, their wider urban impact is found to be marginal; moreover, these sites represent dispersed instances of temporary occupations rather than situated clusters of creative actors. More than coincidental, this (lack of) spatialization is argued to result from a particular governmentality—that of high culture—which disregards, rather than promotes, spaces of alternative cultural governance. The article conceptualizes creative brownfields in cities of high culture as the ‘soft infrastructure’ of cultural production, in contrast with those in ‘creative cities’ as the ‘hard infrastructure’ of urban production. The article also calls for a recognition of the local context of regulation and accumulation in understanding the cultural/urban interplay.