THEME: A Thriving Village: Vision for 2035

Towards A New Ruralism

BY Charles Holland | September 2013

What Will A Thriving Village Look Like in 2035?

In this think piece series, leading architectural thinkers critically explore the future of rural settlements against the backdrop of rapid urbanisation, technological advances and calls for sustainable development. With globalisation opening up the countryside to new opportunities and threats while issues of subsidiarity promote local distinctiveness, how can villages come to terms with modern life without losing the past?

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In a recent address to the NHBC, National Trust chairman Simon Jenkins discussed the pressing lack of affordable housing in rural areas. Far from suggesting ways in which new housing could be delivered however, Jenkins argued that the children of rural families have no right to a life in the countryside. There is, he claimed, simply not enough room.

Jenkins’ lecture was accompanied by a familiar rhapsody about the beauty of the English countryside and the unique charms of its existing villages. The debate about housing shortages in rural areas is thus framed between two potent myths; a ‘natural’ landscape populated by picture-postcard villages on the one hand and its imminent disappearance below a sea of concrete on the other.

Both assume that our existing villages are somehow a natural part of the landscape, rather than the result of economic and social forces. Over time, new buildings in the landscape – and indeed changes to the landscape itself – become naturalised. Radical shifts in land use and settlement pattern end up becoming protected as part of our heritage. Rural villages are thus transformed from places in which people live and work into objects of aesthetic contemplation.

But when does this aesthetic mummification begin? At what point do villages that have been built over several hundred years stop developing? When does a living and breathing community stop breathing and become a museum exhibit? And why is now always the tipping point at which our Arcadian idyll is about to be lost forever?

The idea that villages evolve naturally, as if according to ancient and immutable laws, can be challenged by looking at the number of planned settlements that exist in the UK. In Villages of Vision, her pioneering study of such places, Gillian Darley recorded the many instances in which new villages were conceived and built during the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries. These villages – often developed around utopian ideals or as the philanthropic projects of wealthy industrialists – were the result of deliberate planning rather than ad-hoc accretion over time.

The final chapter of Darley’s book – entitled No New Villages? – ends with a provocation. What would a 21st century village look like? Who would it be for and how would it be planned? If we could conceive of new village settlements as a positive contribution to our rural landscape, what forms would they take?

Addressing these questions means addressing the socio-economic underpinnings of rural settlement. Clearly the circumstances that brought our older villages into being no longer exist. Imagining contemporary versions of such places means thinking about the emerging economic and industrial activities that might make them possible.

New industries based on renewable energy production, digital fabrication and data transmission could lead to 21st century rural villages. Like the planned settlements of previous centuries, these would challenge the idea of the village as an organic, slowly evolving typology.

There are other legacies of itinerant rural living too, such as the squatter settlements and self-build ‘plotland’ villages documented extensively by the anarchist writer Colin Ward. New villages might also embody radical forms of social, economic and political organisation.

The idea of new socially, technologically or politically progressive villages poses another critical question to do with modernity and urbanism. Modernism is intimately bound up with the processes of both industrialisation and urbanisation. Villages by contrast are supposedly connected with pre-modern rituals, home supposedly to superstitions, irrational beliefs and what Marx memorably called ‘rural idiocy’.

What would it mean then to be rural and modern at the same time? What is a modernist village or a 21st century version of ruralism? Do such binary oppositions mean anything in an infinitely connected world? What is a ‘real’ village in the age of the global village?

Despite the philosophical fascinations of such questions, there are pressing social and economic needs for answers to the problems of rural housing shortage and unemployment. Already villages are increasingly the preserve of a wealthy elite whose economic activities take place elsewhere. With decreasing numbers of jobs available and a chronic undersupply of affordable homes, the children of rural families are priced out of rural life.

The answer can’t be to view rural areas solely as a leisure facility for wealthy urbanites and place further levels of protection over their development. Nor is the answer to deregulate planning laws and hope for the best, as the current government seems to suggest. Is there a way then to imagine a future for rural life that avoids either gross exploitation or aesthetic and social mummification?

Over the last year, the post-graduate design studio I ran at the University of Creative Arts, Canterbury, looked precisely at this question, speculating on the forms that a contemporary rural architecture might take. The resulting projects re-engage with a radical tradition of rural settlement and imagine new futures for the village in the 21st century. The Electric Edens think piece explores some of these projects.

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Charles Holland is an architect, writer and teacher. He is a director of the London based architecture practice FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste) and a visiting professor at Yale University. He writes regularly about architecture and design and edits the Fantastic Journal weblog. You can follow Charles on twitter at: @fatcharlesh