THEME: A Thriving Village: Vision for 2035

3 wishes for the village of the future

BY Daisy Froud | 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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Among my 5 year old’s favourite books is a pop-up: ‘The Story of Things’. In a single spread, it narrates the Industrial Revolution. A left-hand grey page shows a dense brick city. This seamlessly merges into a right-hand page of green countryside. A train-track links them, along which an engine speeds, emitting rotating cardboard clouds, and laden with ‘steam crazy’ bearded Victorian gents. A perky little mill and mine peek up from the emerald fields. A canal nestles in the spine, blurring into sky above, hinting at realms beyond that are being fundamentally changed by, and in turn will change, the world of this page.

I’m glad that this is how my daughter is first engaging with a critical moment in the formation of her nation’s ‘cultural imaginary’. For it’s in the mid-nineteenth century that, despite romantic and often nostalgic distinctions between town and countryside having existed since ancient times, the current dominant narrative decisively took hold.

In rhetoric of figures such as John Ruskin, the city became a dense, dirty, dangerous place. The rural home, in contrast, became a site of reassuring comfort and tradition. The ultimate English symbolic space, to be defended at all costs. This ideal endures to the present, in popular culture, and in economic and planning policy. But of course, as critic Raymond Williams, among others, has tried to remind us, not only is this a false distinction, but it is also “a myth functioning as a memory”.

Williams argues in The City and The Country that the urban is not distinct from the rural, the town from the village. They are inextricably linked in a spatial and temporal web of socio-economic forces, forming and informing each other, as my daughter’s book implies. This has particular potency during the Industrial Revolution, post Enclosure and its resulting agricultural efficiencies, when fields and valleys, and adjacent villages and market towns, produced and marshaled resources to fuel industrial urban centres, and colonial expansion beyond. The look and feel of the countryside were not only irrevocably altered by the introduction of new infrastructure – canals, mines, railways – but by the re-investment of the profits of capitalism and colonialism in the form of property: stately homes and their estates. As Matt Hart writes regarding the house in Howard’s End, E.M Forster’s spatialised symbol of English domestic values: “The pleasures of home depend on the expropriation of land and labour in the rubber plantations of Nigeria.”

So that’s my first wish for the form of the rural settlements of the future. That they – that we – in striving to imagine and articulate these, stop understanding villages as ‘rural’, at least in any reductive essentialised sense. Of course categories – urban, suburban, rural – have their practical and psychological uses. But it distresses me when, as happened at a recent roundtable regarding a possible new movement for city life, people I respect say things like “Fuck the suburbs!” We need some new words that allow us to understand our settlements as an interconnected set of civic (but, obviously not ‘civic’…) spaces that we produce together, and are connected to, through the choices we make about where we live, work, or travel, what we eat, who we marry, what we buy, and so on, and through the interactions of these choices. And that allows us to experience any rural settlement – any place – in the words of my favourite geographer Doreen Massey, as ‘event’ or ‘trajectory’ – “always in the process of being made…never finished; never closed”.

Which brings me to my second wish. That these more self-aware understandings of spatial process, and of the interconnectedness of places, might guide us to new formal typologies, based not just on remembered dreams, but on playful re-interpretations of these, as well as articulations of contemporary social life and relationships. Those country estates? Many were landscaped in the new ‘picturesque’ style, a romanticized expression of the rose-tinted dreams and social aspirations of newly wealthy colonial expansionists. This fashion took an inherited rural ideal to a whole new level. One that has since become normative. Within their grounds, functional innovations such as the ha-ha tempered the dream with pragmatic concerns, ensuring that cows weren’t able to trample all over the croquet pitch, or sheep stare in the window at Sunday lunch. When these affluent folk decided to build new sanitary and efficient accommodation for their workers, they tended to build neat little settlements in a nostalgic style that was nonetheless new and “ahead of its time” too, as Nicholas Taylor describes in The Village In The City. He sums up Milton Abbas, the first Picturesque model village as having “out-Welwyned Welwyn a century and a half in advance.” In our (theoretically) democratic society, with its (theoretical) bottom-up turn in planning, what comparable forms might we generate, reinterpreting received forms and augmenting these with innovations that reflect twenty-first century social aspirations and ways of operating?

My third wish relates to who ‘we’ are in the twenty-first century, speeding along our spatio-temporal trajectory like those white bearded Victorian elders. In British architecture we talk a lot about the ‘post-industrial’. Architects spend quite a lot of time thinking up new futures for post-industrial spaces, urban and rural. But we don’t tend to talk so much about our national (as opposed to overseas) ‘post-colonial’ legacy and its architectural implications. And certainly not in a rural context.

As I’ve already suggested, the villages and rural landscapes that surround us, the world of country walks, tea rooms and the National Trust, would not exist without the colonial expansionism and exploitation of the past. These acts not only funded it, but also helped dream and mould it into being. Critic Lucienne Loh, writing on post-colonial English literature, notes that although some British cities have publicly acknowledged or apologized for their role in the slave trade, and have positively encountered and been altered by their imperial legacy through immigration, a comparable shift has not taken place in the countryside. This despite their status as inter-related aspects of the same social and political space.

While conservative critics such as Roger Scruton may be correct that “English culture entered the modern era with an immovable commitment to the pastoral”, that is not necessarily anything to be proud of, especially if the notion of the pastoral becomes fixed in exclusionary ways. Loh argues, in the tradition of Henri Lefebvre, that while architecture often pretends to be ‘innocent’, a mere backdrop to life’s events, it clearly is not. It also has a tendency to unhelpfully ‘fix’ form. She critiques the Ruskinian traditionalist position that the countryside must continually resist being trespassed and translated onto by a corrupting outside world. And suggests that, in contrast, we should more profoundly acknowledge the acts of trespass and translation in which the rural has been complicit.

So I would like to wish for a world of rural settlements that (i) understand themselves as ongoing stories, as collectively ‘invented traditions’, in which multiple citizens have a stake, (ii) know themselves to be nested within complex networks of relationships and (iii) actively encourage acts of trespass and translation, in the active pursuit of appropriate evolving form. Such form might well be knowingly (‘ironically’, says Loh) nostalgic, but it would also be creatively and socially progressive, and part of a broader discussion about how we, the we of now, wish to live within the constraints and opportunities of twenty-first century British life.

I’ll end with another spatial story. Doreen Massey writes of her discovery, upon visiting the Lake District, at a time when she was troubled by essentialist claims to place, that even this mountainous landscape was not what it seemed. The Lake District is held particularly dear in the English cultural imaginary. An iconic, reassuringly unchanging paradise of the rural sublime where – and here Massey quotes Mark Edmonds – even the rare human figures in representations of it appear “as stable and timeless as the lakes and fells themselves, as if they were living in some form of ‘natural state.’” But a little research revealed that even the Lake District’s rocks first existed in another latitude, on the other side of the equator. That millions of years ago they slowly crossed the sea. And that only later still did they rear up into their current mountainous shape. When even our most hallowed sites are ‘immigrant’, she asks, how can we claim any ‘intrinsic indigeneity’, or that there is any way that a place is or must be? But we can have productive inclusive collective discussions, through policy-making and cultural production both national and local, about how our settlements could and should be as we steam ahead into the twenty-first century.

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Daisy Froud is co-founder of architecture practice AOC (Agents of Change) where she leads the firm\’s participatory arm. Having trained as a linguist, she now works as an ‘interpreter’ of places, and of ideas and knowledge about places. With 14 years experience in stakeholder engagement and collaborative planning, she focuses on devising tools and strategies that allow multiple voices to meaningfully contribute to design decision-making processes. A qualified translator, Daisy has a First in Languages from Cambridge, an MA with Distinction in Cultural Memory, and teaches on the history and theory of urban change at The Bartlett. She recently completed a visiting professorship at Yale with AOC, running a seminar course on participatory architecture alongside a design studio. Among other activity, Daisy sits on Design Review Panels for the London Boroughs of Hackney and Lewisham is a member of the RIBA’s Building Futures Steering Group, and a Built Environment Expert for Design Council CABE.