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Crisis in the British countryside

From AR February 1988: The nature of architectural response to the recent history of the countryside

The recent history of the countryside is one of degradation and loss. The typical modern village is likely to be occupied by commuters, weekenders and the retired as much as by people working locally. Its area has been enlarged, but its personality diminished by the aggregation of new housing, or it has been changed by planning controls and high house prices into a parody of itself. It is dissociated from the surrounding fields, themselves ecologically impoverished. Everything new is at odds with the old even, or especially, if it tries to imitate the formal properties of the past.

Discontinuity, arbitrary control and disorder are also frequently diagnosed in our cities, but where the latter constitute the central anxiety of architects and critics, the countryside is quite neglected. Yet, if the functional interdependence of town and country has been loosened, one still implies the other, and the power of the countryside over the imagination is as great as ever. Suburbanism, the undifferentiated middle state, is the enemy of both.

‘The recent history of the countryside is one of degradation and loss’

The countryside is in some sort of ecological, social and economic crisis and it is also one of architecture. Lending urgency are the Government’s proposals to relax planning controls on farmland, in the interest of house building and greater leisure use. The precedents and omens suggest that the dilution of the countryside, and its substitution by a cheap imitation will only be accelerated. Given the Government’s affection for the volume housebuilders, it can be expected that their product will be spattered across the country, mitigated only through the stubbornness of local opposition. Such opposition will itself not always be edifying, but driven by vested interests, and taking for its ideal the embalmment of the status quo.

The landscape so threatened owes its appearance, almost without exception, to the intervention of man, which can be divided into two related but distinct forms. These can be described, at great risk of oversimplification, as the imposed, idealising and self-conscious, and the indigenous, functional and unreflective.

The second process, which accounts for by far the larger area, is governed by the logic of expediency and of chance. Its aim is to turn both natural and economic accidents to the best advantage, and it is the process whereby villages group themselves about sources of water, roads tend to follow ridges, and an area comes to be constructed of the most easily available building material. It can equally be determined by the pattern of land ownership, or of mineral deposits in the ground, or the easiest route along which to cut a canal. Apart from the organisation of hedges and villages, its most admired monuments are nowadays barns and oast houses. It is not necessarily a dead tradition, and similar qualities of clarity and pointfulness can be found in combine harvesters, American hay barns and, most famously, grain silos.

‘The precedents and omens suggest that the dilution of the countryside, and its substitution by a cheap imitation will only be accelerated’

It is possible to overestimate the functional naivety of this landscape, and to see it as the inevitable product of agricultural evolution. This ignores the unmistakable ostentation of much rural building, and the acute sense of social order evident in the planning of farms and villages. What is lacking is any idealised vision of the landscape as a whole, or at least the intention to implement it.

Such a vision has tended to come from outside, first from settlers, then the builders of country houses, then, in scattered form, the planners of ideal villages. All were observing the distinction Cosimo de Medici made when he wrote of going to his villa ‘not to cultivate my fields, but my soul’. Monks, noblemen, and philanthropists, obvious differences apart, saw the countryside as a place of enriching contemplation, as somewhere closer to heaven. As David Coffin points out, the villa in Renaissance Italy was often seen as a place in which to prepare for death.

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‘The picturesque cult of the agricultural’, nineteenth-century watercolour by Helen Allingham

However, the ideal was not so much the country as it was found, but the celestial landscape it imperfectly reflected. In occupying the country the attempt was made to make it more nearly resemble its ideal form, the original and most explicit attempt being the monastic paradise garden. The contemplative qualities of the rural were also defined in relation to the turmoil of the city, and the projections of urban intellects onto the landscape tended to retain a hierarchical, urban order.

Against the impassionate background of the purely agricultural, were constructed landscapes at once more obviously human and artificial, and nearer to the ideal. The contrast is perfectly apparent in the engravings of Kip and Knyff. The orderly, inhabited foreground receding towards an empty, irregular horizon is almost the pictures’ main subject.

‘The ideal was not so much the country as it was found, but the celestial landscape it imperfectly reflected’

In the countryside we have now inherited, the distinction between the functional and the ideal has been eroded. For Lord Shaftesbury, in the early eighteenth century, the ‘primitive state’ had a ‘genuine order’, which could be improved by ‘neither Art, nor tire Conceit or Caprice of Man’. Although the landscape gardens that succeeded found it impossible to do without Art, in the form of picturesque principles of composition, the ideal now resided in the natural landscape itself.

Thus the efforts of Capability Brown and others were directed at reproducing such a landscape and, if it was still idealised, it was one in which, as at Stourhead, the replica of a labourer’s cottage could co-exist with Virgilian temples. The power of that depressingly negative invention, the ha-ha, lies in its ability to blur the boundaries between the ideal arid the mundane.

By the time of Blaise Hamlet in 1810, the agricultural has so much become the ideal that the pictures of Kip and Knyff have been reversed. In Nash’s plan the pre-existent landscape is defined by ruled lines, while the architect’s intervention in the centre is irregular, ordered only to preserve privacy, and by picturesque principles. In spite of Blaise Hamlet’s apparent deference to the forms of traditional villages, it lacks a village’s purpose as a market or an agricultural centre, and its ‘green’ accordingly lacks a village’s urbanity, its most conspicuous quality is, paradoxically, its artfulness, intensified by its attempt to look natural.

‘The country was still a subject for imposition, however dissembled, of moral, pictorial or historical fantasy’

As George Eliot makes clear in Middlemarch, the picturesque cult of the agricultural, in concentrating on formal qualities, could be quite indifferent to anything else. Describing a scene of impoverishment and dereliction she concludes ‘all these objects could have made the sort of picture which we have all passed over as a “charming bit”, touching other sensibilities than those which are stirred by the depression of the agricultural interest’. The country was still a subject for imposition, however dissembled, of moral, pictorial or historical fantasy.

Our received notions of the countryside continue to be coloured by the dissociation of the formal or visual from the purposeful, and the confusion of the functional with the ideal. Since the War a number of books on the desirable planning of villages have appeared. An early example, The Village Surveyed, by Cecil Stewart, depicts the author descending on a village in Kent and reducing it to a set of transport statistics and visual data. Planning Villages, by Andrew Thorburn, converts the structure of the village into a purely aesthetic phenomenon, which he proposes be perpetuated, regardless of changing use, to the end of time. Most famously, the Essex Design Guide sought to establish eternally valid ‘Visual Criteria’. It contrasted ‘the low density or rural approach’, in which ‘buildings are set in a landscaped space’ with the urban system and its ‘buildings containing space’. Again, the countryside is described in purely picturesque terms.

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A stretch of traditional English landscape, with one of its ‘most admired monuments’, the oast house. ‘Hope and hop-pickers’, a nineteenth-century sketch by Philip May

Much of this thinking has been adopted by planning authorities, and almost all new building in the countryside follows some stylistic codification of past village architecture. The best argument for such architecture is that it limits damage, but the longterm effect of dilution and arbitrary homogenisation can be as deadly as simple insensitivity.

The reason why planners are so fond of the purely pictorial approach, is not just that they are under the influence of a systemised Romanticism inherited from the nineteenth century. The pragmatics of agriculture have also changed. Where the ecological interests of the land and the economic interests of the farmer were previously allied, chemicals and mechanisation have tended to make them antagonistic. Similarly, the huge decline in agricultural labour and the availability of more distant markets through better transport, have diminished the interdependence of farms and villages. New building, owing its existence to pressures other than those that originally shaped villages, would not naturally follow existing patterns unless directed by planning authorities.

‘Our received notions of the countryside continue to be coloured by the dissociation of the formal or visual from the purposeful, and the confusion of the functional with the ideal’

The crisis of agriculture is not just that it has become hostile rather than benevolent. Its whole purpose is in question. Now that we can so easily import, farming is no longer essential to national survival. Sentimental feelings apart, it is not qualitatively more important than other major industries such as steel or shipping. The countryside as a whole is analogous to areas like the London Docklands, whose most admired forms were also shaped by a purposefulness that has now ebbed.

In the country, as in depressed urban areas, the most popular and most implemented solution is to make a substitute industry out of conservation and leisure. To quote the Countryside Commission, ‘Environmental conservation, like provision for the public enjoyment of the countryside, should in future be a policy objective ranking in importance with food and timber production’. This adds a new twist: where the picturesque made labour into an object of contemplation, mass contemplation is now being made into an industry.

At a national scale, the modern countryside reverses Kip and Knyff, anticipated at Blaise. Anything large, dominant, rectilinear and new is a shed or a silo, a product of unreflective agriculture. Anything small scale, hugging the landscape, and of local materials is likely to be a home for someone who works somewhere else, or else a shopping centre, visitor centre, or other leisure facility. If a building looks practical, like a barn or an oast house, it may well turn out to be a holiday home.

‘The reason why planners are so fond of the purely pictorial approach, is not just that they are under the influence of a systemised Romanticism inherited from the nineteenth century’

The crisis of the countryside is one of its functional purpose - and of its existence in our imagination. Do we admire the country only as a collection of contingent forms that have lost their raison d’etre, or as something both modelled by our own times, and by an ancient imaginative tradition? The answer tends to be the former.

It is not the sort of crisis that lends itself to an immediate solution. As a temporary measure, it is hard to object to conservation, but conservation has a wholly negative power, apart from its occasional ability to replace something that has been lost: it can only slow the rate of damage, not halt it or turn it back. Eventually, if the future history of the countryside is not to be one of slow disintegration, it will be necessary to harness change. The new cannot indefinitely be a purely destructive force.

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The human and artificial gardens of Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire, seventeenth cetury. Engraving by Kip and Knyff, 1707 

The role of architects in all this will be of their own making, but, as the problem is in part architectural, it could be hoped that they will not merely be victims of circumstance. The first step would perhaps be to recognise the fact that any new building is an imposition from outside, not to dissemble it. A good model would be the straightforward orderliness of the Adam brothers’ Lowther Village, or even the modern agricultural shed, rather than the fraudulent irregularities of Blaise Hamlet, or the modern rural housing estate.

The best known and most successful recent works of architecture in the countryside respect this quality. Some, like Fosters Associates’ Renault factory near Swindon, expand it until the building’s success rests almost on this quality alone. There seems, however, to be a growing tendency to imply little communities analogous to, but independent from villages, made up of several buildings, or implied within what appears, from a distance, to be a single object. Some, like Cullinan’s work at Thorpe (AR January 1986), have the benefit of existing buildings to give them clues. Others, like Quinlan Terry’s Newfield House and associated farm buildings derive their variety from a brief that is still rooted in the rural economy. Others again, like Peake and Short’s John Lewis store outside High Wycombe, now under construction, have very little to go on, and resort to a self-sufficient world a little reminiscent of Robert Owen’s communities, if lacking some of their utopian content.

‘The crisis of agriculture is not just that it has become hostile rather than benevolent. Its whole purpose is in question’

These buildings maintain both their own dignity and that of the landscape by emphasising their apartness and difference, but it is a stiff sort of dignity. There appears to be little possibility of reducing the alienation of the cultivated architect from the countryside articulated by Adolf Loos at the beginning of his essay ‘Architecture’: ‘ … The sky is blue, the water green, and everything profoundly peaceful. Mountains and clouds are reflected in the lake, and so are houses, farmyards, courtyards and chapels. These do not seem man-made, but more like the product of God’s workshop, like the mountains and trees, the clouds and the blue sky. Everything breathes beauty and tranquility. Ah, what is that? A false note in the harmony. Like an unwelcome scream. In the centre, beneath the peasants’ homes which were created not by them but by God, stands a villa. Is it the product of a good or a bad architect? I do not know. I only know that peace, beauty and tranquility are no more’.

Unlike the peasant, the architect had no ‘culture’, he had ‘lost all contact with his own time’, and become ‘uprooted and bent’.

‘Where the picturesque made labour into an object of contemplation, mass contemplation is now being made into an industry’

If Loos were writing today, he would probably be even more gloomy, as the country dweller has followed the architect into deracinated self-consciousness. His houses are not built by himself, but by Barratts or the council, and are hardly the products of God’s workshop. Not that Loos’ description need be taken at face value: while the effrontery of the villa rings true, it may be suspected that the noble savagery of the peasant (and, later in the essay, the engineer) is being exaggerated. What is more, Loos’ opening description, with its emphasis on colours, shapes and the reflection, and its implied viewpoint, is suspiciously picturesque. In other words, Loos is still imposing the sentimental values of his own aestheticising urban culture. In the act of writing the essay he is distancing himself further from the supposed unreflectiveness of the peasant.

The passage is revealing not so much as a true picture of the countryside, but as a document of the contradictory attitudes it nowadays prompts. At the moment that its innocent logic is admired, it is corrupted. The paradox is present whenever something is built in the country. A Velux in a barn roof jars because the lucid relation of object to use for which the barn was admired and made into a house has been contaminated. The artful curves of a new cul-de-sac off end precisely because they are artful. By the division of the country into National Parks, nature reserves, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and opening it up to tourism, it is made into something more urban and subject to taste, like an antique or an object in a museum. Yet the return of the entire landscape to the rigours of naked market forces is not feasible or desirable.

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Visual criteria for rural and urban systems, as defined in the ‘Essex Design Guide’ 

It is hardly practical, as Loos implies, to exclude architecture from the countryside. Although the architect is not the only victim of the paradox of self-consciousness, as one who articulates the aspirations of others, he experiences it more acutely. Any intelligent act of building must surely recognise it.

Perhaps the best approach is not to attempt a conclusion on one side or the other, but to play with both halves of the paradox. On the one hand picturesque contrivance appears to be one of the most influential forces in our thinking. Its reality and power cannot be ignored. On the other, the simple wisdom of the countryside is evidently a potent myth.

To play with the latter, without lapsing yet again into sentimentality, would involve some tacit or explicit acknowledgement of its quality as myth. One of the offences of the Neo-Vernacular Barratt home, is its outrageous presumption that no-one can tell it is fake. One of the principal joys of, say, the garden in the Kip and Knyff view of Wimpole, is in its own artificiality. In effect, a yet higher degree of artfulness is called for.

‘Do we admire the country only as a collection of contingent forms that have lost their raison d’etre, or as something both modelled by our own times, and by an ancient imaginative tradition?’ 

The architects who most nearly practise such a self-aware manipulation of our paradoxical feelings are Chris Macdonald and Peter Salter. They are among the very few even to have articulated the problem: ‘The capacity of the vernacular tradition to transform the expedient into the artful of course demands our attention: the “look of it” being contingent on an unselfconscious tradition of refinement and construction, inevitably excludes any direct acknowledgement’. They are more eloquent about the artefacts of the landscape than their own, observing the ‘logic of incident’, ‘the ability to hold a territory’s edge by mere innuendo’, and ‘the ways that technique gives grace to the inherent capacity of materials’.

At the simplest level their projects respond to their observations by emulating these qualities of technique. Materials are used with conspicuous dispassion, and the loose plans are apparently unprejudiced in their response to the pressures of brief and orientation. The more laboured attempts of recent architecture to command space are eschewed. However, the mimicry is also more theatrical and more omnivorous. Thus the house on the Lambourn imitates the curve of the river, the patterns of its site, and the structure of a fish. Its terraces are like little hills. The theatricality lies in the ostentation and lavishness of the mimicry, so that it is quite obvious that the extravagance of materials and forms is in fact over-responsive to functional demands.

‘Perhaps the best approach is to play with both halves of the paradox. On the one hand picturesque contrivance appears to be one of the most influential forces in our thinking. On the other, the simple wisdom of the countryside is evidently a potent myth’

It is equally apparent that the designs are both modern and highly contrived. Their modernity is not just manifest in the shapes, and in materials like of concrete block and compositional sheet metal, but in the application of pictorial, compositional techniques. With the use of framing devices and sympathetic forms, the landscape becomes part of a collage with the building, which, like most collages, is inconclusive. Again, these methods are not applied casually, but with a meticulously exhibited self-awareness. Finally, the projects are so obviously personal, that we are given the freedom to reject or accept them.

As with a Barratt home, a trick is being played. The difference is that the workings are on show, so that we can choose to participate or not. Unfortunately, since MacDonald and Salter have as yet built little, it will be a while before their subtleties influence the big housebuilders – or the Secretary of State for the Environment.