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Editorial: Rural living – taking the sting out of wilderness

The countryside is now a field for experimentation, where science, digitisation, satellite mapping and agricultural production have combined in a revolution

The history of humanity has largely consisted of existence in a savannah environment. The inbuilt effects of this on our physiological and psychological make-up are little discussed, but may explain our enjoyment of open space, even if many of us now live in relatively dense cities. The notion of the rural, however, is not about open space as such, nor is it about nature red in tooth and claw: we are not talking about wilderness.

Oma countryside 3

Oma countryside 3

Rem Koolhaas has been pointing out, after reminding us that half of the world’s population does not live in cities, that the countryside is now a field for experimentation, where science, digitisation, satellite mapping and agricultural production have combined in a revolution as significant as what is taking place in respect of smart cities; the biggest buildings are now to be found in the country, even though many have very few humans working in them, and windows are likely to be in short supply.

OMA’s research work into this condition suggests that entirely new populations are now defining the countryside, and that the changes involved are either unknown to, or misunderstood by, the world at large. For example, they see in the different occupation of former farmers’ homes and agricultural buildings the phenomenon of ‘thinning’, whereby the intensity of occupation is severely reduced. Instead of a family and even animals occupying a Swiss chalet full-time, it might now be used by transient workers, or the occasional tourist family.

Oma countryside 1

Oma countryside 1

From a British perspective, the changing nature of the countryside is under constant review, courtesy of the longest-running radio soap opera in broadcasting history. The BBC’s six-days-a-week programme, The Archers, began in 1951, and was originally described as ‘an everyday story of countryfolk’, though it is now ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’. You do get discussion about tractors every so often, and modern farming methods, the annual influx of migrant fruit-pickers, the perils of foot-and-mouth disease, young locals being priced out of the property market, and so on. It doesn’t deal with many of the phenomena that so fascinate Rem, but it offers some perspectives on the notion of rural community.

‘Entirely new populations are now defining the countryside, and the changes involved are either unknown to, or misunderstood by, the world at large’

That notion is bound up with the idea of the bucolic, that is to say relating to the countryside, but not quite the same thing as ‘rustic’: a rural community is not the same thing as a rustic community. A cuisine can be rustic, but it would be odd to find one described as rural. For many rural communities, even if the numbers are diminishing, there are almost generic features which define them: gathering places and occasions; sporting events; eating and drinking spots; and so on.

Oma countryside 5

Oma countryside 5

Rem cites the changes he has observed in a Swiss village he has visited for the past 25 years. I recognise much of what he notes from 15 years of annual holidaying in a similar village. On the other hand, what also struck me was how much stayed the same – admittedly partly because of seasonal factors. What changed most was the proportion of overseas tourists in the summer, which declined because of the strength of the Swiss currency, proof positive that the rural world cannot escape global economic conditions.

If tourism has declined, so has the number of farmers. In developed countries it has long been an extremely low proportion: the OMA research suggested it was only 3 per cent of the working population in rural Germany, compared with (surprisingly) 1.2 per cent in German towns and cities, some no doubt incorporating agricultural areas within their boundaries. However, the numbers rise rapidly once you take into account jobs directly or indirectly associated with the production, process, transport, delivery and sale of goods from the farm, many of those jobs based in cities rather than the countryside.

Oma countryside 6

Oma countryside 6

The architectures associated with the various steps in the food chain, from production to consumption, could scarcely be more different. Rural architecture, by contrast, seems more heterogeneous – and is not the same thing as agricultural architecture. Some of the characteristics of a rural aesthetic will be found in the pages that follow: a response to landscape; the use of ‘natural’ materials in greater proportion that will be found in designs for industrialised agriculture; and a scale and rhythm suggesting a slower pace of life than would be expected in the city. Despite the availability of the latest digital technology.

All images from Koolhaas’s 2012 lecture at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

This piece is featured in the AR’s April 2018 issue on Rethinking the rural – click here to purchase a copy