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Reinventing the rural: a new perspective on our countryside

Romania by dean hearne

The new vision created by urban dwellers of the green land is far more rural than the countryside itself

Ever since cities were created there has been a migration to them and away from the country. This continues to be the case despite our ever more romantic vision of the rural – only recently have we seen marginally more people migrating to the country. This phenomenon illustrates our desire to be together as a collective, and to escape from the elements, the outdoors, manual labour and mud – a reality that can be seen as chaotic, dysfunctional, confused, and deeply contradictory.

Sun servdf no border2

The Farm, the United States’ largest commune, was the result of the passion and dedication of 300 hippies who were determined to forge a different way of life. Made by two sisters who were born there, the film American Commune delivers an insider’s view of this socialist experiment. Photograph by David Frohman/americancommunemovie.com

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John Bennett, traveller, Addisford, Dolton, April 1980. Photograh by James Ravilious © Beaford Arts digitally scanned from a Beaford Archive negative

The rural dweller is often more complex than expected: both a keen shot and nature lover, dedicated to the welfare of their animals while also an enthusiastic, often evangelical, meat-eater. A subsistence farmer I once knew would spend evenings reading the classics in original ancient Greek. This naturally pluralistic mindset is perhaps disturbing in an age of rationality, and could be seen as one of the reasons that the rural can be so confusing for the urban dweller. Of course, the urban is even more complex than the rural, but the habit is to take a trajectory through it, a line of desire that makes sense as a progressional and directional route. When I lived in London, my friends and activities centred specifically around my interests, subsections of bigger subjects, highly esoteric. Moving back to the countryside I found myself thrown into things I would never have dreamt of attending – a poetry night, mainstream entertainment, social connections with farmers, land-owners, dog enthusiasts, etc. I have always understood the rural as a finite yet random collection of resources that, together, provide a rich collection of material you can do almost anything with. I never felt that about the urban. 

‘How might this now even more complex notion of the rural evolve, where there is an old guard dedicated to function and to food production as a business, almost hidden from the public gaze, and a new rural that is recreation, well-being and retirement orientated?’

It is a conundrum between cultures, between worlds, where the vestiges persist of the old countryside as a productive, if despised, food producer – a place of acquiescent complexity where dark forces still hold ground. A current example would be Channel 3’s This Country, which reboots the idea of the village idiot for the 21st century, reinforcing the notion of rural horror from an urban perspective. Yet this maligned rural is still of value; we do to a degree still need it on a practical level and, I would argue, on a cultural level too.

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Barnutopia, just outside of Oswestry in Shropshire, offers people the cahnce to go ‘glamping’. Photograph by Katrina Boydon/barnutopia.com

There is an inevitable collision that demands that we try to forge a new hybrid world. How might this now even more complex notion of the rural evolve, where there is an old guard dedicated to function and to food production as a business, almost hidden from the public gaze, and a new rural that is recreation, well-being and retirement orientated? A kind of country park, where more visually dramatic areas are better used for selfies and self-development, the less attractive for housing and services?

Over several hundred years, the rural has become repositioned from an urban perspective, that is to say that an urban sensibility has been applied, a logical and trajectory notion of the place and culture, often a simplification of the rural, it being read as basic rather than ultra-complex. The idea of nature as teacher has been voiced by many luminaries including Wordsworth and Ruskin, both (still?) absolute cornerstones of our cultural and education systems. Internationally these ideas were perpetuated by people like John Dewey and John Muir, both still much cited by the outdoor education sector. Popular media figures such as David Attenborough and John Craven have maintained these perceptions. These are all ideas that underpin a sense of the rural as a benign force, the source of all knowledge and understanding of the world and how it works. This notion does have validity. The behaviour of humans is not dissimilar to the behaviour of plants, however even this idea of nature acutely observed has been simplified for a wider audience. 

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Bppr6p

The 2006 film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (filmed not in Kazakhstan, but in Romania) was a distorted representation of country living. Photograph courtesy of AF Archive/Alamy

Nature is increasingly positioned (misunderstood) as good, as beautiful, as natural, function increasingly removed from our idea of the land, and recreation. This superficial image has become fundamentally one-dimensional, actually quite unliveable and dull, a cultural wasteland, alright for the occasional visit, difficult to sustain a life within. Of course this is a total misunderstanding of nature and the rawness of it: brutal, red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson observed, and perhaps more importantly its complex and contradictory mindset. A new sensibility presides that excludes so much of the richness of rural life in favour of it making a limited kind of logical sense. 

‘A new sensibility presides that excludes so much of the richness of rural life in favour of it making a limited kind of logical sense’ 

The impact of this rural sensibility is twofold. On one hand there is the impact of the rural, the complex and often forgotten influences on contemporary life. The great migrations from rural to urban have left huge legacies. One almost unexpected example would be the Great Migration of 1919, where freed black slaves moved from the rural southern states of America to the north, bringing their culture of rural and religiously influenced music, fashion and language. First to New York creating the Harlem renaissance, then to Chicago and Detroit creating urban blues and soul. So evolved one of the most dominant cultural forces of the later 20th century, black music and its associated culture, replete with its rural references, morals and imagery. Our urban culture is made up of a myriad of rural cultures, themes and sensibilities.

Blake shepherd

Blake shepherd

Literary figures such as William Blake, with his poem The Shepherd, have helped shape the romantic image of the countryside

This eclectic and creative ‘shot in the arm’ to mainstream culture is one of the most valuable aspects of the rural, one that we seem to forget and deny. Images of rurality were translated into a civilising influence, and it is perhaps the pervasive images of an unpeopled landscape that have formed and dominated the urban view of it. Connected to the idea of education and civilisation, landscape painting was used (particular in the late Victorian period) as a way to bring an unruly and disruptive working class closer to God and the civilising influence of the church. You might argue the ‘chocolate box’ aesthetic derives from these origins, a dumbed-down ‘nature as educator’ return to Eden. Art galleries were built to expose the urban working class to nature through landscape painting and rural allegory, The Tate and Whitechapel being two of many examples that used landscape to represent heaven, an aspiration and an improvement of the self, a place to return to.  

The other side to the rural influence is the appropriation of the image and translated ethos, very normalised through the media and culture, in many ways similar to historic examples (Arts and Crafts Movement, Romanticism). We bring a rational and consistent view of the rural to bear on aspects of urban life: the urban ruralist celebrates the natural, design is focused on raw materials. The urban ruralist of Shoreditch-on-the-Wold is clad in natural fibres, lives among a design aesthetic awash with nature references, eats from farmers’ markets, eschews plastics, is on a waiting list for an allotment, and so on. All in all, way more rural than the rural, which is filled with man-made fabrics, cars and technology (the inside of a modern tractor is a thing of computerised wonder).

Kwdm74

Kwdm74

Paintings such as Peter Breugel The Elder’s The Harvesters were seen as a way to bring an unruly and disruptive working class closer to God and the civilising influence of the church. Photograph courtesy of Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

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Aajac8

The reality of modern mechanised agriculture is far removed from the romantic image. Photograph courtesy of Richard Cooke/Alamy

The current shift – white flight, retirement, escape mode (for people with First World concerns and incomes) – is to transplant urban rural sensibility to the countryside and rural communities, a kind of rational, simplified country style for the country, a clearer vision of what the country should be like and would be better off as. Hauser & Wirth Somerset is a good example, a consistency of values and aesthetics. This is a kind of gentrification, but a process that not just replaces and revives the economy, but also the mindset, the natural pluralism of chaos being streamlined into a digestible and marketable commodity.  

The purely agricultural landscape is looking a bit bleak, where large areas of agricultural land are covered in poly tunnels (plasticulture is the term) – where the seasons are reversed to benefit the market and ease control of pests and disease. A streamlining of the rural that is almost urban. And alongside this we foster the notion that nature should be rewilding, that left to its own devices it will cure itself and us all, its miraculous power will prevail. Can we accommodate and allow the idea of a heritage farm, smallholding, low-level production integrating with industrial farming, a relationship that is real but invisible. For the rural this is not a big leap. These contradictions are part of the make-up – for a new urban rural population it is almost impossibly deranged. 

‘The current shift is to transplant urban rural sensibility to the countryside and rural communities, a kind of rational, simplified country style for the country, a clearer vision of what the country should be like and would be better off as’

Illustrating a kind of ‘future world’ hybrid is Dartington Hall Estate in the US, where in the 1930s an experiment split the estate into two farms, one traditional, the other modern. The modern farm can claim to have invented the battery chicken and made a major contribution to artificial insemination. Architecturally, Dartington illustrated its hybrid quality with a meticulous restoration of medieval buildings alongside a Modernist built infrastructure of worker housing, principally by William Lescaze but involving many and diverse architects of the early 20th century. A kind of rural renaissance, a hybrid drawn from Ruskin and the nature as teacher idea, married to postwar Modernism and the search for a better world. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin would be another example, drawn from similar A&C roots, Gurdjieff influenced, educational, agricultural and utopian. Dartington was not a viable model, being hugely privately funded, but it was an interesting experiment, and illustrates many of today’s issues as it now tries to reinvent itself in the face of opposition from the very cultures it is celebrated for combining. 

In recent years there have been many proposals to bring food production into cities, via vertical farms and aquaponics systems, for example. But developments in industrial food production favour the laboratory. The rise of the warehouse hinterland suggests an alternative venue for producing food. The increasing acknowledgement of sentience in animals, the idea that artificial insemination is rape, that traditional ‘vermin’ (jackdaws, badgers, hawks, wolves, etc) now represent wild and sustainable nature, the re-introduction of unhelpful species and environments, all move us further towards clean manageable and sterile indoor solutions to food production. With the countryside a ‘wild’ natural farming hobby and recreation zone.

Feedlot

Feedlot

This 750-acre ‘city of cattle’ in Grand View, Idaho, allows thousands of cows to be bred under intense farming conditions

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The new face of farming? Rem Koolhaas is curating the Countryside: Future of the World exhibition planned for 2019 at the Guggenheim New York. It will examine the changes transforming the non-urban landscape. Photograph by Pieternel van Velden

Is this friction between mindsets beneficial? Certainly it is played within the work of many architects, artists and designers, creating hybrids, thinking about alternative solutions to rural and urban living, crossing over the aesthetics and in some cases the functions. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has been raising these questions for many years: the reversal of urban and rural, the rural being not at all what we imagine it to be any more. For Koolhaas there is an interest in it as the future, reinvigorated, a politically empowered industrial complex dominated by science and engineering. For the old school, what is left becomes a kind of theatrical backdrop for a myriad of activities, many of them non-viable hobbies – in effect recreational lifestyle. This has always been present in a tiny minority, often religion or arts-based but now rapidly becoming the norm. Koolhaas’s 2012 survey of a Dutch village attested to this, describing a village dominated by heritage and cultural expression.

‘The rural is a complex patchwork of cultures, hosting an increasingly uncomfortable collision but, at its best, creating a tolerance and cooperation required to make complex fusion viable’

There are starting to be some hybrid works, combinations of rural/urban for farms, perhaps more as visitor centres, combinations of heritage, agriculture and often contemporary architecture and art. Designs are starting to get away from the idea that any rural development should reflect the rural, that anything too urban is inappropriate (still a dominant perception even among contemporary architects). Niall Hobhouse’s Shatwell Farm and Stephen Taylor’s reworking of the functional buildings play on the idea of rural chaos, integrating disparate elements, in many ways referring yet again to Japanese aesthetics, how the chaos is integrated into the whole: in Japan it seems to be by ignoring it, in the Shatwell example by celebrating it. Dominic Stevens in Ireland has been working with ‘modern’ farm buildings reworking and adapting to accommodate contemporary lifstyles that are both urban and rural. Many artists play with these ideas, Futurefarmers, Fritz Haeg and Tomás Saraceno among many (drawing from the 1970s experiments of Buckminster Fuller and Bonnie Sherk) trialling integrated growing, living and how and where you might live. The largest body of examples come predictably from Japan, mainly urban but there is an increasing interest in the rural and the hybrid. 

What is the future model? What complex patchwork of cultures, what co-existence of disparate elements can preside? The rural is a model of this patchwork, hosting an increasingly uncomfortable collision but, at its best, creating a tolerance and cooperation required to make complex fusion viable. What must survive is the base of creativity drawn from eclectic collisions, the car-crash culture of old ruralism, it mustn’t make sense. It may be a scenario we cannot avoid: we can only add complexity to confusion. There is an exciting, energising and inevitable future ahead, albeit not one anyone knowingly wants.

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

Adam Sutherland is the curator of ‘The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind’, on show at Hauser & Wirth Somerset until 7 May 2018 – click here to find out more