back to WRITINGS

Don’t Waste Your Time in the Countryside
AD Counterpoint

Published in: Designing the Rural – A Global Countryside in Flux, eds .Bolchover, Lin, Lange
Architectural Design AD Profile No.242, July/August 2016


The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 18481


Marx and Engels’ assessment of the bourgeois city as escape from rural idiocy should serve here as a reminder of two important points: that we should never forget the relative communicative poverty and cultural retardation of rural in comparison to urban life; and that we owe our prosperous and cultured urban civilisation to capitalism. My response to this issue of AD and its basic thesis is ambivalent. On the one hand I share the issue’s curiosity about the rural as a largely neglected zone for architectural engagement, and I am tempted, in the footsteps of Rem Koolhaas, to endorse this searching investigation into and probing of its potential via design projects. On the other hand, and especially since this issue has satisfied some of my curiosity about the contemporary countryside and offered a projective exploration of its potential, I remain highly sceptical about the pragmatic merit of this engagement. Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that neglecting the rural in favour of major urban centres (as primary or even exclusive arenas of our discipline’s concern) reflects not so much a blind spot or prejudice of (always city-based architects), but indeed justifiably registers the relative importance of these arenas and the relative urgency and value of their problematics in relation to architecture’s core competency and thus in relation to architecture’s productive contribution to society. In short: my suspicion that Koolhaas’s shift of interest from urban to rural conditions is a contrarian gesture rather than something to be emulated has been confirmed rather than assuaged.


Rural Architecture?

‘Rural architecture’ is an oxymoron. Architecture is an inherently urban discipline. Perhaps this thesis goes too far. However, it confirms my urban-focused work commitments and the positions I have promulgated elsewhere: the difference architecture can make in urban centres is much more momentous than what it might be able to do in rural conditions. This statement is especially pertinent in relation to the innovative frontier of the discipline where the skills and methodological sophistication of the most tooled-up protagonists continues to advance.
I am arguing here as an architect who regards not the logistical organisation of infrastructures, but the spatial, phenomenological and semiological ordering of social processes via architecture’s communicative capacity as our primary societal task in the current specialisation of disciplinary competencies. Although all spaces of human communicative interaction – rural or urban – function via this ordering, it is the new density, dynamism, diversity and synergetic complexity of big cities that challenges us and urgently requires the most advanced design resources, and not the low density and simplicity of rural communicative situations that thus pose comparatively trivial architectural problems.
My thesis is that architects’ attention to rural conditions is a relative waste of their precious time. Contemporary architecture is inherently urban. Even if this judgement is disputed, what is indisputable is that the number of people an architectural intervention affects is likely to be much lower in a rural context – a fact that is also reflected in construction budgets and real-estate values. This disadvantage of design investment in rural situations could only be compensated if very generic problems were identified and the solutions allowed for a massive generalised roll-out. But such projects are engineering led rather than architectural.


Metropolitan Brain Versus Rural Muscle

My argument against shifting the discipline’s attention from the urban to the rural is not an absolute and final position, but a pragmatic appraisal of relative productivity and value. Further, I believe that design investment in generic construction solutions for the rural landscapes of the world is much more likely to reside in the professional domain of engineers rather than architects, especially if we look further into the future. If we take the advanced industrialised and urbanised nations as guide – and so we should, for their superior productivity levels – we cannot fail to notice that the countryside is emptying, requiring fewer and fewer people to deliver more and more agricultural and mining productivity. It will therefore become a vast engineered landscape of physical machine-based production processes, where the absence or sparseness of human life will limit the need for architectural design.
All engineering design is process and machine design judged by criteria of technical functionality, whereas all architectural design is communication design judged by criteria of social functionality. In recent years, there have been huge advances in agricultural productivity: more produce is generated with less labour, land, water and fertilisers. And this has been achieved through research and development work in agro-science, genetic biology, geology, information processing and so on in the big cities. The metropolis is the brain of our civilisation. It is a communication hub and a social supercomputer. Most developmental bottlenecks are problems of communication. Material production takes place outside these centres, with fewer people directly involved in the physical production process. Human labour becomes mostly knowledge-based creative labour, networked into the super-brain that is the contemporary mega-metropolis directing the rural muscle. Left ideological criticism of the distinction and privileging of intellectual over manual labour is vain. This undeniable distinction is mirrored in the ‘urban versus rural’ distinction, and any attempt to ‘unmask’ the latter is equally vain.


Avant-Garde Versus Avant-Gardism

In their Introduction to this issue, the guest-editors talk about a ‘discursive shift’ from the urban to the rural, claiming ‘the rural to be an emerging territory requiring as much innovation, strategic thinking and design experimentation as the city’ (p xxxx). Really? Perhaps, but the required innovation is probably engineering rather than architectural innovation. They observe that ‘the vernacular that seemingly dominates the contemporary rural landscape’ is reduced to ‘generic concrete framed structures, driven by economic need and oblivious to any contextual factors’ (p xx). This can lead us already to the conclusion that the value society places on architectural structures and architectural design work in rural areas does not merit a reversal of attention from the urban to the rural. The added value a man-month’s worth of architectural design work can make with respect to rural design issues seems to be much lower than that which can be achieved by the same amount of design effort and competency in urban conditions: the marginal productivity of urban design trumps that of rural design.

The evidence of this is that work on most rural structures does indeed proceed without professional licensed architects, or if this is no longer a legal option in advanced countries, then at least without prominent (high value) architects and thus without any recognition within the discipline’s discourse. But, you may ask, is this not an artefact of a deficient discourse that is finally being remedied here? Well, that is indeed the hypothesis of this AD.

However, it is a hypothesis that comes from architects, without any signals as to demand from the prospective clientele. Even if we do not necessarily take the market signals as decisive indicators and accept that the discourse leads the discipline (as my theory of architectural autopoiesis posits)2, the discipline cannot diverge for too long from social and economic realities and societal valuations (as expressed via market demand) without losing credibility and missing its societal function. While an avant-garde initiative that counter-poses current realities with new possibilities is not inherently unviable, like every speculative venture it is a risky investment. Risks have to be taken by all explorations, however is such investment in rural possibilities promising enough? I doubt it, because there are no real clients calling for this work.

In general, there is an especially risky entrepreneurial element in avant-garde discourses that venture beyond the scope of finding new spatial/architectural solutions to problems posited by clients and instead try to identify new problems and new briefs as the basis for architectural innovations, substituting themselves for the missing clients. This approach (which seems prevalent in this issue of AD) multiplies uncertainty. The method is doubly speculative: on the side of the presumed problems as well as the proposed solutions. The prospect that this avant-gardism might become a true avant-garde is therefore accordingly improbable. An avant-garde will be validated and confirmed as such only in retrospect, only if its anticipations turn out to become spearheads of eventual mainstream professional practice creating economic value for real clients with effective purchasing power. My appraisal of the ‘rural turn’ is therefore very sceptical: the proposition is too improbable to merit its hype.

Zaha Hadid Architects, Competition Hyundai Corporate Headquarters, Seoul. This proposal is aimed at a maximal communicative capacity via inter-visibility of all events. The built environment becomes a 360 degree interface of communication. The interior urbanism extends above below and all around in layers. This massive investment is merited due to the productivity enhancing synergies it facilitates.


Markets Versus Anti-Capitalist Moralising

The spirit of the guest-editors, of most articles in this issue, and of the projects they refer to is guided by the seemingly laudable intention to identify and invest in the supposedly neglected, forgotten rural victims of political and economic processes of urbanisation. There is a moralising element here that we should be very cautious about. What worries me in particular is the pervasive anti-capitalist bias that permeates most accounts and arguments here.
The guest-editors lament that an ‘increasing number of sites become disconnected or disrupted through infrastructural development’ and that ‘macro-infrastructure prioritises the co-option of rural territory for urban processes’ (p xx). In principle we should acknowledge that these priorities most probably reflect the value hierarchies of the society concerned and are thus an inevitable part of any economical land-utilization. In capitalist contexts these priorities are established via markets involving all potentially concerned parties in bidding and negotiation processes to establish the most productive way of balancing costs and benefits. In the context of China, and in general where land resources and infrastructure projects are government controlled rather than resulting from market processes, questions about the use of political power can and should indeed be asked. But ‘critical’ analysis should no longer proceed from an implicit, taken-for-granted left/socialist perspective. This kind of routine, presumptive ‘critical’ reasoning no longer has any intellectual credibility.
What strikes me as most problematic in the ‘critical’ discourse of this AD – and this I think is intrinsically connected with the strong anti-capitalist priors – is its barrenness with respect to constructive proposals and indeed the absence of any actionable conclusions. Neil Brenner’s article is the most questionable in this respect. He denounces urbanisation processes as ‘orchestrating rural-to-urban migration flows through a noxious cocktail of structural adjustment programmes, land grabbing, agro-industrial consolidation and ecological plunder’ (p xx). Whether land is ‘grabbed’, purchased or politically allocated, the primary question is what its most productive and prosperity-enhancing use would be.

It is my contention (and political economy hypothesis) that a market process with minimal political interference and thus maximal freedom of exchange for the exploration of value potentials is our collective best bet for utilising all relevant knowledge to discover and realise the best land-use opportunities3. Brenner proclaims that ‘designers confront an important ethical choice – to help produce maximally profitable operational landscapes for capital accumulation; or alternatively, to explore new ways of appropriating and reorganising the non-city geographies of urbanisation for collective uses and for the common good’ (p xx). But ethical choices without economic understanding are blind. And taking the opposition of profitability and the common good for granted is intellectually bankrupt. Rather the inverse should be the default assumption: markets confirm social merit via profitability. The formula of collective appropriation for the common good was always too abstract to guide concrete action, but since the collapse of communism it is altogether empty.

Text © 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images © Zaha Hadid Architects




1 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848. p.5, HarperPerennial Classics, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., Toronto, EPub Edition 2014

2Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol I: A New Framework for Architecture, John Wiley & Sons (Chichester), 2011.

3 See FA Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, American Economic Review, XXXV (4), September 1945, pp 519–30, and FA Hayek, ‘Competition as a Discovery Procedure’, New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1978

go back to WRITINGS