Rural Architecture and Accumulated Time


Not Urban

Volume 7, Issue 03
November 8, 2021

Architecture requires capital. Accumulated capital has a tendency to gravitate towards wealthy urban settlements, but it also surfaces throughout the landscape in complex patterns which reflect urban investment in rural resources. A large geometric swath of green in a 21st-century-dust-bowl landscape is a vivid upwelling of Capital’s coveted ‘waters of life.’ A “rustic-modern” villa in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, also reflects urban activity. Capital changes the entire landscape.

It is along the largest flows of capital that we can watch the most high-cost architecture under construction, like thirsty willows growing along a riverbank. But sometimes we find architecture growing in unlikely places, like the bright green moss hanging off darkly dampened earth, by which an observant country-dweller can immediately identify groundwater coming to the surface.

Is a lack of capital investment the reason good architecture is rare in rural America? Certainly reinvestment in rural areas, or more broadly the question of rural wealth, is central to the architectural potential of rurality.1 But this reinvestment must strengthen rurality rather than replace it with urban culture. Rural architecture depends on “developing rural areas rurally – rather than urbanely 2 .” So, experimental investing and innovative types of real property are good tools for creating the conditions for architecture in rural society. These methods are better for fertilizing the financial ground than a vanity-box building that is instagrammable and “Oh, so avant-garde.” Attracting urban attention is not an aligned method for “developing rural areas rurally.” It is known that architectural projects can effectively attract further investment. But my objective is not to reproduce the Bilbao effect in every small town and city throughout the landscape.

Inserting “world-class” metropolitan culture (“Culture”) into rural areas is not the answer. Neither is packaging rural culture and its products for urban consumer markets. The dominance of urban architecture has historically been a reflection of the dominance of urban culture. The problem of rural architecture is fundamentally a problem of rural culture. Understanding and cultivating local culture must be a core method of rural architecture. Many of us have heard stories in which some magic combination of architecture, art, and “Culture” has transformed a far-flung place (Marfa, Texas comes to mind), and so has “put it on the map.” But to my eye inserting something “world-class” into a rural town seems more like building a Super-Mario-portal to the city than giving architectural form to a place and so enhancing local identity. The aim of rural reinvestment cannot be to erase the distance between the rural town and the city. Rural architecture must be legible to rural people. So, bringing the city to the countryside seems a pretty weak solution. And the inverse is also true: commodifying, modernizing, translating or packaging rural materiality, rural labor, or rurality itself, for urban consumption cannot be the basis of a robust economic and aesthetic practice of rural reinvestment.

The persistent flow of culture from urban to rural is based on a self-fulfilling myth that rural life is of the past and urban life is of the future. Even those who promote rural life often frame it in nostalgic terms, a call to recover a lost past. The linked problems of rural culture, rural development, and rural architecture hinge on confronting this modern theory of time. Since the early stages of modernity, a directional arrow has been repeatedly drawn from rural society to the metropolis, aggressively pointing from the former to the latter. This arrow is time, progress. The rural is past and the metropolis is future. In between these two ends of the arrow is a string of places moving more or less quickly into the future. In other words, instead of compartmentalizing reality into a grid (space) overlaid with a system of values determining the worth of the real contents of each cell (like our system of real estate), radical modernism chose not to assign values in this way but instead made a gradient of reality across time, with the least reality in the past and the most reality in the revolutionary future. To see the arrow from past to future plainly, look at Adolph Loos’s two-faced walls, which present a crisp English suit to the abstract, metropolitan world while embracing the home’s domestic life with sensory delights and earthly things of the past.

For a growing number of us, the myth of the urban future is hard to recognize as such, because the myth is already our reality. The concentration of resources, capital, and educated people in cities is both cause and effect of a self-fulfilling story that the city is where creativity blossoms. And the brain drain of architectural talent from every corner of the country to a few urban centers is a key factor in the weakness of rural architecture in America.

Critical regionalists like Alex Tzonis, Liliane Lefaivre, and Kenneth Frampton, have explored an architecture of place, as an alternative to an architecture of progress, or zeitgeist. The theoretical contributions of this work on “place” are significant. Still, I suggest that replacing a system of time with a system of place replaces one extreme with another. Instead of thinking of place as opposed to time, it might be useful to theorize two (or more) kinds of time coexisting. On one hand, the idealized time of progress, on the other hand, the material time of accumulation. While progressive time moves always from the many towards a novel synthesis, accumulation grows through horizontal deposits of variously formed and many-storied matter. Accumulation does not move towards any guiding light; perhaps it does not move at all.

Hegel, who systematized the dominant modern theory of progressive time, describes the World-Spirit “working ever forward (as when Hamlet says of the ghost of his father, “Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the ground so fast?”) until grown strong in itself it bursts asunder the crust of earth which divided it from the sun, its Notion, so that the earth crumbles away.”3 Hegel’s World-Spirit, embodying progressive time, is a mole trapped in the earth, seeking the light of its “Notion,” or ideal form. By contrast, the architect who works with accumulated time is a different sort of mole who does not seek the light but who, in Bataille’s words, “hollows out chambers in a decomposed soil repugnant to the delicate nose of the utopians.”4 Place is thus the compost of deposited time. If zeitgeist literally means time-spirit, then perhaps place is a time-body.

A theory and practice of matter might form the basis for a rural architecture. The alternative to the city is not the country;5 the alternative to the city is matter. But remember, matter is the very stuff of the urban, too.6 So, if the urban-rural distinction cannot be a distinction between ideality and materiality, what is the key difference? It is a difference of habits, practices, systems of value. Therefore, rural architecture hinges on rural architectural methods and forms of labor which enact this theory of accumulated time, through care and attention to what came before and what our actions will bring about. Perhaps rural architecture requires slowing down and observing layers of accumulated life, listening to stories, digging in the soil, watching the days go by for a while.

  1. “Despite the varied discourses of the regional sciences, the possibility of adhering to rurality as a development pathway remains largely unexplored.” Quoted from Chigbu, Uchendu Eugene. 12/01/2013. “Rurality as a Choice: Towards Ruralising Rural Areas in Sub-Saharan African Countries.” Development Southern Africa (Sandton, South Africa) 30 (6): 812-825.) ↩︎
  2. Chigbu, Uchendu Eugene. 12/01/2013. “Rurality as a Choice: Towards Ruralising Rural Areas in Sub-Saharan African Countries.” ↩︎
  3. Hegel, G. W. F. Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. by E. S. Haldane (1892-6) ↩︎
  4. Georges Bataille, “The ‘Old Mole’ and the Prefix Sur in the Words Surhomme Superman and Surrealist,” in Visions of Excess Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. by Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 32. ↩︎
  5. “Country,” which like “territory” is a colonial conception of a paradoxically picturesque yet extractive landscape. ↩︎
  6. This suggests that a rural architecture is possible not just in the “countryside” but can be practiced in cities too, reversing the flow of culture between capital and territory. ↩︎

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Volume 7, Issue 03
November 8, 2021