AGRARIANISM: the country and the city: part 3 of 3


Kevin Rhowbotham © 2013

Country And The City: Nature And Culture


1. Thomas Cole, ‘The Arcadian or Pastoral State’, 1834 

2. Thomas Cole, ‘Dream of Arcadia’, 1838

3. Thomas Cole,  ‘The Return, 1837

What confounds the popular imagination in this godless time of non-believing, is the concept of nature, and it is the concept of nature in opposition to the concept of man which finds little, if any, foundation upon which to build an ethics. Nature is the antithesis of man; it is the end of man and the ending of all humanity (when man is dead the universe will continue). In Nature, both the beginning and the ending of all things human will be fashioned. Let me put this succinctly, Nature and Culture are opposites, not merely opposed, they are antithetical. Nature is chaos until culture, by means of a will to fashion it, derives cultivated and cultivating perspectives. Nature is not the real, as Plato[i] would have it, but rather it is precisely a nothingness (after Neitszche) or an ending sub specie aeternitatis (from the view point of eternity); a dénouement (point of disappearance) perhaps; and, after Spinoza, God itself, ‘Deus sive Natura’(God or Nature); precisely a totality[ii]. Either way it stands behind a human will to construct it; to construct a life. Culture is not merely order; an ordering of things, but the very landscape of order, its geography, history, topography, and stratigraphy; the very notion of conceivability is something altogether human. The beautiful, the truth, the good, the real, the natural, have no conceivable existence beyond human life and can be attributed to aspects of the universe in the first instance only as a consequence of human aesthetical deliberation.

The Metaphysics Of Essence

A Faustian will to control; that aspect of consciousness which reflects the Enlightenment notion of progress within the pervasive structure of a globalised, one might even say, ‘modernist’ ideology, seeks mastery, as a prime objective, over the caprice of Nature at the cost of spiritual independence (Faust trades his sole for omniscient insight and becomes the destroyer of worlds).  Such a notion of control can and must proceed, only from a perspective which is exclusively human. It is not, and never can be the imposition of yet the latest stage in the progressive development of human enlightenment and understanding, structured teleologically (with respect to an end cause) towards an absolute ethics.

A platonic metaphysics assumes that the world is grounded extra-perceptually; that it retains a substantial and irrefutable essence behind the denotation and connotation of things. This is the old view and the timorous view of those who will not accept the world as it is. Such a metaphysics of ‘fixedness’, a metaphysics of essence if you will, obtrudes both Christian and Platonic views of the Natural, seeking to ground them finally and permanently within a general category. 


1. Thomas Eakins, Arcadia – ca. 1883

2. John Reinhard Weguelin, A Pastoral  – ca. 1905

3. Sir Peter Lely’s, A boy as a Shepherd – ca.1658

Perfidious Albion

The concept of the natural, pervades the anti-urban consciousness of ENGLAND, a name which itself rings with the mythologizing precepts of Arcadia, the bucolic and with a palpable sense of a lost golden age. Not that ENGLAND as a concept, has a right to exist under the implied omniscience of a singular and grounding ethics of the Global and the ‘all the same’, in which any ‘rights of man’ have been reduced to a series of mannerly requirements in a despairing attempt to constrict common opinion with a tourniquet of political correctness, for gross political ends.

Little England…

‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself’


…once rich with diversity and eccentricity, is straining under the heft of a contrived global togetherness, crushing heterogeneous temperament. Any reverie of the Natural serves only to compound the anomie of urban disaffection and never to purge it. In ENGLAND all is rural, glimpsed as if from the rear window of a deracinated and desiccated urban garret. In ENGLAND the world is glanced at, disinterestedly, from the back garden.

Identität Denken[iv]

Notions of the rural, struck from this alloy of mythical precepts, are a persistent foil for projections of identity. For architects, and for too long, this has been a predominantly urban identity. The rural remains an escape route along which so many crypto-urban caprices can be channelled. There is nothing remaining in contemporary architecture which is not always and already urban and this as a consequence of the universal acceptance of a grounding and globalising Modernism. The rural such as it remains in the architectural

imagination, takes on what Frampton once called the communicative or instrumental sign[v]. A sort of mythologised image, massaged by the technological spectacle[vi], which sublimates the desire for direct experience by obviating a critical praxis; (the image of the rural is the rural)… … a popular response in which immanence, a direct and erotic experience[vii], immediate and visceral, is denied the viewer, yet simulated, fetish like, within and behind an image. 


VisitBritain poster campaign 2012

What are words worth?

One might venture that architects, in so far as they remain thinkers at all, are suckers for identity; but then humans think habitually of identity, and architects are surely human; all too human. Some have argued (intellectuals not architects) that identity is the primary intellectual paradigm[viii] by means of which the world is languaged and given communicable form.

The meaning of intellectual objects such as urban and rural are forged in terms of ranked categories, subsumed under a general concept heading. The proper noun Architecture is a case in point. In rei veritate[ix] Architecture has no material existence as a name. It is a descriptive term which subsumes material instances. To speak of Architecture universally, in this way  is to speak of nothing at all, only examples of architecture exist, be they buildings, writings, readings, drawings or any other performative and reflective occurrence. Problematically, within an extended political discourse, the proper noun Architecture is hypostasised[x], giving itself up as a target for the extension of power interests through regulation and celebrity. Hence the RIBA the ARB and other world regulating bodies commandeer the term, assuming regulatory power over it. In a like manner celebrated architects and those who contrive celebrity and thereby authority within the discourse (magazines would be a prime example) attempt the same appropriation.

Commodity Architecture

Ironically, at this moment in the wheel of history, the business of transforming qualities into quantities and qualities into categories is the tribal teleology of all that calls itself Architecture; as with much else under the aegis of neo-liberal capitalism. Certainly architecture today is a game of categories in which a pious nominalism precedes critical thinking at every conceptual level. It is the formation of the general category and the control of the general category which establishes the grounding of commodity architectural structures (‘styles’ as the magazines would like to have it) which have altogether displaced any examination of the acute socio-political and socio-economic issues which surround the discipline.

Terms such as ‘Parametrics’, ‘Landscape’, ‘Inetractivity’, ‘Morphogenesis’,’ Programming’, and ‘Cyberspace’, conflate random examples under general category headings, each vying for commodity advantage, each as incomplete and reified as the other. Self-evidently nothing material is at stake other than the eternal expansion of the architectural market; nothing is solved and nothing analysed, nothing is criticised or determined substantially and with any prospect of social effect. Social specificity and historical debt is never countenanced, no-one is served, and no-one is materially illuminated; only general categories are collected and extemporised sub rosa, for the purview of the Elect. But a private architecture is no architecture at all; an isolating agenda which regards architecture as an auto poetical play of self-referential concerns, risks leaving life well out of the picture; and if there is no social product to architectural speculations of this kind, there is little social benefit.

The terms urban and rural are opposed as general categories and as grounding categories (as categories which support a metaphysics of essence); as targets against which the propensity of architects to seek out universals can be aimed. Consequently when, as at this vertiginous moment in socio-political consciousness, the concept of the urban is conceived to be in crisis, drawn up against other empirical, not to say millennial narratives such as global warming, global cooling, the revenge of nature (El Niño), the retreat of polar ice, global food shortage, global economic depression; the end of oil; systemic corporate corruption; the implosion of democracy; the death of God, need I go on… a ready substitute is assumed. When the current concept of city ceases to support a general mythological need for grounding, the concept of country will satisfy.


The Country and the City

Perhaps the most influential text on the perception of the urban / rural opposition was penned in the early eighties by Raymond Williams. In his celebrated book ‘The Country and the City’[xi], Williams argues that the vision of the rural retains entirely, a contemporary concept of the bucolic, lost to a fallen society. The idea that a ‘constant and continuous rural life’, a structure of timeless and un-shifting order, has been fatally undermined by the city, Williams shows to be a permanent aspect of literary reflection and literary imagination, dating back at least to the 16th century. The ‘dark mirror’ of the city is held up as the antithesis of the bucolic, projecting its downfall and disappearance, leaving the evils of the insufferable city inescapable. In equal measure and in direct contradiction, early Modernist authors, most especially in France and Germany as opposed to England and the United States, offer an interpretation of the modern city as a haven in which aspects of modern life and contemporary mores can be pursued anonymously, in the bosom of the teaming masses, away from the prying eyes of a morally constricting rural community.

The connotation of country and city as structural images pervades the popular imagination as polarities between which the ravages of successive crises of capitalism are hung. Whereas the rural countryside offers mythical reference to a lost Golden age and a haven from the instrumental failures of industrial capitalism, the city harbours the Faustian apologue of enlightenment progress and all that it promises under the magnified attention of a contemporary proselytising information culture. Both images are according to Williams, “a myth functioning as a memory” that dissimulates class conflict, enmity and animosity, ripe within both structures, most in evidence at times of structural crisis within capitalism.


The Image of the Rural

To turn in desperation to a specious and mythicized image of the rural as a relieving alternative to the evils of the urban, to find solace in a trivialised and disingenuous myth of a …’green and pleasant land’, to wistfully invoke the emblematic memories of the English Romantic poets (Shelley notwithstanding) as a bellwether of socio-political sentiment, to dream of a lost and forsaken Avalon persisting beneath the detritus of urban capitalism, …is to long for a return to something that never achieved any material existence whatsoever.

What is required from architects is a critical understanding of an imminent agrarian reality in opposition to the globalising city and a critical approach to regional relations. Such a modesty of work which seeks to understand the actual conditions of the rural in relation to the urban, under the thrall of globalising tendencies, is conspicuously absent.  What is certainly most unwelcome is yet another architectural commodity, structured under a generalising rubric such as…‘Architecture and the Rural’ , ‘Rural-ism’ or ‘Rural Architecture’ proselytising yet another  vacant and politically hollow formalism, which desperately struggles to leave some mark, any mark, on the empty page of architectural thinking.

One Cow and One Acre

In his introduction to Agrarianism in American Literature (1969), M. Thomas Inge defines agrarianism, as it is understood from the perspective of North American majority culture at the time. It remains the current conservative position, and to some degree the position of both extreme rightist and leftist tendencies alike[xii]. Its core value is autonomy.

• Cultivation of the soil “has within it a positive spiritual good” and from it the cultivator acquires the virtues of “honor, manliness, self-reliance, courage, moral integrity, and hospitality.” These result from a direct contact with nature, and through nature a closer relationship to God. The agrarian is blessed in that he follows the example of God in creating order out of chaos.

• Farming is the sole occupation which offers total independence and self-sufficiency.

• The farmer has a solid, stable position in the world order. He “has a sense of identity, a sense of historical and religious tradition, a feeling of belonging to a concrete family, place, and region, which are psychologically and culturally beneficial.” The harmony of his life checks the encroachments of a fragmented, alienated modern society.

• Urban life, capitalism, and technology destroy independence and dignity while fostering vice and weakness.

• The agricultural community, with its fellowship of labour and cooperation is the model society.

Under the current conditions of ‘for profit’ neo-liberal capitalism, any attempt to create forms of autonomous settlement which might establish a sustainable ecological equilibrium will be opposed by the instruments of the state.


What An Agrarian Architecture Is Not!

Elias Zenghelis, writes the following in his article for Architectural design entitled , ‘The Aesthetics of the Present’

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the 20th century is the modern infrastructure of utilities, communications and transport which has altered and transformed forever our previous notions of ‘city’, ‘work’, ‘leisure’,’ landscape, ‘country’, language’, ‘frontier’, – and which architecture has yet to exploit and respond to in any meaningful way.

AD profile #72, published as part of AD Vol. 58 3/4-1988

The governance of the centralised state is an urban system and not an agrarian system. It has as its model, notions of the organisation of power made possible by the mores of the industrial city;  atomisation of the family and the extended family, the replacement of  subsistence living for the pursuit of profit, the free exchange of land and goods beyond community considerations, flexible market pricing, usury (the charging of interest on borrowed assets), inflation (the reduction of money value)

There are no independent self-sustaining agrarian communities in the West. Even communities like the ex-European Anabaptists group The Amish or the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, known as the Shakers, although appearing to exist unfettered within the state structure, are in point of fact, tied to the ubiquitous tax systems and to state governance by default.

Agrarianism is not an idealised Arcadian state, but a working structure based on the productive use of land for the supply of subsistence foods, goods and services.

Agrarian architecture cannot provide solutions to the formal problems of the industrial city, but must concentrate instead upon the organisation of land and community, to construct, as far as is possible within the state capitalist machine, sustainable subsistence.

What we want to achieve.

The pursuit of an agrarian agenda is necessary in order to expose and resolve what we feel to be the structural inadequacies of the ‘landscape urbanism’ position most especially from a socio-political and socio-economic perspective. This requires a comprehensive critique of corporate  modernism from the perspective of an agrarian analysis working through the post romantic idealism of the 19th century American ruralists and European anarchists (Kropotkin, Proudhon), through Geddes (Valley Section), and a contemporary regionalism; revisiting Wright’s Broadacre city, which developed and projected his agrarian settlement model of Usonia and its revision under Hilberseimer’s  concept of the “settlement unit”, – most especially since Hilberseimer anticipated the radical extension of infrastructure in the mid-20th century in the form of the interstate highway system and its precise articulation of relationships among transportation networks, settlement units, and the regional landscape- through to Andrea Branzi’s  Weak design/Anti design strategies for Agronica and his attempt to understand the distribution of factors within a working landscape under the thrall of neo-liberal capitalism.

The Tenets of Agrarianism; what you have to do!
An agrarian architecture rests upon a dialectical relationship with urban architecture and its relationship to the countryside which sustains it.

  • Determine the geographical, infra-structural, political and economic relationships between the agrarian community and its closest urban markets, no matter how distant.
  • Restructure the key infra-structural relationships which establish an extended supply chain of subsistence goods and supplies.
  • Restructure the socio-economic organisation of the community, in relation to the state, in order to establish, as far as possible, ‘not for profit’ exchange structures.
  • Establish the terms of autonomous legal governance of the extended community within the state structure.
  • Establish the equitable distribution of land ownership within the extended community.
  • Examine and project the reorganisation of factors (housing, retail, entertainment, education, governance, agriculture, infra-structure, information) within the landscape to achieve the highest equitable efficiency for stable subsistence.

Key Texts

Camillo Sitte


Ebenezer Howard


Raymond Unwin


Tony Garnier


Le Corbusier


Anatole Kopp



Eric Mumford


Alison + Peter Smithson


Simon Sadler


Kevin Lynch


Jane Jacobs


Larry Busbea


Aldo Rossi


Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter


Rem Koolhaas


Rob Krier


Peter Katz


Albert Pope


Eamonn Canniffe


Manuel de Sola Morales


Alex Lehnerer


[i] Frankfurt school thinkers and in particular… ‘Adorno unequivocally rejected the view that philosophy and the exercise of reason afforded access to a realm of pristine thoughts and reality. In stark contrast to those rationalists such as Plato, who posited the existence of an ultimate realm of reality and truth underlying the manifest world, Adorno argued that philosophical concepts actually expressed the social structures within which they were found..’ See Andrew Fagan, ’Theodor Adorno (1903-1969)’; Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy section 3. Identity Thinking and Instrumental Reason. (

[ii] The universe is a single substance hence God and Nature are the same thing. The substance of this once shocking argument are laid out in  Brauch Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’.

[iii] See William Shakespeare, “King Richard II”, Act 2 scene 1.

[iv] See the opening paragraphs of Kenneth Frampton’s post Frankfurt School account of the progressive globalisation of corporate architecture in ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism. Six points for an Architecture of Resistance’.

[v] See Kenneth Frampton, ibidem.

[vi] See Guy Debord ‘Society of the Spectacle’, Zone Books.

[vii] See Susan Sontag plea for the establishment of an Erotics; ‘Against Interpretation’(1966)

[viii] See T.W. Adorno ‘Identität Denken’ :

[ix] saying it like it is

[x] Hypostasise: to treat something abstract as a material thing; to subsume a thing beneath an abstract category.

[xi] Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, Oxford University Press, 1975.

[xii] See Zerzan’s defense of the Dr. Theodore John Kaczynski also known as the Unabomber

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