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Contemporary RURALITIES

Architecture facing the socio-environmental challenges of perimetropolitan areas


According to a recent study, the surface area of urban land use could be multiplied over six times by 2100 (Liu et al., 2020). Our responsibility as architects and urban planners in the face of this challenge is to develop a vision of territory that questions the boundaries of metropolitan areas.

The research project entitled Rurapolis aims to rethink the suburban space from the existing rural ruins in a cross-border territory located between the Atlantic Pyrenees in France and Navarre and Aragon in Spain. The climatic evolution of the region would be drastic by 2050 (LIFE NAdapta, 2021), making the scenario of a rurapole composed of about thirty abandoned villages a feasible one. The reactivation of this archipelago of villages is based on a precise and multiscalar methodology, questioning projects invoking the notion of contemporary rurality, in order to develop a territorial proposal likely to become a model on a European scale.

The Rurapolis as a territorial formation takes into consideration the original definition of the metropolis, retaining only its choronym 'polis', understood here as a social and human structure rooted in a territory, and free from any geographical determinism other than its original structure. In his essay Les Métropoles Barbares [The Barbarian Metropolises], Guillaume Faburel defines the modern European metropolis as an invasive form, associated with "the birth of European colonial empires and the exploitation of conquered territories"[1]. In the book La España Vacía [Empty Spain], Sergio del Molino describes the myth of an unknown and untamed territory for most Spaniards, with 80% of the population living in the big cities. For this "country of conquerors and plunderers such as Spain has been[2]", the demographic desert, accentuated by the rural exodus, which represents more than half of Spanish territory, is a source of both despair and fantasy of (re)conquest.

Between 1985 and 2015, almost 10,000 km2 of the planet's territory was converted into urban space each year. The surface area of suburban development has increased by 80% compared to the state of cities before 1985. This unprecedented rate of urbanisation is four times higher than previously estimated and could increase sixfold by 2100[3].

How can this invasive urban development model be remedied? What model should be proposed in the face of the environmental and sociological crisis raised by the latest IPCC report? The aim here is to study a possible process of reversal of the urban-rural dialectic: how can we rethink the future of European cities from the rural world, and imagine places of commonality in the face of environmental and socio-political challenges?

The Rurapolis is located in a cross-border area between the Atlantic Pyrenees in France and the regions of Navarre and Aragon in Spain, starting from the suburban context of Pamplona, the capital of Navarre. This small metropolis (a little over 360,000 inhabitants on approximately 500km2)[4] has developed, like many European cities, in concentric circles around its ancient walls. Suburban districts gradually sprang up, decade after decade, from 1920 onwards, colonising formerly agricultural land, covering or encompassing moribund villages that had been hit by the rural exodus a few years earlier. Like the new town of Sarriguren, where between 2002 and 2008 around 5,000 homes were built on the ruins of the old village of the same name, of which all that remains today is the church and three adjacent buildings, preserved as a discreet symbol in the heart of the ultra-modern horizon of this concrete "eco-neighbourhood "[5]. The former inhabitants had abandoned it in the 1960s to seek a better future in the city and today the city has caught up with the village. Just 9 km east of Sarriguren is Egulbati, another hamlet also abandoned in 1961, 1.5 km from Egulbati is the depopulated village of Eransus, a little further on is Laboa, and so on into Aragon and the French border, along the Pyrenees. Pamplona and its urban area, which is constantly growing, account for 51% of the total population of Navarre. However, the rest of the region mirrors this endemic urban growth, with a total of 109 villages depopulated[6]. The formation under study, called Rurapolis, is studying the possibility of reactivating 31 of these rural nuclei, forming a networked city, covering an area of around 700km2.

Fragments of Rurapolis | Credits: Salomé Wackernagel

It is precisely this part of the region located to the east of Pamplona, on the edge of the Pyrenees, that becomes interesting when another parameter comes into consideration: its climatic evolution, which was modelled as part of a study carried out by the European Union's Life programme in 2020, analysing the climatic evolution of Navarre between 1961 and 2080. The forecast map that resulted from this study shows a metamorphosis of bioclimatic conditions in the Pyrenean area between now and 2050, from a high mountain biosphere to conditions equivalent to a medium mountain area. By 2080, the current biosphere that characterises the Pyrenean area will have practically disappeared and will be replaced by a huge hill, with conditions similar to those currently found in the Pamplona valley. In view of this bioclimatic situation, the Rurapolis archipelago is becoming attractive once again as an area for the implementation of demographic densification that respects the territory, its requirements and its evolution.

The abandoned villages should not have to suffer the same destiny as Sarriguren, i.e. almost entirely buried and over-densified using a mineral and energy-intensive construction process. By taking into account the existing buildings, soils, infrastructures and cultivation methods, it is possible to imagine an alternative network reactivation project. In fact, a specific counter-phenomenon of village reactivation took place in the study area from the 1980s onwards[7], which is in line with what can be described as "neo-ruralism", a term that appeared at about the same time[8], and which is now being questioned by a large part of society (with the anxieties conveyed by climate change, and moreover since the start of the pandemic), where there has been a renewed interest in returning to the countryside.

Rurapolis map in the cross-border Pyrenean territory (Navarre, Aragon, New Aquitaine) | Credits: Salomé Wackernagel

Two reactivations, which do not, however, involve reflection at the territorial level (focusing merely on the rehabilitation of one of these villages or hamlets), are exemplary in the territory under study.

Firstly, the work carried out by the Orekari studio in the village of Zoroquiain in collaboration with the community. Abandoned since the 1960s, located 20 km from Pamplona, it was in a situation of almost total collapse when it was bought in 2015 by nine families who decided to start by transforming the desecrated church into a community centre. The public authorities re-established the water connection, electricity and the rubbish collection. Since 2017, Orekari has been overseeing the rehabilitation of four of the eleven houses that make up the heart of the village, following a model of sustainable rural development based on bioclimatic architecture and energy autonomy. This method of rehabilitation includes collective self-construction in "auzolan[9]" and bio-construction, with special emphasis on the use of straw (local) and wood, which is reinforced with the reuse of materials (stones from the ruins). "Zoroquiain thus opens the way to a new paradigm, where bioclimatic housing, self-building and rurality can once again be combined with modernity and within the legal framework, helping to recover abandoned spaces and thus contributing to the enhancement of small rural population centres.[10]".

Another example of reactivation in the area under study is the project for the abandoned village of Ruesta[11], in Aragon, by the architect Sergio Sebastián. Strictly speaking, this is not a question of habitable rehabilitation (although there is a youth hostel open all year round), but rather a project of symbolic revaluation, intended to halt the slow but inexorable advance of the process of ruination. Crossed by a branch of the Santiago de Compostela path, the first justification for this project with a heritage and tourist purpose is its consolidation and security. The project carried out in 2017 is the result of a meticulous analysis of each building. Effective and economical, it consists of "completing" the collapsed walls with a post-and-beam system in raw concrete: a radical and minimalist approach. The poured concrete protects the stone walls from progressive collapse and lateral movements, drawing "like a memorial, a white line that defines, from the air, the pattern of the old village of Ruesta".[12] This structural consolidation represents, according to the architect, "a realistic alternative to the phenomenon of abandonment that affects the empty Spain"[13].

Rural depopulation and the abandonment of entire villages have been taking place over the last few decades as a result of a rural exodus that has disrupted much of Europe. At a time when the reconsideration of peri-urban and rural space is necessary in view of the omens of our post-anthropocene era, it is clear that the (re)taking in hand of these forgotten territories is feasible and even desirable. The two examples mentioned above are one-off reactivation projects, centred around the revaluation of a single entity. The territorial dimension of the problem implies the development of a global vision of the reactivation of rural ruins, which, moreover, does not only concern abandoned village buildings, but also abandoned lands, paths, roads and railways. Spain currently has 4,500km of disused railways (compared to 13,600km in France). Since 1994, just over 3200km of tracks that were previously also abandoned have been converted into bicycle paths[14]. In the study area, there are two dismantled railway lines that could be recovered as part of a project such as Rurapolis: the old lines linking Pamplona to Aoiz and Sangüesa; part of the abandoned section from Sangüesa (50km) was converted into a natural path for non-motorised mobility in 2022.

After this inventory of the situation in relation to the field under study, a broader theoretical and conceptual corpus must be invoked in order to carry out the Rurapolis scenario as a multi-scalar reactivation project. This corpus calls upon four projectual perspectives, mostly operating off the ground (i.e. developed in a fictitious territory, although rooted in a precise contextual analysis).

Countryside, A Report is the essay that complements the choral exhibition Countryside, The Future, presented at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2020. In this essay, Rem Koolhaas and his AMO team present a global vision of the countryside and its mutations, with a historical and transversal analysis from Antiquity to Fourrier's phalanstery, a utopian project that would lead to self-sufficient micro-cities deployed in the countryside. Finally, an optimistic vision of the future of the countryside is unfolded, centred on the one hand around a preserved landscape, and on the other hand around the automation of food production, ranging from the use of drones in agriculture to high-tech greenhouses. Could it be that the embryonic reflection on the hybridisation capacities of the territory lies in the project entitled Berlin, A Green Archipelago[15]? In this project, which takes as its model of experimentation a historical and dystopian city (West Berlin in 1977), encircled by a wall and demographically drained, the parts that are still effective “would lie like islands in the otherwise free city area and form an archipelago of architectures in a green and natural lagoon[16]. The architects Oswald Mathias Ungers and Rem Koolhaas “imagine landscape typologies such as parks, dense forests and agricultural areas, as well as other spaces such as urban farms, ecological reservoirs (...)[17].

In line with the theoretical reflections of Rem Koolhaas, with whom he has also been in dialogue recently,[18] the philosopher Sébastien Marot proposes a futuristic vision sketched out in four scenarios. With the exhibition Agriculture and Architecture: Taking the country's side, presented at the Lisbon Triennial in 2019, whose manifesto is compiled in the form of a book published in 2022, he analyses the consequences of the industrialisation of agriculture for the territory. He questions the future of our metropolises in relation to our vulnerability to the ecological and health crisis, with the issue of food autonomy at the forefront. The last scenario, entitled Secession, is the most radical: Sébastien Marot uses the cosmic metaphor to underline the fact that it "breaks free" from the “orbit of existing metropolises". While this scenario is “improbable at first sight, it is also the only one that takes the full measure of the profound reorganisation called for by the environmental impasse in which we find ourselves[19].

The two examples mentioned above, although they point to a new approach – the rural environment – and propose a global, historical and visionary vision of the problem, are not anchored in any particular context, nor do they propose any concrete s olution. It is therefore interesting, after these two prospective reflections, to look at two calls for projects located in European cross-border territories, in order to provide a comparative vision capable of nourishing the Rurapolis project.

In 2018, the Braillard Architects Foundation launched a prospective research consultation for Greater Geneva. Among the seven teams invited, the consortium headed by the urban planner Paola Viganò developed a vision based on the fundamentals: “Of soil and work: transition, a new bio-political project”. The analysis of the cross-border territory is based on the study of the factors of current soil degradation and the consequences thereof, as well as the forecast data, calculated for the year 2050, of the temperature increase. Here, as in the Pamplona basin, the areas where the heat will be greatest are exactly those where the city – and therefore the highest population density – is currently located.

Several “routes” show the “spatial and political project of decentralisation, territorial balance and horizontal relations” going “beyond the centre and the peripheries”. For example, the first prototype imagines an “agropolitan development” that is established in the Pays de Gex, on the French side, by proposing a cross-border connection: “The reopening of the railway line transforms St-Genis-Pouilly into an important node (...) a meeting place for agropolitan dynamics.[20]” The general proposal is to articulate the “post-carbon territory” around, on the one hand, “strong structures” that would be composed of, among other things, 75km of new railways – here too, this network would be reconstituted from the network that has now disappeared, reconstructed according to a 1925 map. On the other hand, the “weak structures”, comprising 55% of forest and wooded areas, 9% of wetlands and floodplains, 11% of urban areas, and 25% of cultivated agricultural areas. Viganò also insists on establishing a “diffuse habitability"[21] and a long-term settlement, based on a histogram constituted from the original villages of the Greater Geneva basin. This “metropolis of villages” is a planning model that takes up a historical reality, contrary to current centralist suburban developments.

The urban-architectural and landscape consultation Luxembourg in Transition has been launched in 2020 in order to gather strategic proposals for the ecological transition of the Luxembourg cross-border functional region. The TVK agency proposes an “infrastructure for the territories of subsistence”, with a method starting from the production modes of the food and construction sectors to give back, here too, a consistency to a soil (which has been progressively nibbled, artificialized and urbanised). The analysis makes it possible “to imagine a transition towards a more reasoned mode of subsistence, which [puts] on equal footing the metropolitan vision of the territory centred on its urban polarities, and the rural vision focused on the resource landscapes[22]”.

In the first season of the project (2022-2025), the intensive agricultural farms are gradually converted to organic farming, with cooperation between farms allowing for an intervention on the landscape, with a redrawing of the pastures into zones of up to 9ha. A progressive reforestation would constitute a belt around these agricultural lands, weaving an ecosystem at the scale of the canton. A network of rural roads would allow movement between these areas.

In the fourth season (2038-2048), the rebalancing of the soil mentioned above would involve a rethinking of the principle of ownership - in this scenario, private gardens would be shared. While the utopian dimension of the project as presented is undeniable and its viability may be questioned, especially at the economic and social levels, the authors emphasise in their report that “living differently in the territory of the functional region of Luxembourg in 2050 is above all a societal project[23]”.

Although the above-mentioned references refer to over-densified trans-regional contexts located in the heart of Europe (Greater Geneva and Luxembourg), which are very different from the territory under study located on the edge of the Pyrenees ( in a historically rural and depopulated area), a similar issue can be found in both cases: the aim is to rethink the urban sprawl of an entity that is gradually being diluted over the territory, based on the potential of the suburbs and the countryside. In the context that interests us, where this urban core is surrounded by a sparsely populated area, there is not yet a formulated alternative to the ecological transition. This has yet to be sketched out, in terms of urban planning, architecture and landscaping. The Rurapolis project is based on the implementation of a concrete methodology for the reactivation of rural ruins that could become a model on a European scale. It intervenes at an architectural level, with the use of bio-sourced materials, including a catalogue of platforms and raw earth concrete "plots" (activation system including cabling and fluid connections for the rehabilitated buildings), the design of local wood frames and the implementation of a reuse protocol. These generic intervention elements are grafted onto the ruins, completing and densifying the abandoned villages, thus reactivated. On a territorial scale, the reactivation of the land is achieved through the re-division and reconversion into self-regenerative cultivation systems, and the reactivation of the network of roads and railways allows alternative mobilities to be initiated.

Rurapolis Typologies (Ruins of the abandoned village of Beroiz, Navarre) | Credits: Salomé Wackernagel

Thus, this methodology-resource is likely to constitute an atlas of typologies applicable to other contexts. It includes territorial development and peri-urban expansion in a narrative continuum, which, without putting obsolete rural practices back on the agenda, preserves uses and soils while making the need to rethink our system, through the reactivation of a heritage anchored in our collective imagination, viable and attractive. This approach makes sense today because the climatic and biospheric prognoses give back to these forgotten territories their function of habitability, making them post-urban spaces where we could eat, live and breathe.

[1] Faburel Guillaume: Les métropoles barbares - Démondialiser la ville, désurbaniser la terre [The Barbarian Metropolis – Deglobalizing the City, De-urbanizing the Land], Ed. Le Passager Clandestin 2020, p. 13

[2] Del Molina Sergio: La España vacía [Empty Spain], Ed. Turner 2016, p.31. Translated from Spanish

[3] Liu Xiaoping et al: High-spatiotemporal-resolution mapping of global urban change from 1985 to 2015, Nature Sustainability 3, 2020, pp. 564-570

[4] According to the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, INE), 2019

[5] The Sarriguren eco-neighbourhood was awarded the European Urban Planning Prize in 2008 in the Environment/Sustainable Development category for its moderate density, numerous green spaces and the bioclimatic aspect of the buildings (insulation above the national average, solar panels and partial water recovery). However, this new town is a typical example of a dormitory suburb with two to five-storey concrete buildings, lack of sunbreaks and shaded areas, a large asphalted and almost deserted commercial area, as well as a large amount of motorised traffic and extensive and artificial green areas, requiring a lot of maintenance and not very suitable for the development of biodiversity.

[6] Maljean González Pablo, Pons Izquierdo Juan José: Despoblación y Despoblamiento en Navarra [Depopulation in Navarra], Universidad de Navarra (UNAV) 2021 – Cartographic study and interactive data analysis visible at: gathering census data in Navarra from 1981 to 2020

[7] Floristán Samanes Alfredo: Los nuevos despoblados de Navarra [The new depopulated villages of Navarre], Ed. Príncipe de Viana, Anejo 2-3, Homenaje a José María Lacarra, 1986 pp. 145-163

[8] Chevalier Michel: Les phénomènes néo-ruraux [The neo-rural phenomenon], in L'Espace Géographique 1981

[9]Basque term for the participatory execution of tasks in the interest of the community

[10]Cabodevilla Antoñana Ioar: Orekari Estudio, Auzolan - Building in community, Lecture at the Rurapolis round table, École Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Versailles, 17.05.2022 – replay available on Youtube: [11] The inhabitants of Ruesta and two other villages, Escó and Tiermas, were expropriated in 1959 in order to build the Yesa dam, now known as the "Sea of the Pyrenees". The ruins of these three villages overlook the dam today.

[12] Sebastián Sergio: Rehabilitación de Ruesta, Plan de Actuación [Rehabilitation of Ruesta, Action Plan], Blog of the Sergio Sebastián Arquitectos agency, 19.02.2018

[13] Sebastián Sergio: Ruesta, 2019 The author is referring here to that immense depopulated space that covers a large part of the Iberian Peninsula, the title of the aforementioned essay by Sergio del Molino (where, incidentally, a visit to the abandoned village of Ruesta is included in the first pages of the work, thus elevating it to the status of an emblem of this phenomenon).

[14] Thanks to the governmental programmes of "greenways" (Programa de Vías Verdes, 1994), and "natural paths" (Programa de Caminos Naturales, 2021).

[15] Which he developed under the supervision of Oswald Mathias Ungers with Peter Riemann, Hans Kollhoff and Arthur Ovaska at Cornell University

[16] Koolhaas Rem: Berlin – A Green Archipelago, first version of the manifesto by Oswald Mathias Ungers and Rem Koolhaas with Peter Riemann, Hans Kollhoff and Arthur Ovaska: The City within the City, Berlin A Green Archipelago 1977, in: Florian Hertwerk, Sébastien Marot (Edit.): The City within the City, Berlin A Green Archipelago, annotated edition, Lars Müller Publishers Zürich and UAA Ungers Archive for Architectural Research 2013, p.12

[17] Brandlhuber Arno, Hertwerck Florian: Das Verhältnis der Stadt zur Natur [The relationship of the city to nature], in The Dialogic City - Berlin wird Berlin [Berlin becomes Berlin], Ed. Walther König, Cologne 2015, p. 94. Translated from the German

[18] Taking the Country's side: Rem Koolhaas and Sébastien Marot in conversation, Lecture at the Faculty of Architecture La Cambre Horta, 20.11.2022 – replay available on Youtube:

[19]Marot Sébastien: Taking the Country's side, Exhibition in the framework of the Lisbon Triennial, 2019.

[20] Viganò Paola: Of soil and work: transition, a new bio-political project, Lecture at the Braillard Architects Foundation, 13.10.2020 – replay available on Youtube:

[21]Viganò Paola, Hertwerck Florian,: Le sol comme projet commun,[The soil as a common project], Lecture at the Braillard Architects Foundation, 04.02.2021 – replay available on Youtube:

[22] TVK: Luxembourg in Transition - Infrastructure for the territories of subsistence, Second pre-report of the International Urban-Architectural and Landscape Consultation: Territorial vision for the decarbonised and resilient future of the Luxembourg functional region – horizon 2050, May 2021, p.66

[23] Ibid, p.71

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