Imaginary(s) of a reinvented urbanity

Rural ruins as an algorithm of the post-urban landscape in a cross-border territory


The roots of the Rurapolis as a primary postulate for future territorial development raise the question of representation, and especially its most 'problematic' expression, which are its boundaries, its abandoned spaces. This anchor point, which constitutes the problematization of urban sprawl in future urbanistic scenarios, starts from this fragmented landscape to outline the formulation of an alternative universe, insofar as it would be more capable of adapting to current and future climatic and social contingencies. This postulate also takes into account a case where, according to a study published in 2020 (Liu et al., 2020), the surface area of urban space increased by 80% between 1985 and 2015 (four times more than previously estimated), and could be multiplied by six by 2100.

This analysis 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 which way can representation play a preponderant role in the construction of the "polis" of tomorrow? How can we construct the narrative, the project of a "polis" adapted to the climatic, social and territorial contingencies of the post-anthropocene era?

In the context of the climate crisis, Bruno Latour, in his 2017 book entitled Where to land (Latour, 2017), asks the same question. In this work, he stresses the importance of knowing "how to orientate oneself. And therefore to draw something like a map of the positions imposed by this new landscape." (Latour, 2017: 2)

The historian and director Frédérique Aït-Touati, the landscape architect Alexandra Arènes and the architect Axelle Grégoire have collaborated with the philosopher on several occasions, notably in theatrical lecture-performances[1]. They are also the authors of Terra Forma, a 'manual of potential cartographies' (Aït-Touati et al., 2019) which, following in the footsteps of Bruno Latour's theories[2], takes as its starting point 'this new definition of the habitable earth' (Aït-Touati et al, 2019: 11) to establish, through seven tool-models, modes of representation likely to bring to light '(...) possible visions of the world sketched by different prisms, like so many optical instruments: by depths, by movements, by the point of life, by peripheries, by the pulse, by hollows, by disappearances and ruins' (Aït-Touati et al., 2019: 16).

The sixth and seventh tool-models of this experimental cartographic manual, entitled (re)sources and memory(s), show the figure of the ruin as a continuity and not a rupture, a new topography that regains its habitability by reintegrating the natural soil from which it originated. More than points of rupture, the scars and asperities of the territory, marked, drawn and reinterpreted, become so many points of anchorage for the project.

"The first stage of the drawing process consists of establishing a network of points scattered throughout the territory, "living sources" that can be activated around, on the fringes of, or within the exhausted sites. (...) The challenge is then to connect exhausted landscapes and ruins to living sources and the living. (...) At this stage, the notion of habitability must be redefined. It no longer refers to the capacity of a place or a territory to accommodate the living, but rather to the potential of the entities present to create a world together through their interrelationships.” (Aït-Touati et al., 2019 : 155)

According to the philosopher Patrice Maniglier, who is also in line with Bruno Latour's research (Maniglier, 2021), it is essential to construct a narrative of [terrestrial]ialisation. Just as modernism made industrialisation habitable and desirable, as witnessed by the work of great architects such as Le Corbusier, Jean Prouvé or also Charlotte Perriand, who worked to make industrial materials and mass production beautiful and attractive, it is now a matter of constructing a lyricism that mirrors the latter – 'a lyricism of terrestrialisation' (Maniglier, 2022). The elaboration of this collective narrative is a cultural issue, in order to get out of the modernist, human-centred imaginary of a phenomenology as demonstrated by the philosophers Martin Heidegger or Gaston Bachelard, and to achieve a paradigm shift. Because habitability as a narrative of 'reterrestrialization', according to the analogical term used by Patrice Maniglier, is not a phenomenological problem, it is a geological problem. It means moving from a human-centred to a geo-centred problematic.

This narrative of a return to the earth is, however, neither very attractive nor very clear to the community today - and above all difficult to conjugate with current thinking on the urban landscape and its development. The happy frugality and the return to nature so much advocated after the lockdown and in the face of the ecological crisis have an anxiety-provoking and distressing aspect, and are not well suited to our urban lifestyle.

This topic, based on fieldwork, takes as its object of study the outskirts of the metropolis of Pamplona, Spain - and by what could be considered its extension, the rural ruins present in the region of Navarre of which Pamplona is the capital. The formation under study, induced by the territory, extends over a cultural and geographical area bordering France and Spain - covering Navarra (on the Spanish side), and the Atlantic Pyrenees department (on the French side) separated by the Pyrenean mountains.

The project hypothesis places the rural ruins, which constitute one of the characteristics of this territory, as the activating, built elements of a Rurapolis - a city formed by rural nuclei, thus creating a complementary and alternative network within this territory and its context already constituted by two metropolises: the cross-border basin and urban exchange pole Hendaye-Irun, and Pamplona. The Rurapolis would form a third entity, invisible for the moment - a real post-urban alternative in the face of urban sprawl and societal, post-pandemic and climatic paradigm changes.

Pamplona and its urban area account for 50% of the total population of Navarre, and the metropolis is in constant demographic and geographical growth. This endemic urban growth is mirrored by the rest of the region, which has been gradually emptied, with the depopulation of a total of 109 villages in the whole of Navarra (Maljean González, Pons Izquierdo, 2021)[3].

Rural depopulation and the subsequent abandonment of entire villages has been an inexorable process over recent decades, due to the rural exodus that has affected a large part of Europe. Nevertheless, the main reason for the depopulation is the topography of this cross-border area of Navarra and the Atlantic Pyrenees - a mountainous or semi-mountainous landscape, which from the 1950s/60s onwards has made agricultural production difficult - with the modernisation of agricultural techniques, for a population whose livelihood was based almost exclusively on these activities (Floristán Samanes, 1986)[4]. On the other hand, a counter-phenomenon can also be observed: the reactivation and repopulation of rural nuclei, of which there were 26 in the period 1981-2020 (Maljean González, Pons Izquierdo, 2021).

At the same time, governmental public institutions are seriously concerned by the problem, as shown for example by the creation in 2019 of a commission to tackle rural depopulation[5]. The institutional and societal interest in developing a fundamental reflection on the future of the territory and our ways of living and inhabiting is therefore clearly present.

Fig. 1 · Lichenization and wandering as tools for mapping and projecting.

In possession of this data, it is now a matter of foreseeing the urbanistic, infrastructural and above all cultural project that would make it possible on a territorial scale for a project of repopulation and reactivation to counterbalance the urban/rural, periphery/countryside relationship.

This is where the issue of representation takes on its full meaning - this process of reflection that constitutes the Rurapolis research hypothesis is understood as working with different layers, with levels, similar to a geological approach. In order to do this, an image is used as the starting point for the process of theoretical reflection, but also for cartographic and projectual representation: the lichenization, an organic form that will become embedded in the pre-existing fabric of the territory, which will be capable of disrupting the process of urban sprawl, by creating a counter-process.

Fig. 2 · Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur – Sheet 83: Lichenes (1904) Wikimedia Commons

Considering the situation brought about by our metropolises, where the extension of the suburban city is gradually erasing the contrasts between the city and the rural areas, the figure of the lichen, an organic element born from other heterotrophic constituents, makes it possible to interpret a rural metaform made up of villages that have been abandoned for decades. Like heterotrophic fungus, the villages are reborn from their ruins, only to graft themselves and create new structures that are still invisible to the naked eye. The figure of lichenisation suggests a form of organic urbanisation, respectful of the past and the geography of the territory in which it is anchored, grafted onto the existing, multiple and protean, regular in its development, in a temporality adapted to each micro-entity, each community.

Fig. 3 · Cartographic representation of the Rurapolis, in Navarra Rurapolis is an archipelago, a multi-layered territory, a lychen Rurapolis is made up of those villages - Mendinueta, Egulbati, Zai, Góngora, Beroiz, Aritzakun, Urbicáin, Eransus, Gardalain, Guetádar, Apardués, Belzunegui, Arangozqui… which constitute your past and our future Rurapolis uses the earth as raw material for the reactivation of ruins and places

The imaginary of a project such as the Rurapolis must be signified, represented and told as a story that is part of the continuity of the territory and of our cities.

Made up of and nourished by territories in the full mutation, the metropolis of tomorrow can reinvent itself as a rurapolis, based on the representation of an imaginary and the construction of a narrative that reenchants rural ruins - and by this gesture reconquer a yet so close, but forgotten territory. The attractiveness of the metropolis, its competitiveness in relation to others, is in fact less and less a subject in the light of the upheavals of the beginning of the twenty-first century; what is a subject is its capacity for 'hospitality' and 'territorial complementarity' (Szeftel, 2021: II).

As such, the projection of cultural and social movements and interconnections plays a crucial role in the development of a narrative, a common story. Just as the Rurapolis emerges here through a representation of previously invisible elements in the territory - these rural ruins and their possible functioning as an interconnected network - it is relevant to think through drawing, and the elaboration of narratives through projectual visions, taking on its full significance in the face of future challenges. In this context, the challenge of representativeness is linked to the issue of habitability, and the project of a possible algorithm of the post-urban landscape is positioned as a model for other geographical territories.

[1] See the theatre productions Gaïa Global Circus (2011-2013), Inside (2016-2017), Moving Earths (2019-2020) and Viral (2020)

[2] See in particular: Latour B. (2015) Face à Gaïa - Huit conférences sur le nouveau régime climatique. Paris: La Découverte

[3] Interactive cartographic study gathering census data to analyse depopulation in Navarra between 1981 and 2020

[4] This older study relates, on a handwritten map, the difference in altitude between medium and high mountains and the abandonment of the rural nuclei affected in the Navarra region

[5] Comisión Interdepartamental de Lucha contra la Despoblación, created by the Gobierno de Navarra


• Aït-Touati F., Arènes A., Grégoire A. (2019) Terra Forma – Manuel de cartographies potentielles, Paris : B42

• Floristán Samanes, A. (1986) «Los nuevos despoblados de Navarra».Príncipe de Viana, 145-163

• Latour, B. (2017) Où atterrir ? Comment s'orienter en politique. Paris : La Découverte

• Liu, X., Huang, Y., Xu, X., Li, X., Li, X., Ciais, P., Lin, P., Gong, K., Ziegler, A., Chen, A., Gong, P., Chen, J., Hu, G., Chen, Y., Wang, S., Wu, Q., Huang, K., Estes, L. et Zeng, Z. (2020). «High-spatiotemporal-resolution mapping of global urban change from 1985 to 2015». Nature Sustainability, 3(7), 564-570

• Maljean González, P., Pons Izquierdo, JJ. (2021). Despoblación y Despoblamiento en Navarra, “Universidad de Navarra” [Online]. Disponible sur : [11 juin 2021]

• Maniglier P. (2021) Le Philosophe, la Terre et le Virus – Bruno Latour expliqué par l’actualité. Paris : Les liens qui libèrent

• Maniglier, P. (2022). La question est comment passer de la production à l’habitabilité ? “Conférence inaugurale du cycle: Habitabilité sur terre - Que peut l’architecture ? – Ministère de la Culture” [Online]. Disponible sur : [24 janvier 2022]

• Szeftel, E. (2021) «La métropole dans tous ses états». Le temps des villes, Hors-série Libération [02-03.10.2021], II

Article extracted from the paper Rurapolis - Imaginary(s) of a reinvented urbanity for the international colloquium "Gaze algorithms" at the Department of Architecture and Design (daD) of the University of Genoa (UniGe), in partnership with the Research Laboratory of the Architecture School of Versailles (LéaV) - 29-30 April 2022