Rethinking the periphery through rural ruins in the Euroregion New-Aquitaine, Euskadi, Navarra
In the aim of exploring and projecting a territorial development model adapted to present and future societal and climatic contingencies, I present here a possible reversal of the urban sprawl phenomenon: rethinking the city from the countryside. The French-Spanish Euroregion of New Aquitaine Euskadi Navarre, formed in 2016, has a strong presence of rural ruins. Throughout Europe, the depopulation of villages has accelerated with demographic decline. The issue is to build and theorise a "rurapolis" made up of rural clusters.
Beyond the recurrent and attractive concept of a return to nature, in opposition to the sprawling metropolis, it is a matter of exploring the interstices, of figuring the potential of agricultural techniques readapted by technology, of valorising the infrastructures at the level of the territory and the possibilities offered by new modes of functioning in society such as teleworking or even new family constellations. The idea of common intervenes on the urban level: extrapolation and reinforcement of village entities in the territory, and on the architectural level: rethinking rural architecture as new typologies of habitat and life.
The rural ruins would be reactivated by a network of interaction, cultural and logistical platforms, possibly made of raw earth concrete, and creating an identifiable framework on the territory. A participatory process of self-construction on selected sites, making the project physically and culturally visible, would inaugurate it in the short term. In the intermediate period, the rurapolis would be designed at the European and cross-border level of the Euroregion. Finally, the vocabulary created would make it possible to apply the "interstellar" and rural network model elsewhere in Europe, like a construction laboratory adapted to our anthropocene future.
The starting point of the reflection process is the periphery - indeed, the analysis of the suburban space leads to the questioning of urban planning methods and territorial policies that seem out of step with the challenges and aspirations of a context disrupted by the health crisis and climate change. Bruno Latour, in his book Où atterrir?, starts with the hypothesis that "Without this idea that we have entered a New Climatic Regime, we cannot understand either the explosion of inequalities or the scope of deregulations (...) To resist this loss of common orientation, we will have to land somewhere." The issues at stake call into question the validity of urban sprawl, raising the question of the future of the metropolis.
The present proposal is based on an exhaustive urbanistic investigation of the peripheral phenomenon, which led to architectural action through a process of participatory self-construction in dormitory urban neighbourhoods, poor in infrastructure and cultural offerings. I have been conducting this process, entitled Repensar la Periferia [Rethinking the Periphery], in collaboration with a local architectural collective - Orekari Estudio - since 2016 in the urban agglomeration of Pamplona, capital of the autonomous community of Navarra, Spain. While in this periphery, the question arises of new models to explore, of living urban material that will be able to show a resilient future for the city.
The aim here is to study a possible process of reversing the urban-rural dialectic. How can we rethink the future of European cities from the rural world, and imagine places of commons in view of the environmental and socio-political challenges?
What if, instead of thinking of the metropolis as an entity spreading out from its centre, an alternative entity to the existing metropolis was formed in the cross-border territory of the New Aquitaine-Euskadi-Navarra Euroregion, in an "interstellar" form, made up of reactivated abandoned villages? Thus the rural clusters would form this fifth "metropolis" - which would become an "agropolis" - alongside the four existing metropolis (San Sebastian, Bordeaux, Bilbao and Pamplona) in the Euroregion.
State of the art
Today we are facing an ecological and systemic need to rethink the organisation of the territory beyond urban sprawl. By invoking a recurrent concept - a return to nature treated in existing or projected architectural utopias such as Ebenezer Howard's Garden City (1898), Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre-City project (1929) or Andrea Branzi's Agronica (1994), the research also dives in the more recent phenomenon of neo-ruralism, treated among others by Joan Nogué (Rediscovering Place: New Ruralities, New Landscapes and a Paradigm Shift, 2016 ) or Michel Chevalier (Neo-rural phenomenons, 1981 ). The re-enchanted countryside is also taking on a political dimension with the work of Bruno Latour and the economist Elinor Ostrom (her book from 1990, Governing the Commons sets out other possible modes of governance, particularly in the management of environmental resources). Finally, the potential of the rural environment is made visible in the current research of the architect Rem Koolhaas (Countryside, the Future), the philosopher Sébastien Marot (Agriculture Architecture - Taking the country's side) or the urban planner Paola Viganó (the concept of diffuse city and the contributions to the Projet de Territoire Grand Genève 2016-2030 or Luxembourg in Transition - Territorial visions for the decarbonised and resilient future of a cross-border space).
The corpus also draws on expertise gained from my work on the peripheries in Paris, Berlin and Pamplona, coupled with longstanding theoretical research on the periurban phenomenon, but also the idea of the common in the rural environment - to the study of ecovillages and historical community models such as Monte Verità (1900-1924), in Switzerland. At the crossroads of these urbanistic, artistic, self-building, rehabilitation and investigative practices - as well as at the crossroads of the territories in which I have lived and acted - I wish to combine these practices and acquired knowledge to continue to progress in the network(s) created at the local and European level.
It is also a question of proposing a contribution to the ecological transition by taking into account collective subjectivity. In his book Les Trois Écologies (1989), the philosopher Félix Guattari describes "social ecosophy" as the reconstruction of "the whole modalities of being-in-group (...) by existential mutations concerning the essence of subjectivity”. According to the author, it is necessary to implement "effective practices of experimentation at both micro-social as well as larger institutional levels."
The research is anchored in a specific European and cross-border territory, with an identity under construction: the Euroregion New Aquitaine Euskadi Navarre, established in 2016. Crossed by the vast mountainous relief of the Pyrenees, this territory has seen a particularly striking rural depopulation. The research project is based on the study of a nucleus of 88 deserted villages in the Arce Valley.
On the one hand, I intend to adopt a theoretical approach and recover the knowledge accumulated over years of research on the periphery in Navarre, and on the other, to broaden the resonance of the problems addressed by extending this research project to the Euroregion as a whole, thus reversing the anchorage point: the villages, the rural life of a cross-border region. Beyond research, the project is based on a position that encompasses the need for a transition at social, political and territorial level - and my means of action as a researcher and architect. In this territory, a cultural, political and social approach is proposed, with architecture and urbanism as tools. A figure from the world of biology helps to put into perspective the purpose of the project, formulated according to a contrasting logic: the lichenisation. The figure of the lichen, an organic element born of other heterotrophic constituents, would make it possible to interpret a metaform that reconnects the abandoned villages.
The Iberian network of Ecoaldeas, which is part of the European Ecolise network, launched a pilot programme in 2015 with the government of Navarra called Rehabitar la Tierra (Relive the Earth), to rehabilitate abandoned villages in the region. The Red Ibérica de Ecoaldeas states as an introduction to its website : "The evolution of land management and current agricultural practices do not guarantee the survival of villages; as a result, the decline of various rural areas is a reality. Facing this challenge implies rethinking the current model of "rural life".
The reactivation of rural ruins would be initiated by the creation of an operational architecture that would be affixed on the territory in order to compose the cultural and infrastructural bases of the future agropolis. One of the techniques to be tested here would be that of tabiyya - raw earth concrete - to form as a project base small "totem" architectures on a 1:1 scale. This technique consists in the construction of massive walls, made by compressing the earth in self-built molds. When the structure is finished, the removed formwork reveals the colour and texture particular to the stabilized rammed earth, thus architecturally revealing the earth on which it was built and from which it is made.
Here a second figure is summoned, illustrating the action of the project: the figure of terra preta, a humus worked by man for thousands of years and made extremely fertile. Transposed to the scale of the Euroregion's territory, the terra preta metaphor would highlight a territorial strategy bearing the imprint of its soil. Starting from this soil, and from the ruins of villages that will gradually be reinvested, the image of a presumed "organic" metropolis, found in the earth, gradually unfolds.
The proposed involvement will allow the theoretical corpus to evolve in real time. By integrating raw earth construction into the process of making and thinking, as a material for creation, construction and rehabilitation, it is a matter of reinventing a constructive system by reinterpretating processes that are much more sober and much more respectful of the natural environment. The practice and the collective experimentation around this material, its anchoring in this territory will allow to contribute to the evolution of a knowledge, whose methodology would be likely to be reinvested in other contexts and projects. This mapped, contextualised, written and represented research can serve as a pilot case for the whole of Europe - an instrument for an European urban planning adapted to the ecological transition.
The research is based on three scales and temporalities:
First, the short term, based on participative action and cultural programming. With the Rethinking the Periphery [Repensar la Periferia] project, we invested four contrasting areas of the Navarrese periphery, following a methodology that has been tested throughout the process: field analysis, a participatory process including a self-construction project, and then a cultural programme where we invite contemporary artists to come and interact with the ephemeral architecture collectively created. In this perspective, the participatory and cultural process experimented with our project Rethinking the Periphery and widely practiced by many European collectives such as Bruit du Frigo, in France, Raumlaborberlin, in Germany, or Todo por la Praxis, in Spain, serves here as an impulse to establish a methodology. By means of a practice strongly anchored in the field and the local area, impelling theoretical research and trans-scalar design work, the purpose is here to give a more radical and committed dimension to the fieldwork initiated in recent years, the institutions and the associative fabric in the Euroregion New Aquitaine Euskadie Navarre. The methodology applied aims to familiarise, connect and sublimate another way of life in the rural environment. It is addressed to the inhabitants of the area and the entities involved in the process, as well as to the public authorities. In order to make the project understood, participatory mapping and self-building workshops will be organised to exchange on the context and share the learning of raw earth construction. These prototypes, which have emerged from the rural soil and been built together, will be activated by cultural actions (concerts, plays and performances) to make the project's purpose visible. The abandoned village of Aritzakun, in Navarre, located 4.5 km from the French border, is occasionally animated by its former inhabitants, now living between the two countries. This cross-border location, deserted but still very present in people's minds, would be ideal for setting up this first stage of the project. By changing the mental barriers that separate the city dweller from the countryside - entities that are becoming closer and closer with the widespread use of teleworking - the challenge is to make the village friendly and attractive. Thus, the participatory process and the cultural programming as the inaugural phase of the project allow the research to be anchored in the field.
Secondly, the intermediate time, which will draw the connection of these villages at the level of the investigated territory. The aim here will be to design an architectural soil in rammed earth. The villages under study would reborn from their ruins, grafted onto a network of raw earth architectures constituting cultural, logistical platforms, interaction points, or finally habitable elements. For the Swiss architect Gion A. Caminada, the barn abandoned as a result of the evolution of village life should be able to give rise to the creation of a new typology of housing: part of the old barn would become a space for free use, offering a new potential that typologically does not exist in an urban environment. The objective is to study and project the territory and the architecture adapted to new ways of living - working the land based on the study of ancestral techniques such as pastoralism, permaculture (Marot, 2019), or innovative ones such as 'technological farms' (Koolhaas, 2020) and remote working.
Thirdly, the agropolis will be projected over the long term, and a vocabulary that makes the project developed in the cross-border territory of the Euroregion applicable elsewhere in Europe will be formed. The whole European territory is facing the depopulation of rural areas, particularly in mountainous regions. The model of the rural community, dissected and multiplied, becomes the laboratory for the construction of the "city" of tomorrow. Starting from a dynamic of entropy, in connection with the contemporary problems of urban sprawl, the projectual vision adapted to our anthropocene future, approached on a cultural as well as infrastructural basis, can create a model of a resilient city.
 Bruno Latour, Où atterrir ? Comment s’orienter en politique, Ed. La Découverte, 2017 p.16 - English Down to earth : politics in the new climatic regime
 Joan Nogué, El reencuentro con el lugar: nuevas ruralidades, nuevos paisajes y cambio de paradigma, Documents d’Anàlisi Geogràfica 2016, vol. 62/3 - English Rediscovering Place: New Ruralities, New Landscapes and a Paradigm Shift
 Michel Chevalier, Les phénomènes néo-ruraux, L’Espace Géographique 1981 - English Neo-rural phenomenons