Self-construction and performative art as ways of actions in abandoned landscapes of the French-Spanish Pyrenean border


In view of exploring and projecting a model of territorial development adapted to present and future societal and climatic contingencies, a methodology based on on self-construction and cultural action is explored. The Rurapolis Platforms are anchored in the cross-border territory of the Pyrenees - between Navarre in Spain and the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department in France. Through a raw earth collective construction process and contemporary dance, brought to the abandoned village of Egulbati for a few days, the issue of rural depopulation will be addressed in a region where there are more than a hundred abandoned villages. These ruins that crack the landscape are seen here as potential activating clusters of a Rurapolis adapted to the ecological transition. The aim here is to show how a small-scale cultural initiative - here, the Rurapolis Platforms – would allow one to take action in the context of the climate and health crisis, to assess the viability of a larger-scale, long-term territorial project, and finally to make visible, through a collective experience that revives a forgotten place, a possible renaissance of the rural environment and its ruins.


Rural ruins, Architecture, Rehabilitation, Earth, Performance, Culture, Territory

Terra es territorio,

(Terra is territory)

Terra es identidad,

(Terra is identity)

Terra es el lugar donde habitar.

(Terra is the place to live)

Habitar la periferia,

(Live the periphery)

Abrazar la periferia,

(Embrace the periphery)

O el miedo a salir de ella.

(Or the fear to leave it)

Abrazar las raíces,

(Embrace the roots)

Derrumbar fronteras,

(Tear the borders)

Y encontrarse donde sea.

(And meet wherever it is)

Extract from the performance Terra by the Colombian dancer and choreographer Galina Rodríguez, Pamplona, 2020

The Rurapolis project obviously implies a fine and precise analysis of the territorial relationships between the existing fabric – i.e. the suburbanity, the villages still in activity, the natural areas and the productive areas. This analysis involves a sensitive approach to the territory, its margins, its scars, through a process of wandering and walking that seeks to link the abandoned villages of the Rurapolis and the spaces of the diffuse city, using different modes of transport other than the car (walking, cycling, public transport). This exposes a marginal territory made up of off-centre nodes, with incomplete infrastructure and poorly adapted to the environmental challenges it faces, requiring a change of paradigm, of uses and of transportation.

The challenge of the Rurapolis project lies in the reflection on these interrelations. Because the recovery of rural ruins - these entire villages or settlements that have been deserted on the Spanish territory - does not only involve an architectural and constructive reflection on their rehabilitation. In fact, there are many very successful examples based on specific vernacular rehabilitations, as shown by the award-winning projects of the Spanish XV Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism (BEAU) entitled España Vacía, España Llena [Empty Spain, Full Spain], by architects such as David Sebastian (Casa en Tres Primaveras), the Studio Fuertespenedo (rehabilitations in Miraflores and Iabrega) or Sergio Sebastián (partial rehabilitation of the abandoned village of Ruesta and magnificent renovation of its chapel). In the area under study (western Navarre), the architects of Orekari Estudio are currently rehabilitating and building five houses in the abandoned village of Zoroquiain, according to the principles of bio-construction and in auzolan - a term from the Basque language used to define the principle of collective self-construction in the Basque Country and northern Navarre. Examples of attractive rehabilitations of rural ruins are becoming a model and are multiplying in contemporary architecture all over Europe (among many others, we can mention the work based on a manifesto of ruralism by the Collectif Encore in France, Helga Blocksdorf in Germany, Gion A. Caminada in Switzerland, or A25 Architetti in Italy). However, while there are many beautiful and effective models of rural rehabilitation, in which the original, obsolete building is transformed into a fabulous and inventive home (as demonstrated by the above-mentioned examples), the thought around the infrastructure of a [rura]polis made up of reactivated, networked rural nuclei, which are themselves linked to the surrounding urban centres and active villages, has yet to be created. Indeed, the Rurapolis as a territorial project does not only imply the rehabilitation of abandoned rural buildings, but also a new architectural thinking around a structure that can complete, extend and be grafted to the existing one.

The idea is to build an infrastructure anchored around platforms that punctuate the space of the Rurapolis, thus creating a network across the territory. These milestones, located along the network of paths, railways and/or completed or newly designed roads, would have multiple and evolving functionalities in the course of territorial development: firstly, a figurative totem, the structure built could then become a exchange platform for farmers and inhabitants. Another micro-architecture, initially an isolated stage for cultural events in a natural/rural environment, could over time, with the reactivation of the village next to it and the evolution of the climate, become an open-air amphitheatre. Another of these architectures representative of the Rurapolis would be the progressive extension of an abandoned building and gradually rehabilitated to become a house (again)... and so on. These structures, created from materials taken from the ground, are grafted onto the existing ruins – primarily platforms for exchange and dissemination of the Rurapolis, they progressively evolve at the same time as its territorial development.

The construction method proposed for these platforms that mark the networked formation of the Rurapolis is a material that has an ancestral building tradition in many parts of the world, including parts of Spain and France, and which is currently being recovered in the contemporary architectural scene, due to its constructive, aesthetic and above all ecological qualities: the rammed raw earth process, commonly known as tabiyya. Although the process of reactivation envisaged with the Rurapolis project in the Pyrenean cross-border territory does not leave out a reflection on vernacular materials – stone and wood – which have a long tradition in the region, the rammed earth, which is reused in contemporary architectural practice, is envisaged as an essential complementary technique due to its versatility and its living and ecological qualities. Thus, one can begin to imagine a repair of the existing, an extension, new minimal structures, or even new buildings in unprocessed raw earth concrete, in an evolutionary process that extends the organic, earthy dimension of the project.

The Rurapolis proposes reversed narrative of the urban way of life, and especially of the urban planning mode that generates peripheries that are ever more distant from the historical centres on which they depend, in order to reinvent a more ecological, self-sufficient and communitarian way of living, anchored in a patrimony and a natural territory. Most of us today are city dwellers who are unfamiliar with the rural way of life, its rhythm, its constraints and its possible adaptation to a hybrid functioning, integrating other ways of working and functioning in society. As a result, the narrative of happy frugality and a return to nature so much advocated after confinement and in the light of the climate crisis has an anxiety-inducing aspect. It is therefore essential from the outset to grasp and make attractive the Rurapolis as an alternative territorial development project. To this end, the research is based not only on a cartographic project of the territory, and a visualization of the Rurapolis Platforms, but also on self-construction as a collective experience. The experimentation with the earth material and the technique introduced, takes into account the cultural dimension that this initiatory moment – the articulation of the project at scale 1 – implies in the space-time of the Rurapolis.

In order to anchor the Rurapolis project as an initiatory rite in the territory, the construction of a basic module is planned for September 2022 in Navarre, in the abandoned village of Egulbati. The full-scale prototype will evoke the sacral and socially structuring figure of the frontón. The fronton, a key architectural element in the spatial construction of Basque villages, is a wall traditionally located on the main square - adjoining or using the church wall itself - designed for playing Basque pelota. The fronton as a generic architecture is in itself a masonry wall, often made of local stone, placed at the end of a flattened rectangular area, measuring approximately 10x30 metres. Examples of frontons are numerous and their size, shape, texture, colour and finish vary in each community, town, valley or village. The recreational and social use of the fronton is transcended by its cultural significance and identity. This simple and seemingly modest architecture is monumentalized by the role that is intrinsically attributed to it. As a recurring and symbiotic figure in the abandoned settlements visited during this research, the fronton confers by its mere presence on a desolate and neglected landscape, as if it would be a solitary totem, an atemporal and almost sacred character: it transforms the void, delimiting the space, into a presence conducive to human, social and cultural appropriation, like a unique civilisational element.

In this line, the object created as a physical and real introduction to the Rurapolis analysis area will be a kind of repetition of this frontis, created by a small group of participants supervised by an expert in rammed earth who will teach his know-how in this construction technique. Within the space of a few days, a simple prototypical architecture will be realized, charged with a meaning that extrapolates its form and its mere presence in this territory: create a polis [create a city], to demonstrate the tangibility of the Rurapolis through the collective self-construction of a small new and unifying monument in the middle of an abandoned landscape. The introduction of a new technique, albeit ancestral in this territory, the displacement of materials, people, efforts and energy that this intervention implies will allow us to take another look at the depopulated village of Egulbati (a village located on the outskirts of Pamplona, where this first intervention will take place) and to make the future large-scale territorial project of the Rurapolis visible.

Frontón in the abandoned village of Aritzakun, 2021

On another level, the cultural and identitary approach, linked to an emblematic element of the rural heritage and its sociability (invoking the figure of the Basque fronton), is found in the work of the architect Martino Pedrozzi and the long-term process entitled Ricomposizioni, in the Ticino Alps (in southern Switzerland). This project for the recovery of rustico architecture - small one-storey or single-storey buildings structured around a wooden frame, with a massive drystone envelope and a slate roof. These typical constructions, located in high mountain pastures, were once used as extra housing and barns during the summer months, in the period of transhumance. Today, due to the rural exodus and the changes in agricultural production and livestock breeding, these architectural objects have fallen into disuse and are now a feature of the Alpine landscape. The architect Martino Pedrozzi started to study and recompose them in 1994, rearranging the stones in a sculptural manner around the perimeter of the site of each house, thus creating an abstract and typological volume that pays tribute to a lost heritage. Pedrozzi is a professor at the School of Architecture in Mendrisio, and he integrates this process of Ricomposizioni into a pedagogical programme where, several times in recent years, groups of students (up to a hundred, as for example in 2019 in Luzzone, during a workshop involving architecture students from the three Swiss cantonal schools, Lausanne, Zurich and Mendrisio) go to the mountain pastures in the Malvaglia Valley to participate in workshops of symbolic recomposition, after several hours of walking to this remote territory in the middle of nature, moving and recutting stones to recreate geometric volumes that take up the initial imprint on the ground of each collapsed building. These Ricomposizioni are a tribute to a vanished civilization, questioning our current vision of the territory. Through the effort, the displacement of the stones once cut by hand by the peasants of Ticino, the territory is again transformed in a simple and sculptural architectural gesture, repeated several times with patience and resilience, with no function other than its cultural and patrimonial dimension.

Another example of the emblematic recovery of a rural figure, the work entitled Super Cayrou by the architects' collective Encore Heureux, marks the territory and anchors it in a space-time refocused on lost modes and uses. Built in 2020 in the Occitanie region of France, on the route to Santiago de Compostela, this “shelter-work of art”, as the architects describe it, has three interesting aspects in relation to the Rurapolis platform project: firstly, it proposes the reinvention of a vernacular heritage for the future, taking up a phenomenon that marks out the paths of the region (the piles of stones that punctuate the paths as landmarks, as well as the emblematic figure of the dolmen, also mentioned by the designers), in order to create a contemporary and geometrical architecture while using dry stones (an ancestral construction method that consists of piling up stones without mortar to create massive and almost immovable walls, if they respect the precepts of the local craftsmen). Secondly, this architectural creation is the result of a process of consultation and anthropological analysis of the territory, in accordance with the required uses: the Super Cayrou is a shelter for the night for the pilgrims, as well as a place of observation and meeting for the locals. Finally, the building designed according to this listening process is built collectively, with a view to transmitting a traditional know-how, creating for the time of the construction and in a sustainable way a back-and-forth movement between a remote corner of the territory and more populated areas.

The Rurapolis Platforms

The platforms of the Rurapolis, in this continuity, represent an inaugural moment in the territorial projection of the polis - a futuristic vision (but, contrary to any other science fiction narrative, this one would be anchored in the ground) and deliberately utopian, which presents an alternative to the urban planning of the suburban space as it is currently practised in the outskirts of Pamplona and on a global scale. A vision that is also necessarily adapted to the post-oil, climate and societal changes.

The Rurapolis project is therefore introduced by a process of self-construction aiming to physically mark the territory, and revisit its rural ruins, which are there numerous. This workshop on rammed earth technique will end with a festive evening featuring a contemporary dance performance entitled Terra, by the artist Galina Rodríguez, as well as a dinner and bivouac on site: eating and dancing under the stars, in the middle of the ruins of the small village of Egulbati, emptied of its inhabitants since the 1960s. This immersion experience in the heart of a fragmented territory, mixing construction, theory, a collective and cultural event, draws the will to create a unique experience. The creation of a totem architecture and its festive inauguration revives the activity of the abandoned village of Egulbati and may never be repeated. But what is the concrete utility, in itself, of this prototype of the Rurapolis Platform? What is the meaning of this performative experience, bringing strangers together in a neglected territory previously unknown to them? How can we consolidate, impact, extend and transform the territory beyond the event?

In 2020, the Spanish Ministry of Culture published an essay as a collective methodological compilation, entitled Pensar y hacer en el medio rural - Prácticas culturales en contexto [Thinking and doing in the rural environment - cultural practices in context]. While it is already interesting to note the renewed institutional interest in the rural environment in recent years, it is even more notable that the role of culture and creation, the artistic vision is placed here at the heart of the discussion:

“If we value culture as a collective heritage, it is a crisis that must be interpreted in terms of cultural failure or collapse: the loss and dissolution of the beliefs, values and imaginaries that have served to sustain and underpin rural communities. (...) It is in the recovery and reconstruction of this vital link that culture must intervene, and do so through certain cultural foundations and cements that, without renouncing the past, respond to new forms of being and moving ourselves in the world.”

The self-construction of a collectively created architectural prototype, and the cultural programming as the inaugural phase of the project, allows the fictional project, thought out on a larger scale, to be concretely anchored in a specific location, which has been in a state of collapse for decades.

The German philosopher Gernot Böhme sketches out a new form of relationship between "environmental qualities" and "human dispositions" by thinking about the atmosphere as a generator of a new aesthetic. According to Böhme, this new form of relationship, which is the basis of ecocriticism (implying a repositioning of artistic expression and creativity with regard to the impact of the climate crisis), requires a passage through the sensory experience. To go further, he creates the term "aïsthesis":

“Aïsthesis is therefore equivalent to being in presence: there is no feeling in general, there is only feeling in situation, according to an affectivity that touches sensitive subjects and produces effects of presence.” (Böhme, 2020)

Another interpretation is a contribution proposal to the ecological transition by taking into account collective subjectivity. In his book The Three Ecologies (1989), the philosopher Félix Guattari describes "social ecosophy" as the reconstruction of "the whole of the modalities of being-in-group (...) through existential mutations concerning the essence of subjectivity." According to the author, it is necessary to implement "effective practices of experimentation at both micro-social and larger institutional levels."

The Rurapolis Platforms deliberately constitute a moment close to the sublime in the sense that the natural environment resonates with the punctual action and the lived experience, recapturing a sensation that lies at the source of romanticism, an artistic movement that has been fascinated and overwhelmed by spectacular mountains and ruined landscapes, seized by both awe and a creative impulse. Recapturing this momentum is to allow a small-scale cultural initiative - in this case, the Rurapolis Platforms - to impulse one to take action in the face of the ecological crisis, to show the viability of a larger-scale and long-term territorial project, and finally to make visible (through a collective experience reviving a forgotten place) a possible renaissance of the rural environment and its ruins.


• XV Bienal Española de Arquitectura y Urbanismo (BEAU) España Vacía, España Llena – Barcelona/Valladolid, 2021

• Pedrozzi Martino (dir.): Perpetuating Architecture - Martino Pedrozzi’s Interventions on the Rural Heritage in Valle di Blenio and in Val Malvaglia 1994– 2017, Ed. Park Books 2020

• Collectif Encore Heureux: Super Cayrou, 2020

• Burgos Barrantes Benito (coord.): Pensar y hacer en el medio rural. Prácticas culturales en contexto, Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte, Madrid 2020

• Böhme Gernot : Aisthetik. Vorlesungen über Ästhetik als allgemeine Wahrnehmungslehre, Wilhelm Fink Verlag 2001

• Guattari Félix : Les Trois Écologies (L’espace Critique), Ed. Galilée 1999