Atlas of Places
In the Kingdom of the Blind…
“A cultivated soul is one where the din of the living does not drown out the music of the dead.”
— Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un texto implícito, 1977
Rurality and reality are homophones. There is probably a lesson there… in fact, these two words seem to share a few things in common, one of them being their slow extinction. It never ceases to amaze me as we humans tend to focus our true gaze upon things, only when they are on the brink of ruin. It is as though we carry such a repulsion towards the past, the old (see the work of Michel Billé, La société malade d’Alzheimer), what precedes us in general, that notions of preservation, conservation, safekeeping, are considered as taboo until the subject is proven prone to extinction. Seems easier, if not safer, to ignore certains aspects of our environment—to blind ourselves—only to regret them once they are gone. The cultural hegemony of progressivist principles has created a doxa that feasts indefinitely upon the belief that only change—for the purpose of change—will provide humanity with the answers it seeks. Everything related to permanence, tradition or durability is best left to the conservative or reactionary trashcan of political discourse. This crave for constant movement tends to over-represent a self-destructing, politically correct pattern that undeniably repeats itself throughout history. Unfortunately, and to our greatest despair, the rural context was not spared by this toxic yet fascinating phenomenon.
It is only since the last several decades—shortly after our numerous revolutions (industrial, societal and numerical) failed to deliver on their copious oneiric promises—and recently exacerbated with the recent pandemic, that we have turned our attention out of the urban, back onto the rural. In France, the urge to compensate for the ever increasing constraints of city life, created a thirst, a pull through the roots, for heightened rural interactions. The disenchantment linked to professional routines, generalised dependence on technology, enhanced superficiality of human interactions, lack of meaningful manual/physical labor, and the continuously alienating machine of the bureaucratic/technocratic democracy we have built for ourselves, has dug a canyon, one that seems to know no limits, devoid of meaning, that we desperately seek to fill.
This generalised malaise has led a whole generation into an uncontrollable reaction towards an over-consumption of travelling: they seek elsewhere, amongst cultures less prone to globalised and universalised rhetorics, what they have destroyed at home. An entire social class (mostly from the middle class, essentially the bourgeoisie) fork out their savings into fashionable, “authentic” and “archaic” destinations, in the hopes of creating meaning out of thin air, instantaneously. More and more conscious of this pernicious addiction, and the creeping limits of this egotistic and short-term economical model, they now have no other choice than to find a relief valve in nearer geographical locations. For a vast majority, these new destinations seem to coincide with where their great-grand-parents, grand-parents and sometimes even parents originated: shockingly enough, to some of them, from mostly rural settings.
What they found however was not entirely what their predecessors had described (or left behind). The bucolic forests, the charming pastures of grass separated by small stone walls, and the sprawling systems of carefully constructed farms maintained by charismatic peasants had since been replaced by commercial outlets, parking lots, endless roundabouts, “pavillonnaire” suburbs and cheap touristic amenities. It is as though, blinded by the endless possibilities of technical progress and access to cheap consumerism within the city, our ancestors had left their gardens of Eden to be tended by the devil himself. Today, whilst driving from village to village, one cannot overlook the devastating effects brought about by autistic technocratic norms, pompous political mandates and dogmatic urban-planning standards (imported from city bureaucrats whose lack of interaction with rural realities was damaging to say the least). The historical centres were abandoned or preserved for lack of investment or patrimonial/touristic dynamics—only to concentrate new buildings onto the periphery. They sacrificed precious agricultural land, carefully maintained during generations, to short-term profit and heterogeneous construction logics.
Although one would love to enumerate the resultant chaos indefinitely, the need to linger on this particular topic seems redundant and superfluous: far more experienced and competent people have described these problematics accurately and in depth. The novels of Jean Giono and Michel Houellebecq, the photographic essays of Raymond Depardon (as well as his 3 documentaries under the series “Profils Paysans”), Thierry Girard, and Thibaut Cuisset, the anthropological analysis of Marc Augé, André Corboz and Christophe Guilluy, the philosophical synthesis of Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord, as well as the cinematographic works of Marcel Pagnol and Jacques Tati are precious case studies—worth looking at, arguably at this very instance, if unknown to the reader. We have all the critical tools at our disposal. Sadly, they are rarely publicised, they describe a way of living that we take for granted but which falls under the very definition of sustainability: “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” In a world obsessed with this term, pinned as the key to solving our demise, this seems quite foolish.
One thing should be obvious to us by now: our contemporary society is devilishly and perversely competent when it comes to documenting its decadence. And this is particularly true for us Europeans, who have fallen into a suicidal frenzy, finding refuge in our never ending demonstration of guilt and virtuous theatre of victimisation. As a civilisation, we have decided to bear the responsibility for all disasters (slavery, racism, patriarchal society, climate change, etc., the list keeps growing daily), ready to rewrite our past if necessary, unable to provide any form of nuance in practices that have been common throughout time and various cultures. We have copious exhibitions, numerous researchers, extensive databases, and countless institutions studying this problem—there is a sort of morbid fascination in analysing and showcasing the symptoms leading to our death. The nihilistic beauty of our capitalist/liberal cultural system lies in its ability to sell us even on our own collapse: we see no ethical issues in contributing, through our taxes, to state sponsored exhibitions on the destruction of our historical narratives, industrial infrastructures, dissolution of our agricultural richesses or the crumbling of our monuments. What we can’t be bothered to salvage will undoubtedly finish in a museum, where we will be asked to pay an entrance fee to bear witness on our failures. How are we to provide hope and continuity to the next generation, when we keep destroying the very foundation on which we rely? We created a system where guilt and fear are the two main factors of our political discourse—which, in the end, makes for a better consumer than a thinker.
What is most astonishing however, are the responses—or more accurately, the lack of responses—to these problematics. Since we tend to eradicate some of our guilt through the institutionalised confession of our crimes, we bypass the existential need to apply any concrete solutions. In France, we have thus embraced the tourism industry blindly, even proudly: we are now becoming one big hotel (see the interview of Michel Houellebecq named “Hôtel France” in the magasine Mouvement in 2015). A one-to-one scale, historical amusement park, for visitors curious to witness the architectural wonders of once powerful royal dynasties and their cultural remnants. Every year there is 12 to 14 million people who visit the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Roughly the size of Belgium’s population. Emil Cioran, always true to his brillant wit, once wrote: “Serf, ce peuple bâtissait des cathédrales ; émancipé, il ne construit que des horreurs.” (As serfs, these people built cathedrals; emancipated, they build only horrors.)
It is clear that our modern society overflows with contradictions. A plea could be made that it has always been the case; yet, today, the frustration seems partly stronger due to how we engage with them. In a system where the transcendent has disappeared (“God is dead”), where the accumulation of wealth, at any cost, is regarded has a respectful achievement and where bourgeois ethics (see Jacques Ellul’s work) are put on a pedestal, society seems to lack any clear code of moral conduct. We are so conscious of our own death, that every decision we make, is based on our constant awareness of it. Any project that would imply longevity, continuity, doesn’t interest us. Projects like the construction of a cathedral, often spanning throughout multiple centuries, would make no practical sense today. What’s the point of all this effort, if you can’t see the achievement? This short-term logic applies to everything we do. Instead of answering hard problems with hard solutions, we would rather address them with soft solutions: they enable us to profit a little longer from our current confort, regardless of the impacts in the long term—obviously susceptible to creating even harsher problems. This has been the philosophical go-to formula for the “Silent Generation” and the “Baby boomers”, who have been nourished on so much excess, so much consumerism, so much confort, that it is hard for them to imagine a world where things would have to slow down. Overall, our democratic system has failed in providing our society with durable strength and meaning: it has reduced human interactions to money interests and political engagement to short-term election logics.
Indeed, politicians—which is now considered a full-time profession in most countries, go figure—are completely disconnected with the reality outside their offices. They are part of an incestuous network, who call themselves the “elite”, and whose only task is to preserve existing privileges, or ideally, enhance them. The state now employs so many people, in France more than 5,6 million people work for the government, that no one dares to question the system in place. The bureaucratic nightmares predicted by Kafka, and the monstrous state apparatuses described by Huxley and Orwell have never been closer to us… Alexis de Tocqueville, in his chapter named “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear”, at the end of his book Democracy in America, wrote: “The democratic nations which have introduced freedom into their political constitution, at the very time when they were augmenting the despotism of their administrative constitution, have been led into strange paradoxes. […] It is, indeed, difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people. A constitution, which should be republican in its head and ultramonarchical in all its other parts, has ever appeared to me to be a short-lived monster. The vices of rulers and the ineptitude of the people would speedily bring about its ruin; and the nation, weary of its representatives and of itself, would create freer institutions, or soon return to stretch itself at the feet of a single master.” It is absolutely mind-blowing to think that this was written in 1835. It is a perfect example of how we are unable, as a species, to learn from our past… completely blinded by change.
Under this new form of governance, numerous nations in Europe have had no other choice but to monetise their historical conscience, millennial traditions, monuments, for the sake and proliferation of the tourism sector—ironically enough, the past that is often sold and showcased, is an increasing source of ignominy, intentionally refuted by opportunistic politics eager to satisfy naïve and dogmatic beliefs, where historical figures are publicly chastised (another suicidal tendency that seems to gain in popularity amongst a small minority). History, with all its local and regional nuances and riches, has run its course—put on a shelf to be sold—it is now the race towards the universal, the McDonaldization (“Come as you are”, no need to adapt to any particular culture) of the world: first prophesied by Hegel and then Marx, it is now perceivable throughout society—and described in Philippe Muray’s work, with a sharp lucidity (see Après l’Histoire, 2007). “A culture which has taken the risk of the universal, must perish by the universal” said Jean Baudrillard.
This short transgression in our rural narrative, unavoidable to understand the current symptoms, brings us back to our particular area of interest. Indeed, the same inconsistent logic, previously described, can be applied to architectural teaching and practice. Today, pedagogy within academia can be resumed through two main—purposely simplified and caricatural—approaches: one that has no interest in the past (considered as obsolete), constructed on a blind trust in new technologies, and a reliance on political/social/psychological studies (exceptionally trendy within doctoral schools) to resolve compositional problematics; and a second, more pernicious, that seeks refuge in the rhetorics of contemporary art—a safe space where they can maintain a form of accepted autism, one that justifies their irrelevance in an ever-increasing technical world that shuns all forms of artistic contributions as purely egotistic esoteric anecdotes. The latter seduces the greatest amount of students, easily attracted by the sophistic discourses on individuality and the potential of prestige. The former attracts all the financing, weaponising the religion of progress: we now have researchers, within architectural schools, whose responsibility is to study the impact of AI, gender, decolonisation (a word that seems to be immensely popular in the quest for grant acquisitions), inclusivity, language, etc., on architectural production. Hannah Arendt once wrote: “Now in respect to education itself the illusion arising from the pathos of the new has produced its most serious consequences only in our own century. It has first of all made it possible for that complex of modern educational theories which originated in Middle Europe and consists of an astounding hodgepodge of sense and nonsense to accomplish, under the banner of progressive education, a most radical revolution in the whole system of education.”
This lucid analysis has never been more relevant than today. Although these subjects (often ideological in nature and quickly prone to emotional reactions when confronted) are surely important to dissect and debate as a society, do they, nonetheless, belong in architecture schools? Wouldn’t it be wiser, in the context of architectural research—if not a proof of modesty—to leave these technical or philosophical questions to engineers, anthropologists, ethnologists, sociologists, philosophers, professionals whose job is just that? This uncontrollable urge to step away from core architectural thematics should raise questions within institutions. It does not. The anonymity of the administrative bureaucracy (people come and go, no continuity in the pedagogy) combined with the lack of interest and ethics shown by the appointed professors explains this intellectual abandonment. The confort offered by current teaching positions provides a safety net to both young and old architects who cannot rely solely on their private offices to maintain their—often extravagant—standard of living. Academic positions have become an increased source of covetousness, architects (and even teaching assistants) from all other the world apply to the highest paid schools: often flying back and forth between their hometown and the university where they teach (but they will see no problems in preaching about sustainability issues of course). Once in position, they obviously have no will to fight against the decadence: jeopardising their academic career would make no financial sense. Ultimately, students are taught by opportunistic, egotistic people, whose will to participate in academic debates is close to inexistent. In the end, they come for the paycheque and buzz off. The only investment they see fit, lies in communication: showcasing at all cost their studio’s production—to promote their aesthetic chapel—unable to understand the impact of their nihilism; at the expense of the students, who often look up to them.
We need to rethink architectural education, even the architectural profession, from A to Z. We are producing far too many architects: the professional status is in decline, waiting to be replaced by computers, in a job market with ever increasing precarious conditions. Furthermore, and the question is deliberately provocative here, are architects useful anymore? In this industrial, technical and numerical society we have built, do we need them? Historically, it made sense when roughly 23 architects were in charge of the symbolic and aesthetic representation of the French nation, essentially building palaces, churches and various monuments for different monarchs. But this aristocratic world was destroyed, these programs are now obsolete. Although, surprisingly enough, still being taught, with slight modifications… we are now teaching students to build museums, chapels, cemeteries, amphitheatres, entire neighbourhoods and football stadiums… probably 0.001% of the built environment. It is not by enclosing them in purely formal tautological systems that the next generation will be able to produce “meaningful” spaces and resolve the question of their necessary integration into existing landscapes and urban fabrics…
Has the ever increasing amount of architects guaranteed the quality of the built production? Its durability? Its meaning? When looking at most existent rural landscapes, where their intervention is scarce, sometimes inexistent, their absence doesn’t seem problematic. In new residential quarters, however, where their presence is excessive, problems are countless (the modernist movement is a living monument to architecture being overly theorised and applied, and let’s not get started on urbanism…). In France, the profession survives to sign building permits and submit endless forms to the state administration: in order to provide insurance in a system where no one wants to carry responsibility. Ironically, most clients are perfectly capable of drawing spaces—like they have always been, for centuries before the architectural practice was democratised and parachuted outside cities. They know their needs, their budget, their limitations. The main issue lies in our globalised construction market, where they can obtain cheap building materials, imported from exotic locations. When you mix this with the idiotic and stubborn bureaucratic building laws, you end up with the “maison pavillonnaire” that architects love to mock.
Once students leave the fantasy space of academia—the educational Disney world, the frictionless and moneyless utopia of university—to face the lawless wilderness of the globalised liberal economic system, they are confronted with the same binary choices: either work for a big firm, anchored to metropolitan areas, where one is often forced to dialog with intellectually and ethically resigned colleagues, computer screens and endless documents of norms and rules (both in relation to competition submissions or building regulations). Or, and this is a rather new tendency, they capitalise on their existing social status (as it is fairly common knowledge that most—not all of course—architecture students originate from the bourgeoisie: hence the parent’s ability to invest in expensive and long academic parcours) and benefit from a network of financially confortable clients, capable of launching their career through the production of niche works of architectural “art” (where an acute taste for contemporary production and cultural recognition, can sponsor flexible deadlines, qualified artisans, and ideal locations).
It is often through these specific types of mandates that most architects are given the chance to practice in rural contexts. Keen on surviving a little longer, rurality has created an entire economy out of secondary/holiday houses. City-folks who purchase them, usually CSP+ (managers, high-level bureaucrats, executives, lawyers, teachers and intermediate professions), are willing to invest their live savings in a home where they will be able to project their retirement aspirations. A chance to liberate themselves from the superficiality and absurdities of city life (the unavoidable byproducts of their professional ascensions), where they can seek a simpler life—devoid, however, of the spartan comfort that once belonged to these prosaic spaces—amid the rural landscapes of their ancestors. The irony is not lost on these people… Rural spaces are invaded with bourgeois morals and bien pensance. Countless stories of newcomers complaining to local authorities because of smells and noises emanating from the neighbouring farms can be found online: a true testament to the blinding effect of metropolitan life.
These unique commissions force young offices to deal with their new rural environment (source of isolation and adaptation for the ones who actually decide to reside there and whose urban customs and habits persist); they often compensate their frustration by building their reputation online. Educated as artists, bathed in the snobbery of cultural production and communication, they intrinsically seek to showcase their works through professionally recognised (and mostly aestheticised) publication mediums. Their first instinct is to hire select photographers to engrave their building—customarily before the clients are allowed to move in. This behaviour closely mimics the one applied to art related publications: the object is photographed in a controlled context (current trend is foggy or grey skies), with ideal furniture (or lack of), while the text usually serves to emphasise the “original” brand of the artist, puts forward his creative sensibilities, his current taste—this eristic literature, filled with pathos and axioms about rurality, will purposely avoid mentioning the utility of the finished product, its cost of production (sometimes it is modified to fit a narrative of economy of means) or the client’s daily relationship to it. They are, in the end, leisures spaces, architectural beacons, proof of social status and economical success, with no real need for practical applications: this architecture serves no other purpose than storing capital.
The architects that lie in between these two extremes, by choice or by circumstance, live a complex and tortured existence. One filled with doubt, ostracisation and economic instabilities. If they decide to apply the same standards of detailing and craftsmanship aforementioned to a project bankrolled by a couple of young farmers, with no bourgeois artistic sensibility, or cultural codes, several kids, copious debts, limited to financial supports provided by cautious banks, and aided by a government that mocks and ignores the realities of their profession, you end up with a completely different result. The “reality” that is showcased extensively online and in specialised architectural magazines couldn’t be further from the truth. When it comes to architects working closely with peasants, farmers, small artisans, and low payed employees, it is rare, if not exceptional, to see their projects published. They would never dare showcase their production parallel to the unrealistic building standards created by the previous group: it would only create an unfair ground for comparison. These true rural architects represent the majority of the current built production, force to compose in degrading conditions and silenced by the sheer exuberance of a lucky few.
Maybe we should be teaching modesty, continuity, discretion and inject realism into our educational system… At some point in history, this was referred to as bon sens, good sense or common sense, a notion that survived as long as people where confronted with reality on a daily basis. In our artificial cities, where infinite layers of superficiality exist, there is no place for the real. It often appears to us during presidential elections, through percentages emanating from rural territories… The discourse towards total academic heterotopia seems to have reached its theoretical and practical limits. A sincere answer to the problems faced by rurality however, seems to lie where it has always lied, in the hands of a truly historical and sustainable caretaker, the “paysan” as we call him in France, or the peasant. An individual belonging to a social class that has practically disappeared, completely erased and absorbed by the industrial revolution and the liberal globalised agricultural system, but who is vastly responsible, for the past thousands of years, for the beautifully constructed and preserved landscapes that we seek to experience meaning. As long as the questions regarding the conservation and evolution of our landscapes are entrusted to a self-destructing bourgeoisie, enable to emancipate itself from short-term money-oriented solutions, we have no chance for durable rural, and non-rural, solutions.
“Common sense—which the French so suggestively call the “good sense,” le bon sens discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world; we owe to it the fact that our strictly private and “subjective” five senses and their sensory data can adjust themselves to a nonsubjective and “objective” world which we have in common and share with others. […] Therefore taste, insofar as it, like any other judgment, appeals to common sense, is the very opposite of “private feelings.” In aesthetic no less than in political judgments, a decision is made, and although this decision is always determined by a certain subjectivity, by the simple fact that each person occupies a place of his own from which he looks upon and judges the world, it also derives from the fact that the world itself is an objective datum, something common to all its inhabitants. The activity of taste decides how this world, independent of its utility and our vital interests in it, is to look and sound, what men will see and what they will hear in it. Taste judges the world in its appearance and in its worldliness; its interest in the world is purely “disinterested,” and that means that neither the life interests of the individual nor the moral interests of the self are involved here. For judgments of taste, the world is the primary thing, not man, neither man’s life nor his self.”
— Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, 1961
If you prefer to read this text in a printed format, please download the PDF version here.
This text, modified since, was originally written in the context of a conference named “L’allégorie du rural” given in May 2021 at the Università degli Studi di Cagliari for the Laboratorio Rurale. It will appear in a publication, organised by the university, soon to come.