More people than ever live in cities - but that still means half the world doesn’t. Designing for them is just as important, says Martyn Evans

Martyn Evans index

In April 2012, Rem Koolhaas gave a lecture at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam revealing his interest in the countryside. He said his speech was as plausible as a nuclear scientist giving a talk about windmills. His interest in the rural was driven by a 20-year relationship with a village in Switzerland, watching it change over time and attempting to understand why. His thinking will inform a major exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York in the autumn next year.

We all know the statistic… 50% of the world’s population live in cities. And it’s growing. Cities are exciting places where innovation happens, where new ideas are born and developed. Read Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities to understand her suggestion that even modern agriculture was developed in cities. What that statistic also tells us, of course, is that the other 50% lives somewhere else.

Architects are obsessed with cities. Probably because that’s where most of the buildings are. Where there’s a city, there’s work. Seek out architects who work in a rural context and you’ll find heritage specialists, barn converters, bespoke wood-frame houses or those who work for the regional volume developers making grim red brick boxes on mini-estates that are driven by the need to build for under £100 per square foot to cope with sales values less than £275.

Of course, I’m exaggerating for effect. But I’m making the point that other than some spectacular private houses built by very wealthy clients, or those who are particularly interested in building in a very sustainable way, most rural architecture is not driven by innovation in either design or construction but by a cost-to-value ratio, overly restrictive planning policy or a general lack of interest on the part of architects and clients in any kind of innovation.

In his lecture, Koolhaas pointed out that the countryside is just as technologically dependent as the city and that if you analyse who lives there, what kind of work they do, what services they use and what kind of businesses they run, you will find a mirror image of what happens in cities – just less dense and more… green. On our 1,200-acre estate at Dartington we have 180 small businesses located in a wide range of buildings that were all designed for other purposes – schools, an art college, student dormitories, barns and farmhouses. We are host to yoga teachers, accountants, a TV production company, a guitar maker, three architecture practices and a company that makes fish ladders (look it up… amazing). Why should we not be thinking as carefully about how great architecture and masterplanning can fuel rural economies and communities as it can in the development of our cities?

We have a small but important light industrial business park in our village. The accepted wisdom is that it’s not economically viable to build decent commercial property there to support the development of the local economy. Market rents don’t allow a viable appraisal on any kind of cost basis that would deliver quality buildings. I simply don’t accept that. I think that great architects can solve anything. If you can work in a tent in the Arctic, you can work in one in the Devon countryside. It just takes clever thinking and a desire to experiment.

Koolhaas’s exhibition at the Guggenheim will be delivered by AMO, the research arm of OMA. If it’s as thoughtful and clever as much else they produce, then I think it could move the debate and might spark a new interest in how great architecture can serve the other 50%.

 

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