27rural

 on site review 27: rural urbanism

original call for articles

spring 2012

The world is more urban than it is rural, migration to cities offers more employment, more opportunity and more social mobility than the small towns and villages in rural hinterlands. However, such towns and villages still hold much of the character and identity associated with national cultures.  It is a paradox, but the past, often pre-urban, still contains much potent imagery.
 As well, usually connected with resource extraction, new towns are being designed. Some rely on traditional centred models, others on network systems, still others on new sustainable distribution of energy and resources.  

What is going on in our hinterlands?  

some of the thoughts that lead to this theme for onsite 27:

There is a linkage between W O Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind, 1947 and the shooting of four RCMP officers at Meyerthorpe in 2005. There is a violence in small towns and rural areas that is thought to be both lawless and natural.

In The Music Man ( 1962, lyrics by Meredith Wilson), the small town pool hall was neatly categorised:

Well, ya got trouble, my friend.

Right here, I say trouble right here in River City

...

with a capital 'T' and that rhymes with 'P' and that stands for 'pool'

David Murray, who works in Edmonton, restored a pool hall in Vilna, Alberta. Unprepossessing, family lived in the back, but it was a Pool Hall, and yes, that meant trouble. Now it is a heritage site.

The Legion. Often, the Legion was the only hall in town for dances, parties, wedding receptions. and all Legions had a bar. Growing up in my small coal mining, pulp and paper mill, dock town, the dance on Friday night at the Legion inevitably ended in a fight and the bass drum was kicked in.

Company towns. I would call Calgary a company town: a CPR stop originally and today full of corporate headquarters: no matter, all companies. There is no civic space in a company town because there is no civil society. There is work and there is living accommodation.

The spatial relationship between the old downtown and the strip out on the highway. This seems to be a universal. There is a spatial relationship, but is there an economic and a cultural relationship? Is the strip a small town's contact with the globalised world?

Although these are some of my thoughts, I'm sure you all have other thoughts which will interest us for this issue, 27: rural urbanism

Entering Vulcan, Alberta, 1954

Entering Vulcan, Alberta, 1954

introduction to issue 27: rural urbanism

rural. early 15c., from O.Fr. rural (14c.), from L. ruralis ‘of the countryside’, from rus (gen. ruris) ‘open land, country’.

‘In early examples, there is usually little or no difference between the meanings of rural and rustic, but in later use the tendency is to employ rural when the idea of locality (country scenes, etc.) is prominent, and rustic when there is a suggestion of the more primitive qualities or manners naturally attaching to country life. ‘

Oxford English Dictionary

The world is more urban than it is rural, migration to cities offers more employment, more opportunity and more social mobility than the small towns and villages in rural hinterlands. However, such towns and villages still hold much of the character and identity associated with national cultures. It is a paradox, but the past, often pre-urban, still contains much potent imagery.

As well, usually connected with resource extraction, new towns are being designed. Some rely on traditionally centred models, others on network systems, still others on new sustainable distribution of energy and resources. Some, like Kitimat designed in 1965 by Clarence Stein, skipped over both town and city and went straight to suburb.

This issue of On Site review began with two things: one was the announcement that there would be a new town built in north-east Alberta to accommodate the thousands of workers and families needed for the oil sands. What was it going to look like? We started a loose project to set out the terms by which one would design a new town in the 21st century, which got bogged down in discussions of whether one should build at all in the oil sands.

The other was a visit to the Canadian Centre for Architecture and the George Hunter archives, mostly commissioned aerial photographs of company towns made during the 1950s and 60s. His was an urban eye; his ‘towns’ sat in a picturesque, rather than an instrumental, relationship with their surroundings. In Hunter’s photographs, raw little settlements ‘nestle’ in their topography, rather than interrupting it. The metropolitan view embedded the peripheral economy and resource-extraction processes into the landscape long before the actual houses and production plants themselves settled into either the landscape or the culture.

If one looks at a small town through a metropolitan lens, it is inevitably found to be crude, or under-developed, or misleadingly nostalgic. The urban gaze tries to recognise its own reality in small towns, which often develop with completely different ambitions. It is possible that rural urbanism is conceived of, enacted and understood in a profoundly different way from metropolitan urbanism. It is not just a smaller version.

What would it mean to develop a reflexive lens from the periphery itself, through which we can view settlements in the periphery? This would upset the core-periphery tradition whereby raw resources are extracted in some benighted, but beautiful, hinterland, transported to the core which adds value and then exported back, as consumer products, to the periphery. The past fifty years of decolonisation have been just such an upset, but not, apparently, in the discussion of architecture and urbanism. With the contributors to this issue alone, many of whom grew up in very small places, the core has absorbed them and their energy, much to the benefit of the core, leaving the periphery bereft.

Behind the small town/big city discussion of opportunities, there is a darker background. The rural-urban divide is made much of in our political culture, inevitably pitting a powerful conservative rural lobby, against a liberal educated urban critical mass which holds on to most of the media. It is a pathologised dialectical relationship, a war which extends into the centre of government, each side stereotyped and stigmatised. Rather than thinking of the small prairie town, say, as an iconic Who Has Seen the Wind sort of place, increasingly it is seen as somewhere like Meyerthorp: violent and lethal.

For any young architect who has gone home, tried to make a go of it in their own small town and came up against boosterish town councils who, when pressed will always seek an architect from the largest city they can afford, rather than anyone local, this is the periphery in action. For those who are sticking to it and making a place for architecture in rural Canada, they deserve our attention.

It has been 50 years since Andre Gunder Frank about dependency and underdevelopment, and Immanuel Wallerstein wrote about world systems theory, in response to the complexity of decolonisation of what was then known as the third world, a peripheral condition certainly, to the first world. The outline of core-periphery relations revealed that the ‘core’ which felt it was the only source of knowledge and power, knew very little about the rest of the world, which knew other things. The sense that there can be any sort of arbitration by any sort of core authority to convey legitimacy, the basic tenet of colonialism, was demolished by Wallerstein and the generation of Latin American theorists of the 1960s. Historically, yes, it happened, but it is not necessary to continue in this relationship.

I feel I have to explain this because of the debate over the title to this issue of On Site review – whether to use the word rural, or peripheral. The relationship between town and country is not new; even I’ve been writing about it since the 1980s, however always writing from an architectural periphery: Canada, then western Canada, then outside academia. Nonetheless, in architecture, the periphery is often considered to be dominated by some sort of risible rural vernacular, outside contemporary architectural discourse. The core-periphery relationship, including the semi-periphery, and peripheries within the core, and cores outside both world cities and core economies, the rise of the BRIC (the old semi-periphery), the faltering of the Eurozone (the old core) – the basic relationship of core to periphery is often critiqued today without understanding that at root, it itself is a critique of assumptions of power and hegemony.

Canada has a curious relationship with its hinterlands. Rural is not a word to apply to northern Ontario, that is the bush. Rural Nova Scotia refers to the valley and some of the ocean edges, the rest is the barrens. Rural Quebec is thought of as the Townships, not the Shield. Rural British Columbia consists of small towns in the valleys between mountain ranges, the rest is either the coast or the mountains. Clearly ruralness is habitable land, preferably something to do with agriculture, rather than logging or mining. And despite official city status, living in the rural City of Red Deer is quantitatively and qualitatively different from living in the City of Vancouver, and it is not just the weather.