Whether it is Trump, Brexit, or the rise of the EU’s populist right, the rural-urban divide has been a focal point of partisan politics for the last decade. During the 2020 presidential elections “the average number of people living within a five-mile radius” was again one of the best indicators of how you were likely to vote; ahead of age, race and gender. However, the lack of neighbours is not what is making people vote republican. Population density has become a proxy for rural and urban identities that have rapidly diverged since the beginning of the 20th-century.

The modern urban identity is inexorably linked with multiculturalism and globalism. As ideas travel through the internationally-exposed urban middle-classes they create a global ‘harmonisation of tastes.’ The resulting international style of raw-wood tables and exposed brickwork is described by design-commentator Kyle Chayka as ‘AirSpace’. Over time, this hipster aesthetic has evolved into a value-symbol, ‘communicating to potential customers... that the coffee or haircut will meet some global standard.’ By signalling to some specific ‘clued-in’ group, this architecture is by its very nature exclusionary — it welcomes insiders and alienates newcomers in its self-referentialism. As a global movement it also inherently expunges local intricacies in favour of ‘world culture’. In this, Airspace should be seen in relation to previous ‘global’ styles. Starting with the vast expanses of glass at New York’s Lever House, ‘International Style’ has since spread globally to denote corporate transparency and precision. Just as clothes can represent our identity, Airspace and International Style are used to show membership of a certain tribe, class or group. It becomes self-fulfilling with new entrants copying existing tropes and further suppressing preceding local tastes.

Rural identity conversely has become shorthanded to ‘left-behind’. As young populations have migrated to the cities for work and culture, investments of both time and money have gone with them. Metro-centric economic policies of the last century mean that in cities ‘19th-century fabrics in the early 1960’s have since become progressively overlaid.’ Meanwhile, many rural areas remain stores of pre-modern, local cultural wealth. The rural identity has become irrevocably linked to these infrastructural and architectural symbols of past national ‘greatness’, even as they crumble. The angst of watching this cultural heritage degrade has been embedded into slogans of conservative revival such as ‘Make America Great Again’. These are seen as opposition to the globalism orthodoxy that has purged local culture from the cities. The UK’s negotiations with the EU over ‘sovereignty’ and populist parties in the EU can also be viewed as expressions of rural rebellion.

In 2020, however, this urban-rural divide looks set to be blown apart. The globalism status-quo has been interrupted by a viral pandemic spread rapidly across the planet due to an intricate web of international flights. The cost of global citizenship for urbanites has been the instant shrinking of the world—first to their countries, then to their cities, and eventually to merely their own apartments. As the cultural and economic logic of city-living has disappeared, the suburbs and exurbs have swelled with an influx of erstwhile commuters and the return of mobile young-people to family homes6. Despite some early noises to the contrary, it is becoming increasingly clear that this trend is not about to reverse itself. A majority of newly-remote workers now say they want to keep working at least one day a week from home. In New York, where half the daytime population are commuters, the City Budget Office predicted in April that employment, and therefore population, will not return to pre-crisis levels until at least 2024 (now even that seems optimistic). Edward Glaeser — a Harvard economist specialising in the productivity benefits of urbanisation — has opined that COVID-19 may lead to a “serious and long-standing… de-urbanisation of people’s lives.”

By focusing on cities it can be easy to overlook the many already living in de-urbanised areas (some 18% of the population in 2015). As residents and businesses move, the influx of AirSpace urbanites is set to combine diametrically opposed cultures. In areas that have already lost identity to immigration and globalisation this presents a serious cultural threat. Works in international or urban styles are essentially colonial and inappropriate, however the drought of recent intellectual interest in rural architecture has left the space largely free for innovation. Yet, for architects acting in this new, mercurial context, mediation and integration are key.
In 1982 Kenneth Frampton hypothesised a middle way between these urban and rural value-systems in a manifesto called ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’. Although written half a century ago, his reflection on the sprawling modern cityscape as “the victory of universal civilization over locally inflected culture” concisely portrays the risk to rural cultures by the influx of urban populations. His approach is contained essentially within the name. In ‘Regionalism’ Frampton promotes inspiration from context—local tectonics, environmental conditions, topologies—yet in ‘Critical’ he cautions against copy-paste. Architects should avoid the repetition of ‘instrumental and communicative’ signs by absorbing and interpreting the information rather than merely translating. He claims that, through this, architects can embrace regionalism to temper the worst impulses of modern urban monoculture whilst avoiding a descent into sentimental Populism.

As a guiding ideology to approach future de-urbanisation, Frampton’s prescient work deserves close revisiting. However, there are some elements that deserve restating in the post-Covid world, particularly considering the huge political and social shifts of the last 40 years. First, while much is made by Frampton of the use of local ideas and inspiration, little is said about local means of production. The dual forces of the financial and climate crises have shown deep flaws in the orthodoxy of sprawling global supply chains. Frampton’s main precedent is Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church, constructed from a placeless combination of in-situ and prefabricated concrete that he himself admits has ‘been applied countless times all over the developed world’. Contemporary practitioners have begun to theorise a much more direct relationship between site and construction. At the 2016 Venice Biennale T+E+A+M hypothesised a structure on the site of the old Packard Plant in Detroit that would be made from the crushed remnants of the derelict factory buildings. In 2019 Practice Architecture applied this thinking with a Cambridge private home built largely from hempcrete made on site. In this vein critical regionalist practitioners of the future should push beyond local ideas, and strive to use local labour and materials as well. This will advance a climate and social agenda that the profession is already lagging far behind on, as well as inherently inspire a more native tectonic. As one of few things that rural and urban cultures mutually support, a repatriation of craft can also provide a rare political common ground. Second, the accepted wisdom of the post-war years can be heard in Frampton’s strong warnings against regionalist symbols leading to populism. The time since has shown a resurgence of populist support precisely due to the expunging of symbols in a perceived victory of global over local culture. In embracing the careful and knowledgeable use of local symbols within a critical framework the profession may still undo some of the perceived imperialism of modern building.
Finally, throughout his essay Frampton bemoans the ‘meaningless’ utilitarian architecture of the modern city, relying on mechanically repeated elements for brute economy. In contrast, vernacular architectures tend towards a different sort of hand-made frugality; elements are located only as needed, creating natural esotericism in form and elevation. As a final amendment to the manifesto, this playful haphazardness might allow a new type of rural ‘-ism’ to take shape, set apart from the soulless architecture of the city. Some of the most resilient movements have been founded in reaction. Although still developing, a carefully reborn rural architecture may provide fertile ground for innovation just as intense capitalisation starves whatever remained in cities.