The astonishing ease with which an imported microscopic virus is bringing our current wellbeing and the global economy down on their knees is making us rethink our way of living and reconsider our priorities. It is starting to look less like just a stopover, and more like a generational paradigm shift. Our resistance to the technological advance of automation might wear off as we make concessions in the name of common sense. Machines don’t get sick, people do. Fewer people and more apps. Can this disruption pause our reckless development? The modern struggle between local and global seems to be more acute in these desperate times. To believe that our global economy will not survive would be childish. Although nothing will change overnight, the sight of dolphins swimming in Venice or of the Himalayas all the way from India will be difficult to forget.
Lockdown brought interesting revelations. We were not aware that we were losing touch with one another. Spending hours with our close circles made us examine our values, concentrate on the essential, strengthen family ties, and grow a sense of community. A new perception of autonomy emerged. People baked their own bread and designers 3D-printed face masks at home. This is a renaissance of DIY hobbies. Prioritizing local production over foreign cheap. We look around and find our house full of useless things. It is not just a reaction to the lockdown, but a growing discomfort with the new industrial revolution taking place in the background, which could catalyze a decade of new cultural movements, as in the fertile 1960s.
Our metropolitan ideals make us defenders of urban social life, but we cannot deny that people with a private garden have enjoyed a better life. The extent to which we can tie architecture and urban planning to health was never as evident as now. The virtues of the city – as the best place to live and thrive in – are obscured by a perception of it as a place of danger and contagion. Its density is no longer a lure, but a hazard. The countryside is a safe haven where going around does not involve commuting in a packed train. Living away from the gentrified cores offers cheap food, affordable accommodation, and more space.
What lies at the heart of our desire for change is a redefinition of happiness. Things we cared about before now seem useless. There is a breakdown of needless consumption. Shopping, fashion, spending money on certain things, seem pointless. We are surprised by the joy of rediscovering an old book on our shelf. A system of values no longer centered on the idea of consumption, but on values like authenticity, autonomy, simplicity, and contact with nature could give rise to a whole new lifestyle.
At this point, the myth of Arcadia, the pastoral paradise offering an idyllic life in unspoiled nature, comes to mind as an alternative. A romanticized natural setting upon which every generation has projected its aspirations for a better existence, one based on higher values. Moving to a hyperconnected countryside would not just be utopia, but a necessity: a place where, for the same amount of money, we can live a healthier and fuller life.
The new Arcadia is not an untainted wilderness with no technology present, but a place of sophisticated technological integration in an apparently off-grid life. Where connectivity is a choice, not a default.
This rural community looks isolated, but is connected to high-speed trains and fiber optic cables. The next breed of rural dwellers challenges our long-held idea of who lives in the countryside. Future rural settlements would give birth to a model where the means of production are linked to creative industries, service providers, and technology startups, not only agriculture and livestock. Our massive remote-working experiment has proven that with computers we can do our job from anywhere, and this is bringing about altogether new ways of working. Like product showrooms with limited permanent stocks, city offices will be corporate presentation spaces without permanent employees, where teams will meet only periodically. The new home office is taking shape.
Voluntary exiles from the city don’t reject density, but loath poisonous pollution and the ever-rising prices of urban life. They are fed up with the same tasteless overpriced apples, and have forgotten how the horizon looks. If we love Central Park, then let us design districts where all homes face a local woodland. If we enjoy being surrounded by interesting people, why not bring them over with us? To watch a Sunday match, there is a fast train to the city and we can spend the weekend there. So we access the city’s vast cultural offer while enjoying the privilege of living in nature. A post-urban setting where vehicular circulation is limited to electric cars and streets are for walking or biking. Raising kids where flower blossoms are more eventful than the latest Disney release.
Today’s hyperconnectivity gives us access to any product around the globe. Our village shop becomes a repository for catalogs to order goods online from, and a delivery and pickup point. The rise of telemedicine will drastically transform our consultation practices, as half our visits to the doctor will be doable by email. Networks of clustered communities could attain a high degree of autonomy. Complementary crops would provide fresh produce and generate food self-sufficiency. Groups of mid-rise residential blocks could share services like hospitals and schools. Increasingly efficient technologies could make us electrically autonomous. If we can choose where we live, why choose to live in an unhealthy place?
The new Arcadia has no specific location. It is found in a community of freelance surfers in Bali or in a repurposed abandoned southern European town. It is not based on innocent idealism, but on down-to-earth economics and survival instincts. It comes as much from desire as from desperation. The consequence of a realization or a pursuit of happiness. A rejection of a globalization that we could not exist without. Stopping the wheels can make us reconsider things we previously took for granted. Or perhaps nothing will change, and this period will not bring us the chance to press reset.
Ignacio Nieto de la Cal is the founder and director of IN Architects.