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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The three sources of the “city-countryside”

Augustin Berque

Texte intégral

1September 2004

2From 20th to the 27th September 2004, the symposium, “The three sources of the city-countryside”, was held in Cerisy-la-Salle, bringing together 28 participants from 8 countries (Japan, Korea, China, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Canada, the United States), and coordinated by Augustin Berque (École des hautes études en sciences sociales), Philippe Bonnin (CNRS) and Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin (CNRS).

3Three areas were compared – eastern Asia, Europe and North America – in the genealogy of habitat, which in the second half of the 20th century, broke down the old city/country relationship in rich countries. This relationship linked two terms clearly distinct from one another in their form as much as in their function. The agricultural function, however, is no longer being carried out by a small fraction of the population. In the countryside, urban populations have replaced the old farming days, while, as a result of the city widening itself, the spreading out and peri-urban scattering, the morphological definition of the city has become increasingly vague. This phenomenon has given rise to an abundance of terminology – ranging from the end of the city to the emerging city – the general sense of which involves an essentially urban dynamic, but within this dynamic that which is sought after is a form of rural habitat, rich in space and close to nature. This ambivalence explains the choice of the term, “city-countryside”, as a means of emphasising that in this phenomenon, the city is inhabited as if it were the countryside.

4This phenomenon, generated and made possible by the generalised use of the automobile, raises a series of problems regarding the viability of such a habitat. In its present form, characterised by waste (of energy, space etc.), it is based on a long-standing fatal contradiction, that of the quest for nature (in the form of the countryside), which brings about the destruction of nature (in terms of the biosphere). From a social point of view, the city-countryside concept originates from another contradiction, the imagery of the village community, whereas it is actually based on individualism and segregation, thus giving another meaning to the social foundation of human existence.

5The question raised by the symposium was specifically to know what motivation lead to the development of the city-countryside, and eclipsed this double contradiction. This question therefore concerned the ideology of the players in this phenomenon; why do city dwellers idealise a rural habitat? The question had been prepared under the same title by a seminar that had been held for two years by the three organisers at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), the entire seminar would be based on the symposium, which was a part of a ten-year research project (2001-2010).

6The symposium was made much easier by the fact that the main features of each of the three areas, and their historical context, had already been well defined in the origins and the development of three “semantic basins” (Gilbert Durand). Firstly, the Arcadian (or pastoral) myth, then the American Dream for the West, and for eastern Asia, the myth of the Great Identity (Datong) that, under the Six Dynasties (3rd-6th century), would generate the paradigmatic form of the thatched cottage in the landscape.

7The three cases all involved an anti-urban mythology, but this manifests itself differently depending on the culture and period, especially because the forms of the city-countryside relationship also differ. An example is Japan, which was historically differentiated from China by a less pronounced divide between city and country. In the seigniorial cities (jôkamachi), the city walls were those of the castle and not those of the city, while in China the city was defined by double wall system (the external guo and the internal cheng). Today, for similar reasons, the Japanese city and the American city resemble each other more than either resembles a European city.

8The characteristics of these three semantic sources have merged over the course of history. It is possible that in the Middle Ages, Mongolian peace enabled the introduction of landscape models of China to Europe. In the 18th century, Chinese gardens played a distinct role in the birth of the English garden, similar to the breaking up of the integrated form of the classical city in the Piranesian Campo Marzio. From a morphological point of view, this convergence was the origin of the city-garden model that would dominate urban thinking in the 20th century. One is also aware of the “Japonism” influence in the origins of certain principles of modern architecture. The contemporary city-countryside, however, draws its main source of inspiration from the West because it was there that capitalism, liberalism and Protestantism combined to form what would become, in the second half of the 20th century in the United States, a “sprawl machine” (i. e. the break up of the city). This involved the coming together of Fordism (mass consumption of durable goods, particularly automobiles), public policies promoting individual home ownership and the development of the road system. The same model, with certain minor variations, made its mark on Europe and Japan, with similar effects.

9The symposium led to substantial progress, which was made in five significant domains: the concepts at stake, the filiations and the combination of various currents of thought, the conflict and distances between the players involved, the foundation of a social link in nature, and the temporality of the phenomena. It appears, for example, that the notion of post-Fordism is an illusion regarding the phenomenon being studied because the main thing that Fordism would have enabled (the possibility of being move about by can, for example, on one’s own) is more crucial than ever. Certain novel perspectives stand out, for example, the demographic reversal of Japan (the population having reached a peak and will soon decrease) has condemned a number of suburbs of the last century to fossilisation. Questions remain about the choices of future generations who, like that of President Bush, have never known the city in the way that it exists in Europe. A broad consensus on the need to go beyond the city-countryside emerged during the symposium, because the way in which it exists today is ecologically unsustainable and hard to justify in ethical terms.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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