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Escape to the country

Charles Holland

Early 20th century utopian experiments took as their starting point a retreat from urbanised modernism

Modernism is intimately connected to the city. Industrialisation went hand in hand with urbanisation. In 1880, 3% of the world’s population lived in urban areas. Today, in developed countries like the UK, it is closer to 75% .

As a consequence of this urbanisation, dreams of a way out from contemporary problems often focus on an escape from the city itself. The countryside offers the chance to redeem ourselves, to build a new life and absolve ourselves of the sins of the city.

There is a persistent rural theme running through many utopian experiments. In the early 20th century, a number of groups sought to establish rural communities in the UK, ones with their own rituals, social structures and (often) arcane belief systems. Sometimes these were cults, formed around a dominant personality, or had religious and mystical underpinnings.

Originating in both proto-scouting organisations such as the Woodcraft Indians and philanthropic experiments like William Booth’s Hadleigh Farm Community in Essex, this movement had by the 1920s mutated into an interconnected family of more politically motivated organisations. Moving from hard left to extreme right, such groups could be seen as both utopian and retrogressive, either attempting to establish an egalitarian new world or revert to a pre-existing one.

Some, like the extraordinarily named Kindred of the Kibbo Kift (it means ‘proof of great strength’), embraced a heady mixture of rural primitivism and aesthetic modernism. In a recent exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery and in an accompanying book, The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians, Annebella Pollen has described the sculptures, uniforms and symbolic paraphernalia that were an integral part of the group’s identity.

Tabards, totems, flags and animal masks combined Bauhaus motifs with neo-medieval forms and craft techniques. The Kifts’ graphic skills were largely down to their charismatic and autocratic leader, John Hargrave, an author, mystic, healer and sometime commercial illustrator known to other Kinfolk as ‘White Fox’. 

In the early 20th century, a number of groups sought to establish rural communities in the UK, ones with their own rituals, social structures and (often) arcane belief systems

Hargrave had initially been involved with Robert Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout movement in its early years, but became disillusioned with its quasi-military underpinnings. He started the Kift in 1920 as a radical alternative, one committed to pacifism, health, exercise and a complex form of romantic, rural mysticism. In turn, members of the Kift would splinter off to form the Woodcraft Folk, another pacifist alternative to the scouts that is still going today. 

The 1960s counterculture would see another manifestation of this bucolic longing, one that took an even more fleetingly physical form. The free music festivals of the 1970s fused an interest in progressive rock music, folk culture and outsider art with an occasionally ersatz idea of ‘Old England’ that echoed the earlier utopian experiments.

These festivals were largely temporary events, instant villages in the countryside populated by brightly coloured vehicles and neo-primitive artworks. They combined an enthusiasm for flexible and temporary architecture, inflatables and ad-hocism with a revival of folk traditions best exemplified in Cedric Price’s designs for the Phun City festival outside Worthing.

What lessons can be drawn from such experiments today? Given their beliefs, it’s not surprising that rural utopians had little interest in architectural experimentation. Their architecture was generally the campsite and the forest clearing. And such groups tended to have little money and brief lives, quickly mutating into splinter groups or disappearing altogether.

However, members of these various groups influenced reforms in farming and agricultural policy and presaged the ecological movement. More subtly, they explored ways to inhabit rural places that rejected both historical feudalism and dormitory living and suggested new forms of community.

Their mix of mysticism and reheated pantheism is easy to mock, but at their most interesting they combined a desire for the bucolic with aspects of modernity that could still be useful for us today. The term ‘garden city’ is routinely used to describe potential new rural communities. Usually the reality is soulless housing estates without the spatial generosity of Letchworth. An inhabited forest suggests a far more exciting spatial model though, a challenging hybrid of scenery and settlement, countryside and community. Animal masks and geometric tabards optional.


Charles Holland is principal of Charles Holland Architects and professor of architecture at the University of Brighton