We like cities. We like Barcelona. But we want to imagine a new future for our cities that embraces the challenges and opportunities of the times we live in. We have gone back to nature to learn from its processes, in order to learn from the essence of life.

That is the first of eight cardinal principles of the Valldaura Self Sufficient Lab. The Lab is an offshoot of the Institute for Advanced Architecture in Catalonia, Barcelona’s independent and experimental architecture program. That program has long been devoted to exploring the expressive, socially connective, and sustainability-enhancing aspects of technology. The Lab is tucked away from the Institute’s urban setting: It sits on 320 acres of forest on the backside of the ridge that edges the city. In a former farmhouse, director Nuria Diaz and her fellow students and teachers—the distinction sometimes seems difficult to find—are trying to find ways to develop sustainable agriculture and understand the interdependence of the human-made and the natural.

The setting is an illustration of the notion that there is no condition that is purely natural or urban. In the 12th century, Valldaura was a Cistercian monastery and then a royal palace. Over the years it fell into disrepair; when IAAC bought it in 2008, the main farmhouse was almost a ruin. Now the place has been restored, its sheds turned into studios, its main rooms into places to meet and study, and its attic into a communal sleeping area. From the farmhouse, you look out over Valles, the “Valley” of Barcelona where its suburban growth took place in the 1990s. Walk up the ridge, and you have a panoramic view of the city.

All around Valldaura is parkland, but it is dotted with restaurants and other commercial enterprises. When I visited a few weeks ago, geese warned everybody I was there, while chickens pecked around. Garden plots surrounded the house, and a beehive was attracting its first occupants. Inside the studios, the participants showed me how they were growing mushrooms in plastic bags, while studying everything from the latest in drip irrigation to permaculture, or sustainable land-use design.

Some of us ate a nice vegetarian meal, at least some of which came from the gardens, while a few visiting IAAC faculty staged a barbecue on a solar-powered grill for a photo shoot. We made a short tour of the property, finding everything from the remains of old water courses to the Lab’s small (sterile) hemp garden.

There is a Whole Earth Catalog vibe about Valldaura. But now it is fed both by the availability of resources on the web and the notion that we should not go back to the land—but rather integrate the land and the city. IAAC is here trying to bring everything from biology, geology, and climatology into architectural research to develop integrative development strategies. In this vision, sprawl is a reality we need to design with, rather than against, and technology is a tool not only to spread knowledge, but also to connect people and resources while boosting sustainable ways of living and working. It is a messy, ad-hoc type of place. That might be exactly what architecture needs in order to move beyond the isolated production of building after building.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.