Arquitectura Viva
Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Colonizing the Countryside. Rem Koolhaas at the Guggenheim

We used to be fascinated with the future and newness, we are now scared of it and comforted by nostalgia. Before, we were obsessed with crafting beautiful objects and buildings, today we are much more concerned with raising issues and creating socially interactive environments. In the past, we celebrated heroic individuals, originality, and pure talent, nowadays we encourage responsibility, ethics, collaboration, and discourse in search of consensus. Long ago, we knew exactly what we wanted, currently we insist on endless questioning and deep analysis before carefully calculating what we really need. We used to be proud of conquering nature by brushing it aside and pushing behind hermetically sealed sleek interiors, now we will go a long way to reconcile with it, which often translates into creating the most artificial landscapes in the least expected places. In the 20th century, we celebrated progress, urbanity, and ever-increasing density that was the sure answer to fostering creativity, and in the new century we are urgently looking for alternative models of operating outside of cities that have become too congested, expensive, unbearably loud, and all in all out of control. Should we look for better alternatives elsewhere? Is the countryside our future? That is precisely the suggestion of the Dutch architect, urbanist, writer, educator, and co-founder of Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and its research arm AMO, Rem Koolhaas. The 75-year-old architect has shifted his career-long attention from cities to the countryside over the last decade and insists that today it is the countryside where the most radical, modern components of our civilization are taking place. The resultant extensive research is now the subject of his new book Countryside, A Report by Taschen and exhibition, Countryside, The Future that opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York on February 20th and will be on view through the summer.  

Countryside, The Future is organized byTroy Conrad Therrien, first curator for Architecture and Digital Initiatives at the museum, in collaboration with Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, director of AMO,to examine how the countryside around the world has been transforming in the most radical ways by technology, culture, politics, migration, real estate speculation, and, not least, by climate change. The word radical, which is, of course, used extensively nowadays, is quite appropriate here, which you will realize as quickly as you start getting familiar with the content at hand. The topic is hugely important and so one question may be asked right away – why should an architect tell us about our future? Architects are not futurologists, sociologists, anthropologists, or scientists. They are entrusted in making our world a more ordered, meaningful, and, of course, beautiful place. Yet, it so happens that architects are perhaps better than anyone else at two things. One is collecting and analyzing data. And two – presenting their ideas in the most aspiring and authoritative ways. After all, it is the architects who are constantly dealing with the future. The future we are presented here is overwhelming, so if you want to learn from it come alone and prepare for some serious reading.  

What is the Role of an Art Museum Now?

What can be a better metaphor for exploring the future than a spiral?! It was always challenging for artists and curators to appropriate Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral rotundaat the Guggenheim. But for this show, the museum fits like a glove. As we climb up the continuous six-level ramp, we encounter endless collage of snapshots of the countryside’s mythology, history, politics, ecology, imagery, graphs, maps, statistics, films, archival materials, and art reproductions. There are case studies gathered from Mao’s China, Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s USSR, Nazi Germany, and democratic USA, among others. And then there are texts, texts, and more texts reproduced in large specially designed font, slightly blurry and looking like hand-written; there is enough of it to spend many hours here just to scratch the surface. The inexhaustible material plunges us into the world of countryside – what it used to be, what it has become, and what to expect from it in the near future. We encounter a seemingly haphazard accumulation of gargantuan and featureless industrial sheds called Tahoe Reno Industrial Center (TRIC) in the Nevada desert, the largest industrial park in the world, the backroom of Silicon Valley’s big tech companies, lured here by tax incentives and smooth building permit process. We are educated about the Cartesian grid, originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson, projected onto America’s “savage wilderness” and partitioned into 640-acre squares (one square mile) of farmland to ease its survey and sale. We learn about thawing permafrost in Russia, Chinese-funded infrastructure projects in Africa, gentrification, sustainability, preservation, leisure and escapism, commercialism, popular culture, and on and on. And we are introduced to the latest technology such as electric vehicles, drones, satellites, and tractors; one of them, a high-tech, state-of-the-art Deutz-Fahr tractor is placed outside of the museum’s entrance on Fifth Avenue right next to an industrial container that blocks most of the sidewalk, so pedestrians could observe how tomatoes are cultivated in a finely tuned microclimate under pink LED lights.

All of the findings and observations that Koolhaas assembled here with the help of his global practice, as well as students at Harvard, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, University of Nairobi, Waseda University in Tokyo, Wageningen University and Design Academy Eindhoven, both in the Netherlands, and many other individuals are certainly striking, fascinating, and provocative. Yet, what is the meaning of it all? Why all of these facts and predictions are being shown at a major art museum? After all, it is just information. Why do we need the walls of a major art museum to be turned into a bulletin board? Well, there are hidden messages in this act. One of the key questions here – what is the role of an art museum now? If we accept what curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has observed that art is not a thing, but a discourse then there is no contradiction here. More to the point, where else should the most pressing issues of our time be put on display, but at art venues to provoke a meaningful discussion? After all, it is art museums that attract the largest inquiring audience today. Modern museums have replaced medieval cathedrals. Increasingly, we turn to museums for all sorts of reasons – to admire something that sits on a pedestal is just one of them. Museums are no longer passive places where objects get accumulated; they shed light on thought-provoking ideas, and the way it is done is questioned and challenged all the time.

The other hidden message here is in the presentation technique. In the one-hour-long lecture that Koolhaas gave at the press opening to journalists that filled the museum’s main auditorium to its capacity he announced that his show has nothing to do with art. And at first glance the material on view may not qualify as such. But, as you walk into the installation, the very first image you see is Rem Koolhaas himself, shown from the back, overlooking the mountains in front of him. The very first sentence under the image states: “Over the past 10 years, I have been collecting information and material about a currently deeply neglected subject – the countryside.” As we progress, we read many of his first-person narratives and at the very top we come across a huge photo of Koolhaas, again from the back, this time at full height and surrounded by a crowd. They are looking at the countryside and at him, as the savior. This personal journey style presentation is chosen very deliberately and very artistically. This couldn’t have happened anywhere but at an art platform.

Have the Architects Lost Their Control?

The Guggenheim show is not exactly a prediction, but a warning – what will happen if the countryside keeps developing without architects? This vast zone has been becoming increasingly technologically advanced, buildings and spaces between them, as well as their interiors, are turning into depopulated and automated spaces. We are witnessing how nature is getting flattened and ordered to the point that it begins to recall seemingly utopian The Continuous Monument series of 1969 drawings by Superstudio, in which endless monolith, white, gridded structures are superimposed over picturesque landscapes, turning the whole world into an alien nature of being neither urban nor rural. The fact that this in-between state is becoming increasingly ambiguous has to do with the fact that by 2007, according to the UN, the number of people living in urban and rural areas became equal for the first time in history. That’s when many analysists raised their concern – now more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. That’s what everyone says. But is it good, bad, and what do we do about that? Koolhaas found his own answer. In his typically contrarian way, he pointed out: “Half of the world now lives in cities, but the other half – doesn’t.” And while the urban half occupies only 2% of the entire area of the world, the rural half takes the rest of the territory, which accounts for 98%. Where should we pay more attention? It is implied that the choice is kind of obvious.

“I'm interested in the country for the same reason I was paying attention to New York in the 70s. No one else was looking.” Wait a minute, there is a contradiction here – if Koolhaas found so much evidence that the countryside is being transformed so fundamentally, this only points to the conclusion that there is a lot of attention paid to it already!In that regard we are dealing here with Koolhaas’ own subjective revelation about the countryside. Let’s take another look at the new buildings in the Nevada desert, or more precisely, his fascination with them. There is nothing special about these bland boxes. Why should we pay any attention at all? Koolhaas says that these creations are based strictly on codes, algorithms, technologies, engineering, and performance, not intention. He means, not artistic intention. In other words, they are not designed by an architect. He says that these “post-human” colossal sheds are boring and banal. He suggests that architects could do a better job designing them. What he is really worried about is that architects have lost their control in the cities and there is now plenty of evidence that the countryside can be developed without them as well. He wants to challenge that and save the profession in the process.

Why the Countryside?

Why did the countryside attract Koolhaas’ attention in the first place? We learn that 25 years ago he began visiting a Swiss mountain village in the Engadin valley in summers and over time, started noticing that, while the village had lost much of its indigenous population, it was also expanding its built footprint. The place proved to be quite attractive to seasonal tourists, many even built houses that they rarely inhabit. I witnessed a similar situation, but evident in a very different way, in a tiny medieval town Mondavio near Urbino, Italy where all houses are protected, so nothing can be touched on the outside. Yet, in recent times this town has changed beyond recognition, from inside out. There are few locals left and one of the most popular establishments is the Italian language school for new foreign homeowners who flock here during several summer weeks from places as far away as Australia. Of course, this phenomenon can be also observed in cities, especially such global magnets like New York and London that steadily attract foreigners to invest in real estate, which is believed to be a safer bet than volatile stock market.

The main point here is that Koolhaas noticed a long time ago that architects have lost their control in cities and perhaps it is not too late to gain it in the countryside. It has long become a norm that it is politicians, developers, and entrepreneurs who initiate construction in cities. Buildings have become very formulaic and profit driven. It is not unusual for architects to get involved only when everything is already decided – the program, massing, circulation, a number of apartments per floor, and so on. The architects are often left with nothing more than wrapping buildings in pretty envelops. Many are quite content with that. Cesar Pelli said, “Architecture is just a matter of a quarter of an inch.” It is actually very poetic. The problem is that so often architecture is reduced to a quarter of an inch. It is now the hope of many architects that it is in the countryside, from where so many people have departed for cities, that they can find their own utopia to be built from scratch. That is very tempting. Imagine – building an alternative future!

But the truth is that architects have been working in the countryside for quite some time now. For example, that is exactly what many leading independent studios have done in China, as they can’t compete with state-owned giant design institutes or large foreign offices like OMA, which are invited to build their spectacles in urban China. As a result, these Chinese practitioners retreat into the countryside where they can operate under the radar of the authorities. They succeeded in producing numerous seductively beautiful structures, particularly relying on reviving regional building techniques and materials. These alternative solutions to so-called global and interchangeable architecture in cities all around the world are now winning the hearts of the harshest critics. This trend has become widespread far beyond China and now many architects are actively searching for opportunities to build on small scale outside of their cities and even countries and continents. Architects are rediscovering their authenticities in regional roots of specific places rather than focusing on inventing their personal visual languages, which has become a thing of the past.

Whether the countryside requires our attention more than cities is hard to say. We are not shown any real evidence of that. Quite the contrary, as we know that hundreds of millions of people are still being relocated into cities in China and it is predicted that a number of urban centers in India and Africa will grow into megacities of 50-80 million people by the end of this century. There is no doubt that we need to pay attention to the countryside, but not at the expense of overlooking our cities. Both are going through tremendous transformations and we urgently need to address them head on. Should we even separate the two? More than 40 years ago Koolhaas launched his career with an urban manifesto Delirious New York. He has now written his manifesto on the countryside. His observations are valid and now that architects can refer to both, they are better armed to address the most urgent projects wherever they are. As I walked out of the museum a poster was being hung at its giftshop. It was another quote by Koolhaas: “Since when did the word vision only apply to cities?” And that is a well-balanced position by a truly visionary architect. What’s next? I am looking forward to seeing his own built projects developed in the countryside in the near future. Why concentrate just on what constitutes a mere 2% of the world’s territory?

Vladimir Belogolovsky is New York City-based curator and author of ten books, including Iconic New York, Architectural Guide (DOM, 2019) and Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015).

Translation: Eduardo Prieto

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