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 pushing it behind hermetically sealed sleek interiors, now we will go a long way to reconcile with it. In the 20th century, we celebrated progress, urbanity, and density as the sure answer for fostering creativity, in the new century we are looking for alternative models of operating outside of cities that have become too congested, expensive, unbearably loud, and out of control.
Should we look for better alternatives elsewhere? Is the countryside our future? That is precisely the suggestion of Rem Koolhaas. The 75-year-old has shifted his career-long attention to cities to the countryside, and insists that today it is the countryside where the most radical, modern components of our civilization are taking shape. The extensive research carried out by Koolhaas and his team at AMO is the subject of his new book, Countryside, a Report, published by Taschen, and of an exhibition, ‘Countryside, the Future,’ that has opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and will be on view through 14 August.
Organized by Troy Conrad Therrien, first curator for Architecture and Digital Initiatives at the museum, in collaboration with Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, director of AMO, ‘Countryside, the Future’ examines how the countryside around the world has been transforming in the most radical ways through technology, culture, politics, migration, real estate speculation, and climate change. The word ‘radical,’ so extensively used nowadays, is quite appropriate here. The topic is hugely important and so one question may be asked right away: why should it be an architect to tell us about our future? Architects are not futurologists, sociologists, anthropologists, or scientists. They are entrusted with 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. The other is presenting their ideas in the most authoritative ways. After all, it is architects who are constantly dealing with the future, and the future we are presented here is overwhelming.
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 rotunda. But for this show, the museum fits like a glove. As we climb up the continuous six-level ramp, we encounter an endless collage of snapshots of the countryside’s mythology, history, politics, ecology, and imagery, plus 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 handwritten. The inexhaustible material plunges us into the world of the countryside – what it used to be, what it has become, and what to expect from it in the future.
We encounter a seemingly haphazard accumulation of gargantuan, featureless sheds called Tahoe Reno Industrial Center (TRIC) in the Nevada desert, the world’s largest industrial park, the backroom of Silicon Valley’s big tech companies, lured here by tax incentives and smooth building permit processes. We are educated about the Cartesian grid 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, nature preservation, leisure and escapism, commercialism, popular culture, and more. We are introduced to the latest technology of electric vehicles, drones, satellites, and tractors; one of these, a Deutz-Fahr, is placed outside the museum’s entrance on 5th Avenue, next to an industrial container that blocks the sidewalk so pedestrians can observe how tomatoes are cultivated in a finely tuned microclimate under pink LEDs.
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, the University of Nairobi, Waseda University in Tokyo, Wageningen University, and Design Academy Eindhoven, and many other individuals are certainly striking, fascinating, and provocative. Yet, what is the meaning of it all? Why are all of these facts and predictions being shown at a major art museum? After all, it is just information. Why do we need the walls of a museum to be turned into a bulletin board? Well, there are hidden messages in this act. One of the key questions here is: 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.
The other hidden message is in the presentation technique. In the hour-long lecture that Koolhaas gave at the press opening to journalists that filled the museum’s main auditorium, he announced that his show had nothing to do with art. At first glance the material on view may not qualify as such. But as you walk in, the first image you see is of Koolhaas himself, shown from the back, overlooking the mountains in front of him. The 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. This personal journey style presentation is chosen deliberately and artistically. This couldn’t have happened anywhere but at an art platform.
Have We Lost 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 is more and more technologically advanced; buildings and spaces between them, and 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 the seemingly utopian The Continuous Monument series of 1969 drawings by Superstudio, in which endless monoliths and white gridded structures are superposed over picturesque landscapes, turning the world into an alien 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 analysts raised their concern. Now more than half the world’s population lives in cities. Is this good or bad, and what do we do about it? Koolhaas found his own answer: “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 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.” 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’s 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 pay any attention at all? Koolhaas says that these creations are based on codes, algorithms, technologies, engineering, and performance, not artistic intention. In other words, they are not designed by architects. He says that these colossal, ‘post-human’ 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 control in 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’s 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 noticed that, while the village had lost much of its indigenous population, it was expanding its built footprint. The place proved to be attractive to seasonal tourists, many building houses they rarely inhabit. This phenomenon can also be observed in cities, especially such global magnets as New York and London that steadily attract foreigners to invest in real estate, believed to be a safer bet than the stock market.
The main point is that Koolhaas noticed long ago that architects had lost control in cities, and perhaps it is not too late to regain control in the country. For a long time it has been politicians, developers, and entrepreneurs who initiate construction in cities, and buildings have become formulaic and profit-driven. It is not unusual for architects to get involved only once everything is decided – program, massing, circulation, number of apartments per floor... They are often left with nothing more to do than wrap buildings in pretty envelopes. Cesar Pelli said: “Architecture is just a matter of a quarter of an inch.” This is actually very poetic. The problem is that too often, architecture is indeed reduced to that. So the hope of many architects is in the emptied countryside, where architects can perhaps find their own utopia to build from scratch. That is very tempting. Imagine building an alternative future!
But in truth, architects have been working in the countryside for some time now, such as many of China’s leading independent studios, which have retreated to rural areas where they can operate out of the radar of the authorities and produce alternatives to globalized architectures. Nevetheless, whether the countryside requires our attention more than cities do is hard to say. We are not shown any real evidence of that. Quite the contrary. Hundreds of millions of people are still being relocated to cities in China, and it is predicted that a number of urban centers in India and Africa will grow into megacities of 50 to 80 million people by the end of the century.
We need to pay attention to the countryside, but not at the expense of cities. Both are undergoing transformations to be urgently addressed. Should we even separate them? Koolhaas launched his career with an urban manifesto, Delirious New York. He has now written his rural manifesto. His observations are valid, and now that architects can refer to both, they are better armed to address the most urgent problems wherever they are.
As I walked out the museum a poster was being hung with another Koolhaas quote: “Since when did the word ‘vision’ only apply to cities?” A well-balanced position by a truly visionary architect. What’s next? I look forward to seeing his own projects developed in the countryside in the near future. Why concentrate on what constitutes a mere 2% of the world’s territory?
Vladimir Belogolovsky, a New York-based curator, wrote Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015).