Countryside, The Future; On view February 20, 2020 to August 14, 2020

With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas and that figure expected to climb to 70 or 80 percent by 2050, “Countryside, The Future” is as much an exploration as it is an exhibition.

With today’s opening at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, visitors globe-trot through questions about the development and the purpose of the countryside through time. History, ecology, sustainability, politics, sociology, biology…there is a lot to process. Along with detailed historical context, analysis of the current situation and anticipation of what lies ahead, museum goers can walk away with an abundance of information, but more specifically better insight into how ruralism — and its vastly shifting landscape — shapes the world.

Rem Koolhaas and AMO, the think tank of his Office for Metropolitan Architecture, examined the seismic changes underfoot. The esteemed architect explained in detail the societal, scientific, sociological and other factors transforming the countryside during an hourlong presentation Wednesday before an SRO crowd at the Upper East Side museum. Outside the Fifth Avenue entrance, the heavy-duty green Deutz-Fahr industrial tractor and the pink LED lights beaming on hermetically sealed tomatoes will inevitably stop a few passersby — in cars or on foot. “This almost exclusive focus on the city…the growth, the beauty, the future of cities, the technologies of cities” has resulted in the “almost massive neglect of the countryside,” Koolhaas said. “The show’s explicit agenda” is about putting the countryside back on the agenda, without forgetting about cities, Koolhaas said. Moreso, it presents “an urgency about how crazy it would be if this current neglect continues,” he said. “In order for us to have our fun in the cities, the countryside on the left has to be highly organized, highly structured and highly mechanized.”

Today’s glass houses are often free from natural sunlight, soil and other essentials. 

The fact that such a show is in a prized art museum smack in the middle of New York is not lost on Koolhaas. “What is wonderful is this show has nothing to do with art, nothing to do with architecture. It’s a show about sociology, anthropology, biopolitics and it will be here for six months.”

Earlier in the program, Troy Conrad Therrien, the Guggenheim’s curator of architecture and digital initiatives, noted how rather than be a retrospective, all new content was created. He pitched in with organizing, as did several others.

Indoors, the rotunda is adorned with cut-outs and objects in what is meant to resemble an unswept ancient Roman floor (the effect is sharper peering down from the museum’s fifth floor.) Essentially, everywhere you turn, there are factual tidbits, statistics and information — more often than not collisions of the old and new. Suspended above the rotunda’s fountain, for example, are a small imaging satellite, a bale of hay and a COTSbot underwater drone that kills predatory starfish and a replica of a Roman sculpture of a fisherman. Strings of questions from Koolhaas’ essay titled “?” are imprinted on the wall of the high gallery. Skyward are such queries as, “If you live in cities, you don’t live in the most beautiful parts of the world…what happens to the world becomes remote, you experience the suffering of nature second or third hand.” Even the question mark imprinted on the rotunda hints at the countryside with a scythe-like quality.

The exhibition features robotic elements.  LAURIAN GHINITOIU

Each of the multilevels in Frank Lloyd Wright’s spheric building focuses on a theme. After the street-level introduction, there is Leisure and Escapism, Political Redesign, (Re-)Population, Nature/Preservation and Cartesianism. Leisure and Escapism, for example, calls attention to the $4.5 trillion wellness economy and is a lesson unto itself with such contributors as the $702 billion healthy-eating and weight-loss sector, the $595 billion fitness and mind-body field and the nearly $1.1 billion personal-care, beauty and anti-aging area.

Aside from a column covered with images of country-inspired fashion shoots and magazine covers like “Country Woman,” the exhibition does not delve deeply into fashion. As an indicator of the public’s thirst for greenery, visitors are reminded how daily newspaper circulation in the U.S. had decreased by almost half compared with 20 years ago but Better Homes and Gardens reaches 7.5 million readers alone. They will also find an image of Lil Nas X beside one of Billy Ray Cyrus with a “NOT COUNTRY-COUNTRY” primer about the controversy sparked by their “Old Town Road” remix.

Forty years after he first debuted his breakout urban analysis “Delirious New York,” Koolhaas gave a breakdown that was essentially a walk-through of what was housed above the museum’s subterranean theater. The show’s subject examines the 98 percent of the earth’s surface that is not occupied by cities. One of the first wall texts informs visitors how the United Nations predicted in 2007 that urban dwellers would increase to between 70 and 80 percent by 2050, and spells out, “As cities get bigger, the countryside is losing inhabitants, but it cannot shrink.” Given that, urban life is accelerating the organization and automation of the countryside.

Among the litany of examples that Koolhaas mapped out was how Japan is dealing with equipping its aging population with wearable robotic devices that ease physical movements and help ensure self-sufficiency. There is also research underway about how robots could maintain the countryside, since the anticipation is that people will disappear from there in favor of urban living, he said. And the neighboring country of China is very much focused on maintaining the vibrancy of the countryside and putting it on the agenda, Koolhaas added.

With artificial intelligence, worker migration, data storage, fulfillment centers and the purchase of land for ecological preservation are to some degree more explored in the countryside than the city. Koolhaas noted how China is the only country with an official policy about what to do with the countryside. With about 700 million people living in the countryside and fear that the cities cannot accommodate them, the state is seriously involved in creating and maintaining new possibilities, according to Koolhaas who cited massive improved access via transportation hubs and airports.

Rem KoolhaasNew Museum's 2019 Spring Gala, New York, USA - 03 Apr 2019

Rem Koolhaas  Lexie Moreland/WWD

Referring to Preservation as a crucial issue in relation to climate change, Koolhaas broached the question of whether 17 percent, 30 percent or 50 percent of the earth’s surface should be saved and concluded 50 percent. But that in turn presents its own questions such as, “If you declare something to be preserved, are you not at that very moment also changing [it] simply because of the new status that it gets?” There is also the dilemma of how in saving 50 percent of nature, some might translate that to mean “you can afford to not so much waste, but use the other half,” he said. Another theory, however, would be a culture where human beings coexist with nature or have a sensitivity to former indigenous inhabitants that will result in a more in-between coalition between preservation and use, Koolhaas said.

Drawing attention to one of the exhibition’s few examples of architecture, Koolhaas noted “how a new form of architecture is being born in the countryside” including one, in “a beautiful landscape” with wild horses, near Reno, “where many American corporations are building enormous boxes…sometimes a mile long, five stories tall, completely abstract with no windows that are kind of planted here simply randomly” without streets or planning. “What’s most fascinating” is how the buildings are dedicated to housing machinery, largely robots used for distribution centers, and they are located in a space about the size of Manhattan with a community of about 600 people equating and perhaps redefining a new village, Koolhaas said.

"Countryside, The Future" at the Guggenheim

The frivolity of urban life affects country life. Left: Mishka Henner, Feedlots, 2013. Right: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, 2018.  Photo: Luca Locatelli

Running through Aug. 14, the exhibition was made possible with support from Sies Marjan, IKEA and others.

In wrapping up his remarks, Koolhaas singled out highlights at the end of the show, such as PhenoMate, a machine on display that takes photographs of plants as soon as they emerge from the ground to analyze them to offer a readout of the efficiency of photosynthesis. That will be a critical tool in fighting climate change. He is also pointed to a multicolored grid illustrating pixel farming, which is inspired by pre-Columbian Mayan agriculture, where planting corn, beans and squash to share nutrients and underground resources were among the benefits.

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