A central thesis of ‘Countryside: The Future’ is that our current form of urban life has necessitated the organization, abstraction, and automation of the countryside at an unprecedented scale. Data storage, fulfillment centers, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotic automation, economic innovation, worker migration, and the private purchase of land for ecological preservation are in many cases more actively explored and experimented with in the countryside than the city.
Urbanization drew our collective attention, especially since the UN released their report ‘World Urbanization Prospects’ in 2014, reporting that half of all humankind lived in cities. The exhibition is an attempt at shifting the global focus on urban areas towards the vast non-urban areas around the world.
Curated by Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal of OMA/AMO and designed in collaboration with Troy Conrad Therrien of the Guggenheim, Countryside, The Future contests the assumption that ever increasing urbanization is inevitable. The exhibition explores radical changes in the rural, remote, and wild territories collectively identified here as “countryside,” or the 98% of the Earth’s surface not occupied by cities. Its content is drawn from a large consortium of collaborators representing diverse global geographies and a broad range of expertise.
Rem Koolhaas: “In the past decades, I have noticed that while much of our energies and intelligence have been focused on the urban areas of the world—under the influence of global warming, the market economy, American tech companies, African and European initiatives, Chinese politics, and other forces—the countryside has changed almost beyond recognition. The story of this transformation is largely untold, and it is particularly meaningful for AMO to present it in one of the world’s great museums in one of the world’s densest cities.”
Samir Bantal, Director of AMO: “This is a collection of new and old ideas that aims to rediscover the dynamics of the countryside. A place many of us think of as stable and slow-moving is revealed as an incredibly agile and flexible realm, even more than any modern metropolis.”
Countryside, The Future is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from February 20 through August 14, 2020.
As the exhibition unfolds, it addresses questions about the development and role of the countryside over time: What was the countryside historically, what did the major political figures of the twentieth century prepare for us, what is the current condition, what needs to be done for the future, and in what ways could this take shape?
The show spirals upwards, progressively taking over the entrance and the six levels of the rotunda, zooming into a collection of specific and unique cases in China, Qatar, Germany, Kenya, Russia, Japan, the US and the Netherlands, visually designed by AMO/Koolhaas and Irma Boom in collaboration with the Guggenheim.
A mix of imagery, films, archival material, wallpaper graphics, a printed curtain, objects, reproduced artworks and robotic sculptures dress the walls, floors and ceiling of the rotunda, while a remarkable amount of text unfolds this narrative of case studies contextualized by a broad array of voices.
Exterior: Outside the museum entrance on Fifth Avenue, a hermetically sealed industrial grow container cultivates tomatoes under pink LED lights and a finely tuned microclimate. Also positioned at the entrance to the museum is a high-tech, state-of-the-art Deutz-Fahr tractor used in industrial farming.
Rotunda: On the publicly accessible street-level floor of the museum are cut-outs, objects, and extracts in the style of an ancient Roman unswept floor. Suspended above the fountain in the rotunda is a small imaging satellite, an industrial-size bale of hay, and a COTSbot—a predatory starfish-killing underwater drone—is paired with a reproduction Roman sculpture of a fisherman.
Level 1 and High Gallery: Introduction
Koolhaas’s essay, titled “?,” composed of questions related to the countryside, is featured on the wall of the High Gallery alongside an animated map that identifies the geographic scope of the project. Also introduced on Level 1 is the “Semiotics Column,” created by journalist Niklas Maak with students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, in which one of the few vertical elements of the Guggenheim Museum building is plastered with a matrix of images from advertisements, fashion campaigns, toys, and country music to illustrate fantasies and stereotypes of rural life.
Level 2: Leisure and Escapism
A 180-foot-long, full-height, fully saturated curtain takes over this section to tell a punctuated story of leisure in the countryside. Using visual and textual collage, the curtain begins with early Roman and Chinese cultures and cuts forward in time through episodes in Europe and America, from Marie Antoinette to hippie counterculture, to the current global wellness industry that profits from a natural world conditioned for corporate retreats and curated adventure.
As Koolhaas notes in the exhibition text: “Before Christ was born there existed a moment of global consensus on the countryside; the Romans and the Chinese, thousands of miles apart, developed intricate and coherent treatises on the countryside as a space of creative and idealized existence. Today’s ‘Wellness,’ a 4.5-trillion-dollar industry, has abandoned suchcultural and creative dimensions. An ‘elevated’ form of consumption has transformed whole sections of the countryside. In Italy, abandoned villages are converted in their entirety into luxury spas; in Andermatt, Switzerland, a huge new hotel is an extruded ‘stretch-chalet’; and in China, authentic villages are remodeled into wellness resorts.”
Level 3: Political Redesign
Through a series of eight case studies focused on the twentieth century, this section provides representative examples of “political redesign,” the application of political will and vision to the transformation of the countryside at territorial scale. Such acts, proposed and effected by various political regimes, are profiled, from dictatorship to democracy. Case studies include a prototype of a nineteenth-century commune, efforts to recondition the landscape of the Soviet Union in the twentieth century, and a food security program put into effect in Qatar in 2017.
As Koolhaas notes in the exhibition text: “Driven by need, ambition, ideology, and new political structures all through the twentieth century, a number of massive proposals for radical redesigns transformed large sections of the globe. Authoritarian and democratic states alike took colossal risks attempting to increase productivity and food security, and remake society. Success or failure, famine, or overproduction… We live in a world still deeply marked by these Promethean efforts.”
Level 4: (Re-)Population
This section considers the countryside as a frontier for experimentation. A carousel of photographic evidence, paired with firsthand texts and stories by and from locals, it presents a panoramic view of new social structures from China, Africa, Europe, and the US. Among the examples featured are European villages revitalized by welcoming refugees; Chinese villages focused on a form of twenty-first-century rural life; and innovation and development in Southern Kenya.
As Koolhaas notes in the exhibition text: “As soon as we leave the urban condition behind us, we confront newness and the profoundly unfamiliar. What we collect here is evidence of new thinking—in China, in Kenya, in Germany, France, and Italy, in the US: new ways of planning, new ways of exploring, new ways of acting with media, new ways of owning, paying, renting, new ways of welcoming, new ways in which the countryside is inhabited today.”
Level 5: Nature/Preservation
Featured on ramp 5 are complex case studies that counter accepted notions of nature through the lens of its preservation: in Uganda, the unintended consequences of conservation success with the mountain gorilla; in Siberia, the global and local impact of thawing permafrost; in Patagonia, large-scale land acquisitions by wealthy individuals and private conservation organizations.
As Koolhaas notes in the exhibition text: “Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), 15% of the Earth’s surface has been preserved, but much more will be needed to compensate for the adventure of modernity. Currently, scientists are developing models in, broadly, two versions. The first, ‘Half Earth,’ is based on E. O. Wilson’s 2016 manifesto. It implies a drastic separation between an almost pristine nature on the one hand and human habitation and cultivation on the other. The second, ‘Shared Planet,’ proposes a more intensive mixing of all our territories. Both approaches imply radical changes in food production, ideology, and agricultural techniques. They will also require the intense collaboration of all spheres, and all political factions that are barely on speaking terms today—and the collective mobilization of tools and technologies that have been spoilt by their unquestioned dominance.”
Level 6: Cartesianism
The street grid, an imposition of mathematical abstraction on varied terrains and unruly human affairs, has been seen as the hallmark of urban rationalism. In this section, at the top of the museum’s spiral, the exhibition explores such Cartesian rationalism in the countryside. Large hanging panels featuring images and projections are paired with contemporary agricultural equipment from the field and lab. Throughout, robotic sculptures roam the ramp, turning the fixed objects into a backdrop for surprising juxtapositions. Among the case studies are a look at high-tech indoor farming in the Netherlands; large-scale precision farming in the US; a machine designed to measure photosynthesis; and fish farming on land.
As Koolhaas notes in the exhibition text: “Can we prove that René Descartes could only have invented his mathematical methodology because he was living in the hyper-orthogonal landscapes of the Netherlands—dedicated to produce vegetal and artistic abundance in increasingly artificial ways? Can we treat the ocean like a new countryside? Can we prove that Japan is the site where demographics of aging will mobilize robots to sustain ‘life’ in the countryside; that certain corporations now operate revolutionary structures that accidentally invent a ‘new architecture,’ focused on machines not on humans; that plants no longer need daylight or earth (and a lot less water) to grow, that they can influence and take care of each other better than our current monocultures allow them to, showered with pesticides; that nuclear energy is not a finished chapter, but that fusion is around the corner; that all these phenomena create new dreamlike images, promises, and conditions…”