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

Was the countryside ever romantic?


A massive research project led by Rem Koolhaas over five years culminated in the exhibition ‘Countryside, The Future’ at the Guggenheim New York. The show will be running until February 2012. After decades being obsessed by urbanism and megastructures, Koolhaas became fascinated by the radical development taking place in rural environments outside cities. The show anticipates a turn of interests, accelerated by the pandemic.

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is famous for his impatience and restless intellect, reflected in the wide range of issues covered in the Guggenheim exhibition Countryside, The Future. As a research project it aims to figure out radical changes taking place outside cities, like an anthropological survey on man’s relationship to nature, technology and the new order of the rural environment. Koolhaas believes that new technologies will provide solutions to global warming. The book Countryside, A Report (Taschen 2020) published with the exhibition, consists of essays reflecting on some fascinating topics and ends with Koolhaas’ text, which is actually a list of questions, a stream of consciousness spread over 26 pages. Koolhaas starts by asking:

Where did the cows go?

And when did they leave?

Contemporary haymaking in Qatar, against an impressionist style rural scene painted by Monet.

For an architect, who was inspired by megastructures and obsessed with ’aesthetics of congestion’, this latest turn seems initially as a provocative gesture. However the exhibition explores a transformation of the posthuman condition, a discursive turn in which technological innovations could be harnessed in support of nature and the wider ecosystem. Observations collected by research teams from different corners of the planet, including Harvard GSD, University of Nairobi and Design Academy Eindhoven, bring together moral, ethical and technological questions, which Koolhaas articulates:

Will warming kill democracy?

Can it only be stopped by authority?

Could Democracy kill Warming?

Wind farms, solar farms, storage and distribution centers, factory farms, greenhouses, airports, highways, nuclear test sites, colossal art works, dams, nature reserves – is their advance a good sign?

Why are they impeccably organised while we are struck in a perpetual muddle?

Why does perfection only exist in domains to which we don’t seem to have access?

As urban life has been transformed by the pandemic, the timing of the Guggenheim exhibition seems prophetic. Open for just three weeks before all museums in New York closed, it was the second occasion for Koolhaas to showcase at the Guggenheim. First one was the 1978 show ’The Sparkling Metropolis’ with Madelon Vriesendorp. When pondering the effects of globalisation in a text from 1993 in S,M,L,XL Koolhaas listed the spread of epidemics and recognised a general expansion of possibilities ’for better or for worse’. And the effect on architecture on typical koolhaasian contradictory manner : ”exponentially depletes the architectural imagination” and then ”exponentially enriches the architectural imagination”. 

Rem Koolhaas with Guggenheim curator Troy Conrad Therrien and Samir Bantal from AMO, Image by Kristopher McKay

Koolhaas’ fascination for the rural environment is marked by the coexistence of digital technology, ecosystems, robotics and beautiful landscape, recognised as ’the new Sublime’. The massive cubic forms of data centers against an empty landscape in the Nevada desert exemplifies this form of beauty according to Koolhaas. Through an ideological rambling over a myriad of propositions for the future in the countryside, Koolhaas lyrically/cynically wonders:

Are data centers more impressive than pyramids?

Are more secrets buried in their chambers?

Are we buried alive in them?

Are our lives buried in them?

Could there ever be a new anarchy?

Can there again be art without CV, biography, context?

As in Lascaux?

Can we relearn romanticism?

Is a romantic someone who sees beauty even where it doesn’t exist?

Is the Sublime a way to combine good and bad? 

Is the contemporary countryside on its way to the Sublime?

What is more important for humankind: the Tesla GigaFactory, the Thermae de Vals, CCTV, or a refugee camp?

Countryside , The Future, Guggenheim New York, until 14.2.2021