Legend has it that Chinese regional party leaders would create fake scenery, such as rice fields ready for harvest, for Chairman Mao to view during train voyages in order to feign his idyll. This is only one vignette in "Countryside, the Future," an exhibition that recently opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Conceived by Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, director of AMO—the think tank of Koolhaas's Office for Metropolitan Architecture—the show engages broadly with the urgencies of the present by way of 98 percent of the Earth’s surface: the so-called countryside, presented as a space of radical transformation. Koolhaas calls the exhibition, which is the collective work of researchers from five universities over five years, a “catalog of issues,” a set of “global samples” that range from ancient conceptions of the countryside to Internet fulfillment villages in China; to indoor dairy megafarms in Qatar and new forms of digital agriculture; to an homage to ocean space. A former theorist of the skyscraper, Koolhaas now hopes that the exhibition puts the countryside, in a time of climate crisis, back on the agenda again. The artist and writer Emma McCormick-Goodhart spoke to AMO’s Samir Bantal and Troy Conrad Therrien, curator of architecture and digital initiatives at the Guggenheim, who invited Koolhaas to collaborate on this ambitious, experimental exhibition.
Emma McCormick-Goodhart: The term “countryside” is, in ways, a problematic or idealizing one. Why choose this term to foreground the exhibition and denote everything that isn’t “city”?
Troy Conrad Therrien: It’s a productive misnomer. We had long, long discussions about it: is it "countryside," or "countrysiding"? "Countrysidification"? Is the countryside really the other 98 percent of the globe, or is there still wilderness or hinterland?
EMG: The show isn’t an art show, but a research-oriented takeover of the Guggenheim that has no precedent. Troy, how did you facilitate the project’s many moving parts?
TCT: Part of the curator role, I think, is to be a kind of gasket between Rem and his organizations, the Guggenheim and ours, and the public. You have to be incredibly agile and flexible, because all those machines have their own logics, and they don’t always line up. The whole point was to give Rem enough space to let his imagination work the way it has in the past, when he wasn’t famous, and when he didn’t have a 300-person office. Rem has this kind of incredible intuition.
EMG: Samir, how did you, as Rem’s chief collaborator, orchestrate the vast amounts of fieldwork that went into the project?
Samir Bantal: A number of locations that feature within the exhibition were encountered through the work that we [OMA and AMO] do, the projects that we work on, and the people that we meet. Rem and I used to work very closely on a number of projects, which meant that we traveled together frequently. In some cases, we would travel to a place for a certain project where we were confronted with, for example, the industrial park in Reno, Nevada. In those instances, we immediately felt that this was an interesting phenomenon; that we needed to engage more experts, or a scientific approach, on it. Luckily, within our network, we have many artists, scientists, and people in other fields, which meant we could easily tap into new networks. Academia, in that sense, plays a very important role: It immediately introduces you to the key players, the key thinkers on certain subjects. Harvard University was our overall research partner. The University of Nairobi helped us look at Kenya and its context, and the University of Tokyo helped us to collect data, among other institutions.
EMG: The exhibition’s designer, Irma Boom, is a renowned book designer—and the exhibition does feel somewhat like a manuscript. What led to this design schema?
TCT: We attempted, as much as possible, to resist the urge to use the word "research." It’s not research, it’s more like reporting. Rem, in fact, was originally a journalist. One of the first ideas when we started was, What if there was no text in the show? That would have been the most radical possible thing you could imagine: an AMO exhibition with no text. We spent a year and a half trying out every single possible technology in the market to allow the narrative to come through, but what we landed on after testing everything we possibly could, is that the best technology for telling stories in space is still text on a wall. In the end, we have tens of thousands of words of text on the wall. Irma Boom, one of the world’s great book designers and graphic designers, helped introduce hierarchy in the text. I think of the show as a kind of buffet. You don’t have to eat every course. In fact, you can eat only dessert if you want, but it’s all there. If you want to gorge yourself, you can read every single word on the wall, including the footnotes.
EMG: Are there new architectural or design practices emerging from the so-called countryside?
TCT: There’s only one moment in the whole show where we really talk about architecture directly. It was one of the foundational moments of the research, when Rem and his collaborators went to Reno and saw this industrial park with massive buildings. One of the discoveries was the Tesla Gigafactory, which is going to be the biggest building in the world, at a kilometer long—more impressive, in a way, than the skyscrapers Rem encountered in New York in the 1970s. All of the people who participated in designing and creating it were under the age of 32, and not a single one was trained as an architect. Yet they were still making architectural decisions. There’s a new type of architect, who won’t even call themselves architects. That’s where I hope young people interested in architecture will get inspiration from this show. In the future, maybe a biology degree is better for designing buildings than a design degree.
EMG: Increasingly, ecosystems are being granted legal rights. What happens when nature becomes the protagonist, and to what extent does the exhibition address this?
SB: I think that since we invented the city, we’ve been leaving the countryside. But we have not been leaving it alone. We have, instead, constantly been trying to exploit it in order to extract from it in order to make our lives in the city possible, which means that only 2 percent of the Earth’s surface determines how the 98 percent of the Earth’s surface looks. I think that the idea of granting rights to nature is a very interesting phenomenon, because we’ve largely been looking at everything around us from a kind of urban-focused mentality—meaning that everything that we do, even in the countryside, is a kind of translation of urban-think. But what if there’s a different force? Would granting rights, almost like personal rights, to nature—which has happened with rivers, mountain ridges, etcetera—actually help to recorrect the balance between what the city is and is not?
EMG: Can you outline how AMO’s notion of “spatial agency” informs the exhibition?
SB: The great part of having a department within a studio that mainly focuses on architecture and urbanism, is that you can constantly play with the thought, what is the opposite of what we’re doing? What is the other realm of what we’re doing? We’re building, but what is unbuilding? We’re constructing, but what is deconstructing? AMO, then, is a kind of perfect agency to reflect on that, especially in our discipline of architecture, which is not disconnected from other urgencies. The physical consequences of climate change affect our work, for example. You have to read the barometer constantly and ask, What does this mean? AMO initiates critical thinking.
EMG: Marine and subterranean environments figure as countryside case studies. Why not outer space?
SB: It’s interesting that you mention it. The extraterrestrial was, in fact, one of our themes from the beginning, and one that we would still like to investigate more. There’s a strange kind of a paradox in trying to know more about life, or whatever is outside of Earth, before we’ve even studied and collected everything that we know on Earth. We’re able to send a Mars Rover to Mars, develop beautiful high-res pictures, yet only recently were we able to go to the deep sea with a camera that has limited vision. We have a higher resolution of the outside. Is that related to the way that we’ve always been moving away from the countryside, looking for new frontiers, new barriers, new places to explore? Something triggers us to go there.
EMG: Do we already exist within a post-human architectural condition of the kind you encountered in Reno?
SB: We will most likely, I think, see more post-human or machine-driven architecture. I’m sure that we will be able to program buildings to be constructed and operable, where human interference is limited to initially developing a kind of code for it. But even that, to some extent, could be taken over. It’s something that we touch upon in this exhibition—not to say that this is the future, but to indicate that there is a potential future, where there’s architecture without architects, urbanism without urbanists, and public space without public.
"Countryside, the Future" is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through August 14, 2020.