Half of all humankind now live in cities, announced the United Nations in a 2014 report, World Urbanization Prospects. So if you reside in the metropolitan Boston region, you are part of that urban dwelling statistic. This preference for city living continues today and, not surprisingly, has unleashed a torrent of urgent planning for sustainable urbanization, thereby ignoring the other half of the world’s population and its potential for alternative solutions.
Enter Rem Koolhaas, an architect who has long been recognized for his innovative ideas and writings about the city. He and Samir Bantal, director of AMO, the think tank of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (the Dutch firm cofounded by Koolhaas and led by nine partners), joined forces to challenge the assumption that increasing urbanization is inevitable. They directed a large consortium of collaborators representing diverse global geographies and a broad range of expertise to explore radical changes in the rural, remote, and wild territories collectively identified as “countryside,” or the 98 percent of the Earth’s surface not occupied by cities. Equally radical, Koolhaas and Bantal partnered with the Guggenheim Museum, one of New York City’s premier art showcases, to present their explicitly non-art exhibition, Countryside: The Future, in the most famously urban center of the United States. The exhibit is supposed to be on view through August 14, 2020.
Installation View: Countryside, The Future, February 20–August 14, 2020.
In response to the coronavirus (or COVID-19) pandemic, the Guggenheim Museum has closed its doors temporarily until further notice. I was lucky to have visited the museum before the disease had spread to New York City. The contrarian ideas extended in Countryside: The Future are as novel as the coronavirus and highlight the very paradox we face today. Ordinarily, the density of cities allows the kind of redundancies in housing, transportation, public resources, and municipal services that make communities more resilient during disasters. But now, the benefits of dense social networks have turned those advantages into a threat, making the ideas advanced in Countryside: The Future even more vitally relevant.
Countryside: The Future is a blockbuster, think-outside-the-box installation, occupying the entirety of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling rotunda. “This is a collection of new and old ideas that aims to rediscover the dynamics of the countryside,” says Bantal. “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.”
Indeed, with information and questions plastered on every surface from floor to ceiling and with videos looping and robots wandering, the exhibit has an overwhelming density reminiscent of urban life. From the moment of entry, the stage is set for a trajectory that ascends into an uncertain but hopeful future. Even the charming hand-drawn scythe icon alongside the show’s steely silver title lettering functions both as symbol of land cultivation and a question mark, an apt segue to the constructions, contradictions, and conundrums that follow.
Image: Laurian Ghinitoiu courtesy AMO
Elucidating his motivation for such an ambitious undertaking, Koolhaas explains: “In the past decade, I have noticed that while much of our energies and intelligence have been focused on the urban areas of the world, the countryside has changed dramatically under the influence of global warming, the market economy, American tech companies, African and European initiatives, Chinese politics, and other forces. This story is largely untold.” To start, a gallery devoted to an enormous, animated world map identifies the geographic scope of the Countryside project, revealing a rush of eye-opening statistical data.
The pace slows on the show’s first turn around the rotunda, with historical allusions to the countryside as a place for leisure and escape. A colorful, collaged curtain decorated with paintings, pictures, and text tells a “punctuated story” of idyllic observations and reverent pontifications originating both in Western and Asian antiquity. Remarkably constant stereotypes of the countryside as a place to retreat to and refresh—from Marie Antoinette to the American hippie counterculture—give way to modern repackaging. Now, the countryside is actively marketed as a place to embody authenticity and mindfulness, often at prices as steep as the mountainsides. The installation concludes with openly cynical descriptions of the current global wellness industry and its exploitation of the natural world for corporate retreats and curated adventure.
From this recreational view of the countryside, the exhibition plunges headlong into eight case studies focused on 20th-century attempts at political redesign. Dictatorships and democracies alike proposed massive and sometimes outlandish plans, primarily undertaken to increase production and establish food security. From French philosopher Charles Fourier’s socialist utopias to German architect Herman Sörgel’s “Alantropa” plan to join Africa and Europe into a single continent to Mao tse-Tung’s Cultural Revolution to Qatar’s 2017 National Food Security Program, these colossal and largely failed efforts stand as both examples of and warnings against grand design.
As one continues to ascend the rotunda, the bombardment of data is packaged into digestible case studies that frame urgent questions and ever loftier ideas. In considering the countryside as a frontier for experimentation in “rural urbanization,” we are introduced to diverse projects in Europe, China, and Africa that replace centralization with accumulations of villages with clever networks of small, local, and interconnected production centers. But how do we balance such profitable projects with principles of conservation?
Koolhaas outlines competing approaches: “Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), 15 percent 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.”
See Countryside, The Future at the Guggenheim
Countryside, The Future is on view February 20 through August 14, 2020, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Select footage courtesy of VICE Media.
The improbable scenario of global cooperation is offset by glimmers of optimism at the top of the rotunda’s spiral. Here, admittedly extreme models for the future infuse hope: high-tech indoor farming techniques that conserve soil, light, and water; the design of “pixel farming” to replace ecologically harmful monocultural production with biodiverse, cross-nourishing “plant neighborhoods”; the introduction of advanced robotics in places such as Japan, which faces the dual challenges of an aging population and hard-to-reach mountainsides; new models for fish farming with closed-containment technology; and the promise of fusion as a source of new energy.
Image: Laurian Ghinitoiu courtesy AMO
The pressing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic only serve to heighten a sense of urgency. Can we meet this moment with the resolve it demands? Can we begin to revise the way we think about entire industries, let alone their cultural underpinnings? The future of the countryside ultimately resides in the exhibition’s closing question: “Can today’s extreme know-how be combined with goodness?”
Elin Spring is founder and editor-in-chief of What Will You Remember?, an online photography magazine featuring views, reviews, and interviews about the most intriguing imagery around Boston and beyond.