On Rem Koolhaas’ birthday, hear him question, "Is the countryside our future?"

To commemorate the Pritzker Prize laureate’s birthday, STIR brings an audio walkthrough of the Dutch architect’s exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, USA.

by Meghna Mehta Published on : Nov 16, 2020

Remment Lucas Koolhaas, known as Rem Koolhaas was born on November 17, 1944, in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Koolhaas started studying architecture at the Architectural Association in London in 1968, followed by study at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in 1972, and later at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City. Soon after, along with a few colleagues he set up his own firm, the Office of Metropolitan architecture (OMA) which now has offices across the world. Koolhaas became a well known figure with his work that defied the then dominant post-modern style. He then went on to publish multiple books and became known as one of the most significant thinkers and urbanists of our time. The Pritzker Prize was awarded to Koolhaas in 2008, giving him global recognition.

In 2014, he started exploring the assumption that ‘the ever increasing urbanisation is inevitable’. Koolhaas said, “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.”

Rem Koolhaas at the Exhibition with Samir Bantal on the right | Countryside The Future exhibition | Rem Koolhaas | STIRworld
Rem Koolhaas at the Exhibition with Samir Bantal on the right Image: Laurian Ghinitoiu, Courtesy of AMO

Many years later, Countryside, The Future, is an exhibition that has come to life to address urgent environmental, political, and socioeconomic issues through the lens of architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, Director of AMO, the think-tank of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). The project presents investigations by AMO, Koolhaas, with students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design; the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing; Wageningen University, Netherlands; and the University of Nairobi.

Installation View of the Countryside, The Future exhibition | Countryside The Future exhibition | Rem Koolhaas | STIRworld
Installation View of the Countryside, The Future exhibition Image: David Heald, Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Bantal said, “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.” Troy Conrad Therrien, Curator of Architecture and Digital Initiatives, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Rita Varjabedian, Anne Schneider, Aleksandr Zinovev, Sebastian Bernardy, Yotam Ben Hur, Valentin Bansac, with Ashley Mendelsohn, Assistant Curator, Architecture and Digital Initiatives at the Guggenheim were also a part of the collaboration.

STIR visits the exhibitions through the audios where Koolhaas with many others, describes in detail each of the sections of the exhibition, its purpose and what lies ahead for the future of our urban and rural populations.

1. Introduction

Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal talk about the Countryside, the Future exhibition; its concept, the curation and its eventual presentation at the Guggenheim museum Audio: Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal talk about the Countryside, the Future exhibition; its concept, the curation and its eventual presentation at the Guggenheim museum in New York, USA. As the exhibition unfolds, it addresses questions about the development and role of the countryside over time. The exhibition spirals upwards, progressively taking over the entrance and the six levels of the rotunda, zooming into a collection of specific and unique cases.

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.

2. Leisure/Escape

Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal discuss the Roman concept of free time and negotiation in the context of the countryside Audio: Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

This section narrates the story of leisure in the countryside. Using visual and textual collage, a 180-feet long curtain begins with early Roman and Chinese cultures and cuts forward in time through episodes in Europe and America.

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 idealised existence. Today’s ‘Wellness', a 4.5-trillion-dollar industry, has abandoned such cultural and creative dimensions.”

3. Political Redesign

Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal talk about the visions of political thinkers of the 20th century Audio: Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Through a series of eight case studies focused on the 20th 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. 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 20th 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.”

4. Nature/Preservation

The section poses positive portraits about people and positive situations - what happens in the countryside at the moment Audio: Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

This section considers the countryside as a frontier for experimentation. A carousel of photographic evidence, paired with first-hand texts and stories by and from locals, it presents a panoramic view of new social structures from China, Africa, Europe, and the US.

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.”

5. Cartesianism

Rem Koolhaas, Samir Bantal and Troy Conrad Therrien on applying rationalism in the Cartesian rhythm to varied contexts Audio: Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

In this section, at the top of the museum’s spiral, the exhibition explores 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.

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 mobilise 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…”.

For more audio discussions with various collaborators, visit the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum official webpage.

Read the review of this exhibition by Vladimir Belogolovsky here.

The exhibition is on view till February 15, 2021 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA.

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