Rem Koolhaas Gives Beleaguered City Folk a Trip to the Countryside

Emilee Geist

This much we knew by Tuesday night: at the electoral level, at least, the divide between America’s cities and its hinterlands seems deeper than ever, with urban and rural having become almost synonyms for blue and red.

The surprise that initially greeted this entrenched polarization reinforces, all too well, the thrust of the current exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: that the true terra incognita is outside of town. “Countryside, the Future,” organized by the Dutch architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas, argues that architects, intellectuals and politicians have focused on metropolitan life to the point of myopia, and have missed convulsive changes — demographic ones, political ones, technological ones — in sparsely populated regions.

Five years in the making, “Countryside” opened on Feb. 20 and closed three weeks later because of the coronavirus pandemic. The show is almost devoid of architecture as such, and instead examines the design history of nonurban areas through assemblages of historical propaganda and contemporary advertisements; torrents of agricultural statistics; and showcases of robotic tractors and crop-seeding drones. As my colleague Michael Kimmelman wrote upon its opening, it has “something of the aesthetic of an old Soviet World’s Fair pavilion,” though the cacophonous exhibition design draws as much from today’s meme culture as from yesterday’s trade expositions.

Well, not for the first time, events have proved Mr. Koolhaas prescient, and both health and political crises have strengthened the show’s suggestion that the city is yesterday’s news. I didn’t love “Countryside” either at first, but, back at the Guggenheim for the first time since March, I found myself more impressed than before with the show’s attention to new forms of rural life — especially the digital technologies that are transforming the countryside, and the massive warehouses and robust delivery systems reshaping rural and urban economies alike.

Along the winding museum ramps, Mr. Koolhaas and his team — including Samir Bantal, Troy Conrad Therrien, and three columns’ worth of credited collaborators and students — hopscotch from Siberia to Kenya, from the Mojave Desert to the Japanese mountains, to correct the architectural profession’s urban monomania. The show presents Nazi, Soviet and Maoist agricultural development plans, tacitly admiring their scale and ambition, briefly noting the millions of dead bodies that accompanied them.

There are the socialist schemes of Charles Fourier, who designed self-contained utopian societies for work, study, farming and sex. Visions of Roman villas and Chinese literati gazing at mountains give way to back-to-the-land hippiedom circa Ken Kesey, then to wellness retreats and the eco-bunkers of catastrophist millionaires.

Certainly New Yorkers’ revaluation of the countryside had begun long before the “Decameron”-style outflows of remote-working urbanites and their families, fleeing the coronavirus last spring. (No point denying that I was one of them. Born in New York, I spent more time in the countryside this year than I have in my entire life, holing up in rural Massachusetts and driving past farms with an equal distribution of Black Lives Matter and Make America Great Again yard signs.) The phrase “farm to table” has been a cliché for years, and Park Slope idealists long ago exported their Marie Antoinette rural fantasies to the Hudson Valley.

Yet the pandemic — now scything through sparsely populated regions as much as dense ones — has judderingly accelerated new encounters between the city and its outskirts. Everyone from the farmers’ market to the real estate brokerage can tell you that the arrival of high-speed broadband in the countryside has flattened the space between urban and rural. Add now the pandemic’s crushing of in-person work, and your life in a Vermont forest or a Barbadian beach town might not look so different from your life in town.

Perhaps the strongest sections of “Countryside” are devoted to China, with several case studies of villages transformed by new logistics technology and digital commerce platforms. One town has become a leading producer of Ikea-knockoff flat-pack furniture; another has raised living standards by selling organic pumpkins to lodgers in renovated stone houses. (Students at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts did the research here.) Rural farmers sell apples fresh from the tree on the social network Kuaishou, the country cousin of TikTok. There’s even a replica of the desk of a Chinese provincial official, backed by a film extolling President Xi Jinping’s youth in the Shaanxi countryside.

It was, of course, Mr. Koolhaas’s firm that designed the Beijing headquarters of Chinese state television a decade ago, and mock-Maoist echoes of the Cultural Revolution ripple through this exhibition: intellectuals “learning from the countryside”; bureaucrats sent down to the farm. Its undisguised admiration for Xi’s China, not to mention its almost nostalgic gaze on colonial expansion and Soviet development, doubles down on Mr. Koolhaas’s nonideological esteem for world-reshaping ambitions. “This is what we have lost in the disaster of the modern project: the ability to think big,” he wrote a quarter of a century ago in “S M L XL,” his doorstop book with Bruce Mau.

I’d suggest that the critical drubbing “Countryside” initially received bespeaks a total exhaustion with such grand efforts, and a sense that — for young audiences especially — today’s overlapping emergencies have invalidated the ironic distance encapsulated in that photo of Mr. Koolhaas looking out over the Nevada industrial park.

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