By: Naftali Shavelson  | 

‘Countryside, The Future’: A Review

Walking down the “Museum Mile” section of Fifth Avenue, a stretch of Upper East Side asphalt billed as “one of the densest displays of culture in the world” and undoubtedly one of its priciest, you’d expect to see cabs, Cadillacs and cyclists fighting for attention and lane real estate. What I found when I reached the Guggenheim Museum’s block, though, was a Deutz-Fahr 9340 Warrior TTV. In layman’s terms, a massive, green tractor.

That 30,000-pound farm tool hadn’t just taken a wrong turn somewhere near Mifflinburg. It was part of an exhibit at the Guggenheim called “Countryside, The Future” by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas, his associate Samir Bantal and their think tank AMO. By taking over the museum’s entire rotunda (and much of the sidewalk outside, apparently,) with their ambitious installation, they hoped to “explore radical changes in the rural, remote, and wild territories collectively identified… as ‘countryside,’ or the 98% of the Earth’s surface not occupied by cities.”

This was an interesting pivot for one of the most famous architects in the world who has spent most of his career bringing to life grand, expensive commissions in major urban centers. Koolhaas’s portfolio includes projects in Beijing, Berlin, Chicago, Seattle and Seoul, to name a few, and he’s currently working on some luxury condos in Manhattan’s own Gramercy Park. Why would an icon of urban architecture abruptly shift to talking about farming?

Turns out, Koolhaas’s relationship with the city has long been love-hate. While maintaining that “the city is all we have,” he also feels that many of today’s cities are “deeply tragic,” with poor planning (and bad architecture) leading to modern metropolises’ recent decay. “Countryside, The Future” doesn’t propose any solutions — Koolhaas & Co. have tried that in the past — but instead aims to explore alternative ways of living that have been sidelined by a rush over the past few decades out of the rural and into the urban.

The main question of the exhibition, then, is really this: What happens to the countryside as people slowly leave it, and what could a meaningful return to rural areas possibly look like? To find answers, Koolhaas looks at a cornucopia of case studies across dozens of countries, peoples and eras. He tracks the ways governments, societies and independent actors attempted to tame, develop and exploit nature based on their unique needs, wishes and desires. The case studies follow a loosely chronological format, starting with ancient Roman and imperial Chinese approaches near the bottom of the Guggenheim’s grand, spiral ramp before ascending through Manifest Destiny and Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward towards even more contemporary examples from Kenya and Qatar.

Each case study comes with illustrations, charts and archival footage (when available) that tell the story of that specific attempt to relate to the countryside in a new way. The main element, though, is decidedly text. A lot of text. Hundreds of words per presentation are broken up into various colors, fonts and sizes for easier consumption, but there’s no getting around the sheer amount of reading necessary to effectively take in the exhibition, especially considering the dozens of stops viewers must make in their quest to ascend the museum’s quarter-mile of sloped ramp. This isn’t some cutesy museum vanity project. It’s a lot of work, for both Koolhaas and anyone who dedicates their Sunday to tackling the installation.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the case studies, which served as eye-opening history lessons about diverse societies’ visions for their natural landscapes. For example, the section on Muammar Gaddafi’s Great Man-Made River, a massive venture to irrigate the Sahara Desert and the world's largest irrigation project to date, opened my eyes to aspects of a country and an era with which I was previously unfamiliar. The exploration of contemporary Pixel Farming techniques was similarly informative.

These case studies through time are easily the strongest part of “Countryside, The Future.” If you’re patient, you’ll learn a lot from them. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for other elements of the exhibition, which raise the all-important “what’s next” question without providing a satisfying answer. Gesturing back towards the case studies’ historical precedents only goes so far — and there are so many of them that any retrospection leaves one confused and disillusioned.

Ultimately, that sense of confusion becomes the dominant theme of “Countryside, The Future.” By the end, you’ve seen a life-size sculpture of Stalin and a collection of plastic Barbie dolls without much explanation as to how either one relates to the central theme. (No, the Stalin statue is nowhere near the Soviet case study.) More broadly, you’ve just spent three-plus hours in an art museum looking at an installation that has nothing to do with art. Its visual presentation, while sometimes aesthetically pleasing, isn’t trying to be artistic, and the artworks it incorporates as part of its case studies are all reproductions.

As such, I can’t help but wonder what Koolhaas’s historical-philosophical installation is doing in an art museum at all. It would almost definitely find a more thematically appropriate home in a place like The Museum of Natural History, or even The New York Historical Society. Of course, that would rob it of its greatest asset: Frank Lloyd Wright’s magisterial Guggenheim building and its beautifully undulating rotunda. “Countryside, The Future” is built for the Guggenheim, and would be unable to hold visitors’ attention at all without the help of the landmark building’s timeless grace and perennial upward gesture.

However, my problem with the exhibition goes further than its ambiguous identity. Fundamentally, it presents a vision of the natural world that seems stuffy, theoretical and needlessly academic at the best of times. It’s not Koolhaas’s fault, but now, in the age of pandemic-induced lockdowns and unprecedented urban flight, his ivory-tower project isn’t just gratuitous but unbearable. City dwellers don’t want romantic pictures of “the wild” — they want to terminate their Brooklyn leases and move somewhere with a backyard where their kids can actually stretch their legs. And rural residents don’t want to philosophize about their supporting role in contemporary urbanism’s story — they want infrastructure and investment after years of governmental ambivalence and neglect.

It’s a shame. I love Koolhaas’s work, from the flagship Seattle Central Library to the unprecedented Casa da Música in Porto, Portugal. The architect has an uncanny ability to design breathtaking spaces, spaces that make us question the very definition of built environment in the modern age, but he’s somewhat out of his depth in “Countryside, The Future.” I admire his efforts to shift our focus towards the “other” 98% of our planet and applaud the work he’s done in developing such a colorful collection of case studies. Nevertheless, I think he’s the wrong man for the job. Coupled with the exhibition’s strange choice of venue and exceptionally poor timing, “Countryside, The Future” ultimately falls flat as the noble social commentary Rem Koolhaas so wanted it to be.

The tractor’s still cool, though.

“Countryside, The Future” is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through Feb. 14, 2021. Timed tickets can be purchased here.

Photo caption: Installation View: Countryside, The Future, February 20–August 14, 2020
Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.