Countryside Revisited

By Valerie Andrews

Photo of three Russian women by Prokudin-Gorsky, 1909.

Listen up,  suburbanites and city dwellers.   You are not the only game in town. There’s a vast tract of land you never think about, that just might hold the key to the next stage of human evolution.  While we tend to look to  New York, Silicon Valley, or Washington, DC, rural areas also give rise to innovation. 

That’s the message of  Countryside, The Future, a sprawling, data-rich exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum that closed in February 2021 and was designed by architect Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, director of AMO (the think tank of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture).   This is less an art show than an attempt to balance our current way of thinking.  In 2014, the U.N. noted that half the world’s people now live in cities and proposed that urbanization should be the focus for our planning efforts.  In short, this powerful organization ignored the other half the population that lives in remote regions.  

Koolhaas and his team challenged the U.N. goals, asking, Why are we ignoring the other half of the global population?  Then they outlined the radical experiments taking place in the Russian steppes, the French forests, and America’s farmland.  This doesn’t sound much like your ordinary art exhibit.  Instead of the usual roundup of modern paintings,  it offers photos, graphs, and charts that show how the countryside is giving birth to everything from counterculture to permaculture, while attracting a motley crew of survivalists, scientists and high-tech visionaries. 

Working with students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design; the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing; Wageningen University, Netherlands; and the University of Nairobi, Koolhaas indicates how that large amorphous mass we call the countryside has shaped our concepts of leisure, large-scale planning, politics, climate change, and preservation.  Some of these examples made critics downright uncomfortable. In The New York Times, Jason Farago wrote: 

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.

The exhibition was also criticized for being too text-heavy,  but you have to hand it to the curators of this show—the scope of their inquiry is astonishing. Koolhaas reminds us that earlier civilizations put equal value on city and country, knowing that each called on us to develop a different set of skills and to use different portions of our personality.  

“Before Christ,” he notes, “there exists a moment of global consensus…the Romans and the Chinese, thousands of miles apart, developed intricate and coherent treatises on the countryside as  a space of creative and idealized existence.”    In the fresco below women engage in athletic games—they might be at any modern track and field contest—running, throwing the discus, lifting weights.

Mossaic, Otium Villa Del Casale, 4th century A.D.

This restorative aspect of country life, however, has been co-opted by the $4.5 trillion Wellness industry, transforming abandoned villages into luxury spaces.  “In Andermatt, Switzland,” says Koolhaas, “a huge new hotel is an extruded ‘stretch-chalet’ and in China, entire villages are remodeled into wellness resorts.”  Yet this begs the question, How has our sense of place been warped by consumerism? And is it possible to find true solace in a trademarked town?

I prefer Cicero’s notion of the countryside as a wild, yet stabilizing force.  After the loss of his  beloved daughter, the statesman withdrew from Rome to his newly acquired villa in Astura, and walked for hours in the forest. “I plunge into the dense wild wood early in the day,” he wrote to a friend,  “and stay there until evening.”  Astura was a place to retreat from the demands of government, and come to terms with change and grief.

This exhibit also points to agrarian roots of Eastern phiosophy.  The Tao Te Ching, one of China’s early religions, was based on reverence for nature, and its oracle (I Ching), consulted by high-ranking officials of the Empire,  grounds all human hopes and aspirations in the organic process of growth and decay.  

For as long as we can remember, the city has been  a place of striving, rushing and achieving—-and our nation’s leaders have chosen to consider to consider momentous affairs at some version of Camp David, where heads of state can stop their posturing and come together in a peaceful place.

Slab City, Salvation Mountain. Photo by Ann Schneider, 2018

The countryside has also given birth to rebels and social reformers. Koolhaas considers our modern-day “back to the land” movement,  from hippies to religious groups returning to the desert to live like Biblical patriarchs. But it’s their art that takes our breath away.

Consider the commune called Slab City on Salvation Mountain (above) in the California Desert a few miles from the Salton Sea. The land sculptures are made of adobe bricks, discarded tires and windows, automobile parts and thousands of gallons of paint. It encompasses numerous murals and areas painted with Christian sayings and Bible verses, though its philosophy was built around the Sinner’s Prayer.

In 2000, the Folk Art Society of America declared it “a folk art site worthy of preservation, and California Senator Barbara Boxer described it as “a unique and visionary sculpture. A national treasure…profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives.”

Contrast this riot of color with the minimalist bunkers made by VIVOS, in Kansas and South Dakota.  American countryside has also been a source of fringe ideas and apocalyptic visions. Of alternative communities that serve as a counterpoint to modern culture and make us question our cozy lives and conventional beliefs.

Bunkers like these have been built by VIVOS in Kansas and South Dakota. Photo courtesy of AMO

Of course, the countryside is not just about artists and oddballs, misfits and fanatics.  Farmers and scientists are developing new models of land use, new paths to restoring the soil, and new options for feeding the world’s growing population.   “Precision farming” is about finding ways to “produce food with less muscle.”  This approach allows farmers to tailor their seed planting to a host of variables, including productivity, fertility and water availability.  Maps like the one below show the amount of planting a farmer needs to do, and where, to maximize crop yields.  These projects, on several continents, may be the answer to our food crisis and show us how to make each field a source of biodiversity.  

Preicison Farming in the US. Maps like this indicate the soil quality and seed yield.

Architecture, Koolhaas’s own discipline, is changing, too, as we develop specialized remote facilities like TRIC, the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center. This privately owned 107,000 acre industrial park, located east of Reno, Nevada is the largest of its kind in the United States.  It’s home to more than a hundred companies and their warehouse and fulfillment centers, including PetSmart, Home Depot, and Walmart. And it will soon house a giga-factory for Tesla and Panasonic—the largest building on the planet.

The area is served by the Union Pacific Railroad and the BNSF Railway, and has five power plants on site.  But as Koolhaas points out, it is a community with none of the usual things we associate with a sense of place.  No entrance, no sidewalk cafes or gardens, no particular style of architecture, and no sense of history.   

 TRIC had over 18,000 employees by 2018 and the development has contributed greatly to economic activity in the Reno area. But is there any “there” there? And over time, how will these places evolve into full-fledged communities?

Aerial photo of TRIC, Reno, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From a socialist commune in a French forest to farmers sharing land with gorillas in Uganda, Koolhaas is showing us some new and intriguing options for human settlements.  Listen to his introduction to the exhibit below, or buy a copy of Countryside, the book, to get a feeling for the scope of this porject.   

“As soon as we leave the urban condition behind us,” Koolhaas writes, “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 way of acting with media, new way of owning, paying, renting, new ways of welcoming, new ways in which the countryside is inhabited today.”

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