Let Rem Koolhaas Take Your Mind Off Other Things

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Rem Koolhaas’s new show tells a story that stretches from ancient Rome and China to the environmental, existential crisis of the present. Photograph by Laurian Ghinitoiu / Courtesy AMO

Thanks to Carolyn Kormann for the welcome distraction:

Rem Koolhaas’s Journey to the Countryside

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One morning last week, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was slowly turning in place in the center of the Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda, his face tilted up toward the sun-flooded glass roof. Suspended above his bald head was a miniature yellow submarine with a long needle at one end, like a bayonet. The device, Koolhaas explained, was something Australians developed to exterminate starfish. “Because of global warming, they are proliferating to the extent that they need to be killed, to protect the great barrier reef,” Koolhaas said. “The sub injects them with poison.” He smiled slyly. “Organic poison.”

Koolhaas, who has designed monumental, iconoclastic buildings—the Seattle Central Library, Portugal’s Casa da Música, Beijing’s CCTV headquarters, among many others—became a lodestar for urbanites in 1978, when he published a euphoric history of Manhattan and Coney Island called “Delirious New York.” His new exhibition at the Guggenheim, “Countryside, the Future,” tells a story that stretches from ancient Rome and China to the environmental, existential crisis of the present. The show was deeply researched by various employees of amo, the think tank within Koolhaas’s Office of Metropolitan Architecture (oma). But the juxtaposition of eclectic exhibits had the feel of Koolhaas free-associating. “This has nothing to do with architecture or art,” he told me, as we headed up the Guggenheim’s entry ramp. “We wanted to put the countryside back on the agenda, and also show that the countryside is a terrain, or domain, where you can have a fulfilling life.”

Koolhaas, who is seventy-five and was wearing a version of country attire (black turtleneck, brown slacks, black sneakers), loped up the ramps at a decidedly urban pace. “The Romans and Chinese simultaneously developed a similar idea of countryside—otium and xiaoyao,” he said. “The countryside was where you went to think, an environment where you could unfold private ambitions. There was an inherent respect for nature.” Further into the show, films and photographs illustrated some of the extreme ways in which twentieth-century governments, both democratic and autocratic, had used the countryside as a canvas for their ideologies and political ambitions. “Hitler fetishized the countryside,” Koolhaas said. An archival German documentary played on a screen, showing the Autobahn as a way for Germans to experience the pastoral. There was a section on Mao’s Great Leap Forward (and subsequent Cultural Revolution), which collectivized Chinese agriculture and sent educated young people into the countryside, and one about Atlantropa, a scheme devised by a German, in 1929, to drain the Mediterranean, suture Europe to Africa, build three mega-dams, and irrigate the Sahara. The plan was seized upon (and implemented in miniature) decades later by Muammar Qaddafi, who hated cities; a glass case featuring books about the countryside included Qaddafi’s collection of short stories, “The Village, the Earth, the Suicide of the Astronaut.”

During the second half of the twentieth century, the efficiency of agricultural production in Europe and the United States dramatically increased, and new terrain was cleared so that even more food could be grown. “They had a necessary mission,” Koolhaas said. “There was a famine after the war.” As more land was developed, people migrated en masse to cities. In the past three decades, an expectation developed that one kind of civilization—“metropolitan, capital-oriented, agnostic, western,” as Koolhaas writes in the show’s companion text—would reign as the model for global development. Cultural ideas of the countryside as a zone of escape, innovation, and ambition have devolved with time, and were eventually replaced, in part, by the pursuits of an over four-trillion-dollar wellness-and-leisure industry. At one point, Koolhaas nodded at a collage in the exhibit featuring a vacant pool deck. “The empty deck chair as a last emblem of Western civilization,” he said.

Meanwhile, the countryside had become the “ignored realm,” where, Koolhaas believes, the most radical changes and ideas are developing. People now use more than seventy per cent of the earth’s ice-free land, according to a special report, published in August, by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, much of it to serve the interests of urbanites. But a quarter of that land suffers from “human-induced degradation”—industrial agriculture, urban sprawl, logging, mining—now exacerbated by the climate crisis, with intensifying floods, drought, heat waves, sea-level rise, and permafrost thaw. Soil is eroding, drying out, and blowing into the atmosphere at a rate as much as a hundred times higher than it is forming. Stressors on the world’s six main breadbasket regions could lead to millions of refugees, increased conflict, and mass migrations. The upper half of the show features “a number of zooms,” Koolhaas said, into efforts—experiments, new technologies, and community transformations—meant to address these problems. As Troy Conrad Therrien—the Guggenheim curator for architecture and digital initiatives—writes in an essay for the companion book, “ ‘Food, Security’ could have been an alternate title to much of this exhibition.”…

Read the whole article here.

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