A museum-quality bale of hay dangles from the ceiling of the Guggenheim rotunda. Out front, a giant tractor watches over Fifth Avenue. In the galleries, a cutout of Stalin on a robotic pedestal goes tooling around the spiraling ramp. Welcome to “Countryside, the Future”: This is what you might get if you asked a celebrated European philosopher-architect to reinvent the Iowa State Fair. No mess, no smells, just acres of color printouts, cryptic homilies about nature, and a couple of pesticide-spraying drones. Did you know that agriculture is increasingly computerized? That Qatar created a dairy industry overnight? That the gorilla is “a highly idealized construct in Western science and popular culture?” That Chinese generals sing American country music in Mandarin?
This splatter of rural-themed factoids is the brainchild of Rem Koolhaas, who founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in 1975. Having spent 50 years theorizing about cities, he grew annoyed by how much time his fellow urbanists spend theorizing about cities. So he pulled on his wellies and went tromping out into the sticks with a mixture of wistfulness and obstinate naïvete. The countryside “is largely off (our) radar,” he writes, making that parenthetical our do a lot of heavy lifting. You’d have to be a pretty serious indoorsman to be startled by some of the changes he chronicles, or to believe that the world beyond cities was ever an “ignored realm,” as he calls it.
His explorations began when he noticed that the Swiss village where he liked to holiday had evolved in curious ways: more buildings, fewer people. One of the wind-chapped farmers, he discovered, was actually a physicist from Frankfurt. Other alien elements had crept in, too. “In a classical Swiss meadow, the driver of the tractor is from Sri Lanka, and the only people in the typical village square are three south Asian women, who are now necessary for maintaining Switzerland, looking after the pets, the kids, and the houses,” Koolhaas writes. The stunning realization that European professionals retire to the country and import domestic workers from far away yields the sort of show you might expect such an epiphany to produce: an extravaganza of gee-whizzery. This is less an anthology of revelations than an instance of childlike wonder run amok.
The fact-finding mission stretched over years and returned with some truly headache-inducing conclusions, such as this gem: “The farmer is like us — a flex worker, operating on a laptop from any possible location.” That statement is 100 percent accurate — so long as you confine the term “farmer” to a handful of degree-laden techno-botanists in the Netherlands and exclude, say, migrant grape pickers, indigenous coca growers in Colombia, or East African goat herders, to name a few agricultural workers who can’t do their jobs from a café table at Starbucks.
Koolhaas’s view of the past, too, is populated largely of people just like him: big-picture thinkers and privileged dispensers of wisdom. Ancient sages in different parts of the world came up with the concept of a weekend in the country. The Roman term for a bucolic time-out was otium; the Chinese called it xiaoyao. Those historical precedents for letting the mind wander beneath the open sky prompted the architect’s team to chew on blades of grass and dream up hundreds of speculative questions, which are emblazoned on a gallery wall. Reading them is like hanging around an 8-year-old with a sugar high and a Ph.D. “How can we resurrect the picturesque and the sublime?” “Have all new typologies emerged from the countryside?” “How close to heaven are satellites?”
The show pays special attention to ambitious men in pressed suits, evaluating them mostly by the effectiveness of their plans. This requires some artful dodging of moral and political questions. Stalin tried to reverse the course of Soviet rivers so that he could irrigate the uplands. (He failed.) Libya’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi created the Great Man-Made River through the Sahara. (It was coming along nicely until he was deposed and executed.) Hitler laced Germany together with modern roads. Today, China is binding the world in a vast network of ports, highways, and railroad lines. (Too bad it’s indenturing entire African nations and confining a million Uighurs in remote concentration camps.)
Given that the countryside is a site of radical reinvention, how is it possible that there are, as one wall text suggests, virtually no books about it? That’s a profound mystery, or would be if you ignored the tens of thousands of volumes published in recent years about, say, wilderness, farming, fishing, nature, the environment, small towns, communes, rural populism, folk cultures, indigenous peoples, land management, wildlife management, hunting, water, winemaking, and deserts … not to mention suburbs. Koolhaas’s hunt for the unexpected has led him to leap over the obvious, widely discussed ways in which humans organize nature, often by living in it. Whenever someone erects a cluster of picturesque villas in an Alpine valley, or a new grid of cinderblock boxes on a dusty plateau, vast quantities of macadam, electric wire, cable, sewage pipes, and tailpipe emissions generally follow.
For a glimmer of historical perspective, we get odes to very radically different but similarly rationalist programs, like the phalanstère, the agricultural commune installed in symmetrical buildings by the early 19th- century utopian Charles Fourier, and the grid that Thomas Jefferson mapped onto the uncharted West. These references are light on the ideological context, though. Jefferson didn’t just see the American continent as ruled lines on an empty map; he understood it as the geography of human development. In 1824, he imagined an observer crossing the land mass from west to east, meeting “the gradual shades of improving man.” First came the “savages of the Rocky,” then pastoral primitives, followed by “semibarbarous citizens, the pioneers of the advance of civilization,” and finally Americans in their “most improved state,” residents of Eastern ports. The nation’s mission was to send the tide of improvement flowing back in the other direction. The exhibition has no comment on whether such goals were worthy then or continue to guide us now. On this matter, as on so many others, it is not just neutral but disengaged, as if negotiating with nature were an interesting design challenge, rather than an inherently political act.
Except for the odd photograph of villagers in folkloric costume or a clip of peasants shoveling huge piles of something, “Countryside” doesn’t have much time for the people who sweat. We get no mention of urban transplants who joined kibbutzim and planted fruit trees, or Chinese and Italian immigrants who laid track across Colorado, or Tuareg camel drivers leading caravans through the Sahara. The most vibrant chapters center on pragmatic villagers who stumble on ways to reverse rural neglect and depopulation. In the Calabrian towns of Camini and Riace, local officials recruited refugees to rehab crumbling old buildings, revive local schools, and provide a jolt of youth to an aging citizenry. In China, the pig-breeding and plastic-recycling center Dong Feng has reinvented itself as an e-commerce engine, where furniture is designed, manufactured, boxed, and shipped.
That last transition, from the pigsty to the flatpack, embodies the curators’ fascination with Cartesian order in nature. Koolhaas’s countryside is a clean, well-lighted place — a tad inhuman, perhaps, but efficient. Cows in Qatar stand in their cow cubicles, like bovine office workers. A new breed of Chinese farmers commute from their vertical apartment building to their vertical indoor farm. And in the Netherlands, botanical technicians nurture their matrix of tiny plants beneath fuchsia grow lights. You can see the grid spreading like a virus as you climb the ramp, replacing content with the illusion of content. The lower galleries are festooned with captions that mostly make sense, even if they’re as shallow as topsoil in a dust bowl. By the time we reach the upper levels, language has abandoned the walls and splintered into gnomic epigrams printed on strips and arranged at right angles on the floor — the perfect representation of hogwash masquerading as reason.
This would all be mildly amusing if it weren’t such terrible waste — of attention, of gallery square footage, of resources, talent, and expertise. Bored with being an architect and building things, Koolhaas lets his fingertips graze important topics, genuine insights, and actual lives. He treats them all as ironic bric-a-brac, meaningless souvenirs of his meanderings through a fragile world. How frustrating that the Guggenheim couldn’t force a little more intellectual rigor on this romp. (The catalogue, a dense little paperback that fits in a safari jacket pocket, goes into somewhat more depth.) It’s easy to understand why the museum’s professionals kowtowed to Koolhaas. The celebrity that gave him the clout to take over their turf also ensured access to governments, institutes, specialists, and an apparently unlimited travel budget. At some point, though, someone should have sat the man down and asked him what the point of the show was. The answer, as it turns out, is none.
“Countryside, the Future” is at the Guggenheim Museum through August 14.