In a novel collaboration with Rem Koolhaas, Guggenheim embraces the countryside

An installation view of Countryside, The Future at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York David Heald/© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

By any standard, the exhibition that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has organised with the architect Rem Koolhaas is unusual. That is quickly brought home by the colossal object confronting visitors at the entrance to the New York museum: a 35,000-pound super-high-tech tractor, accompanied by a module in which 50,000 pounds of tomatoes will be grown during the course of the show.

In a first for the Guggenheim, the museum is presenting an exhibition that has nothing to do with art or architecture. Titled Countryside, The Future, the show aims to focus attention on the 98 percent of the earths surface that is nonurban, and to question the planets galloping embrace of cities.

In 2007, the United Nations estimated that half of the worlds population lived in cities, and projected that this figure would climb to between 70 and 80% by 2050. “Are we really heading for this absurd outcome, where the vast majority of humanity lives on only 2% of the Earths surface, and the remaining 98%, inhabited by only one-fifth of humanity, exists to serve cities?” the opening text panel in the exhibition asks.

Through additional texts, murals, photographs, videos and graphic presentations relying on the research of a phalanx of collaborators, the show details a series of case studies while mapping out the history of ideas about the countryside, from Marie-Antoinettes rambles through the faux hamlet she created at Versailles to the wellness movement of today.

In some instances, the current case studies offer fresh rays of hope for humanitys future in rural areas.

“I see a spontaneous shift, partly thanks to new and very common technologies, that make apparent that the countryside is a more pleasant background to spend your life in,” Koolhaas said in an interview this week. “At this moment cities are not that great. Theyre incredibly congested, incredibly expensive, incredibly polluted. I think their appeal is seriously waning.”

“I began to realise that the countryside was being systematically neglected,” he added. “And its something that I hope to correct with this show.”

The Dutch architect cites an opinion poll conducted in Kenya that indicated that 60 percent of young people wanted to spend their careers in rural areas if at all possible. At the same time, he notes, technologies like the money transfer service M-Pesa enable rural inhabitants to conduct their business in remote areas on their mobile phones without ever walking physically into a bank. With the advent of new technologies, “Africa of course like any latecomer has the potential to avoid the mistakes of all its predecessors,” Koolhaas said.

From left, the architect Rem Koolhaas; Troy Conrad Therrien, curator of architecture and digital initiatives at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Samir Bantal, director of AMO, the think tank at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam Kristopher McKay/© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2019

The show also addresses the global flow of refugees, noting that they need not invariably end up migrating to urban population centers. Troy Conrad Therrien, the Guggenheims curator of architecture and digital initiatives, points to the example of Manheim, a western German village whose aging residents had to decamp to a new town to make way for the expansion of a coal mine intended to compensate for the countrys abandonment of nuclear power plants.

Refugees arriving from Iraq, Syria and Iran gradually moved into the abandoned houses pending the mine expansion, Therrien says; soon they were intersecting with climate activists who trekked to the village to protest the embrace of emissions-heavy coal energy. “And before long they were interacting with people in the new town,” says Therrien, who organised the exhibition in collaboration with Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, the director of AMO, the think tank attached to Koolhaass Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam.

A greenhouse in the Netherlands in which farmers toil by night under pink light intended to optimise growing conditions Pieternel van Velden

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