Why Rem Koolhaas Brought a Tractor to the Guggenheim
The architect, a champion of cities, now turns a spotlight on the countryside in a sprawling new exhibition about the other 98 percent of the world.
Rem Koolhaas at the Koppert Cress greenhouse in the Netherlands, a space related to his new exhibition, “Countryside, The Future,” at the Guggenheim.Credit…Jussi Puikkonen for The New York Times
THE HAGUE — A manifesto and love letter to the city in the 1970s, the book “Delirious New York” helped propel the reputation of a young, restless Dutch journalist-and-screenwriter-turned-architect.
Nearly forgotten now, a display of drawings accompanied the book in 1978 — real and also wonderfully imaginary views of the city by the author, Rem Koolhaas, and his colleagues at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, or OMA, the architecture firm founded a few years earlier by him, Madelon Vriesendorp, and Elia and Zoe Zenghelis to develop what they called “a mutant form of urbanism.”
“The Sparkling Metropolis,” as the show was called, occupied what then doubled as storage rooms at the top of the spiral of the Guggenheim Museum. “The irony wasn’t lost on me,” Mr. Koolhaas remembered the other day, about the fact that Frank Lloyd Wright, the Guggenheim’s architect, hated cities.
We had gotten together in the Rotterdam offices of OMA. I had come to the Netherlands to talk with Mr. Koolhaas about the new Guggenheim exhibition he has put together — a bookend to “Delirious New York” and, in a sense, to his career.
We’ll see how the show, “Countryside, The Future,” opening Thursday, is received during its six-month run — whether museumgoers find it exhilarating or shambolic. I’ve only seen it half-installed. It looks to be a huge, text-heavy, dizzying affair with something of the aesthetic of an old Soviet World’s Fair pavilion, spilling out of the Guggenheim’s front door, where a tractor, remotely operable by iPad, is now parked on Fifth Avenue.
A corrective to the focus on growing cities, “Countryside” aims to turn a spotlight on the 98 percent of the planet not yet occupied by cities. Anticipating the obvious criticism, Mr. Koolhaas describes the show as a “pointillist” portrait, a “global sampling” of “the current condition of ‘countryside,’” which he acknowledges seems “a glaringly inadequate term for all the territory that is not urban.”
By not-urban territory, in other words, Mr. Koolhaas means farms and wilderness and oceans and villages — the Kalahari, the Great Barrier Reef and the Dakotas — but also dense exurban clusters of high-tech industrial sites and mega-campuses for Amazon fulfillment centers and Tesla giga-factories in places like the high desert outside Reno, Nevada.
The show pings from urbanizing villages in Kenya along Chinese-funded train routes, to endangered communities in Siberia where climate change is hastening the melt of permafrost.
There’s a bit about satellites supplying real-time data to computer-driven tractors plowing immense mono-farms in Middle America; another about M-Pesa, a mobile-phone-based money-transfer system funding businesses in remote parts of Tanzania.
And a bay in the Guggenheim rotunda is devoted to Iraqi, Syrian and other immigrants resuscitating ghost towns like Camini, in Calabria, Italy, and the village of Manheim, near Cologne, Germany.
Years in gestation, the show is the collective output of an army of collaborators and students. Troy Conrad Therrien, the Guggenheim’s curator for architecture, brought Mr. Koolhaas onboard in 2015 and oversaw the project’s development. Among many others, Mr. Koolhaas teamed with Samir Bantal, who runs AMO, the research arm of OMA, and Niklas Maak, the excellent German architecture critic. Graphics for the museum layout and for the dense, palm-size catalog are by Irma Boom, the great Dutch book designer. The catalog’s size is a kind of inside joke. Mr. Koolhaas is famous for producing doorstops.
He takes no clear political position on many of the hot-button topics the show raises, portraying himself as a reporter not pundit, realist not cynic, equally amazed and appalled, refusing moral judgments or virtue signaling. A familiar pose by him, it may confuse some, frustrate others. The topics evolved out of “a personal journey, where our energies led us,” he told me.
They led to places like Koppert Cress, which Mr. Koolhaas invited me to see. It’s part of the industrialized sprawl of car dealerships, highways and factories just outside The Hague, the opposite of what most people would call the countryside. The Netherlands, it turns out, is the world’s second largest exporter of food because of its state-of-the-art greenhouses — businesses like Koppert Cress, a high-tech producer and supplier of micro-vegetables, whose facility is the size of 23 football fields.ImageOne of the vast greenhouses in Koppert Cress, whose facility is the size of 23 football fields.Credit…Jussi Puikkonen for The New York TimesImage