The countryside used to signify an escape from the city, but OMA’s Rem Koolhaas wants people to take a good look at ruralism to get a sharper view of the world.
In February, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture firm’s “Countryside, the Future” exhibition will take over the entire Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for six months. The show’s anchor will not be art, but societal, scientific, sociological and political issues. Aside from being a first for a New York art museum, the show will explore how a collective neglect of the countryside, which accounts for 98 percent of the earth’s surface, has made the rural almost unrecognizable.
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Fifty-five percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas and that figure is expected to rise to 68 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations department of economic and social affairs. During a preview conversation Sunday at the Upper East Side museum, OMA’s founder said that statistic may be why he started to get nervous about his role in this whole situation. He said his participation in the upcoming show “is basically to some extent an admission of guilt,” referencing how he was very involved “in creating scripts and arguments about why the city in itself is so amazing [including a book about how amazing New York is].”
Koolhaas said he became interested as a journalist to simply pose the question, “What is happening in the countryside to those who are left behind and how are they supposed to live their lives?”
The museum show will feature 15 situations across the entire world, such as how China should be organized in the future, “how the permafrost in the north of Russia is melting and how in Africa new economic systems create a kind of leapfrogging from one technology to a brand-new technology and how that impacts certain countries,” Koolhaas said. “This assembly of unique, but extremely different situations, is meant to provide a better sense of how the countryside is faring — what is possible and what is impossible in the countryside.”
Speaking about one revelation of the five-year lead-up to next winter’s show, Koolhaas said, “We were very happy and surprised to discover that the Romans and the Chinese in antiquity were writing arguments [about] why the countryside was the most desirable condition for a thoughtful human being, why it was the par-excellence place where you could meditate, be creative, write, communicate and eat in a range between hedonism and intellectualism. It was possible there. In the city, you were only negotiating and being busy.”
Repeatedly asked about climate change, Koolhaas said “Countryside’s” takeaway is not meant to be any one thing. “I have always been kind of bad about narrowing things to a single message. I hope that they have a feeling of being confronted with a vast amount of narratives that go in many directions: backwards, forwards, sideways. And that they are open to the new possibility of also being tolerant to the intelligence of other cultures and political systems. That is currently one of the most difficult issues. In many cases, we confuse politics with moralism, and kind of reject intelligence that is generated in political systems simply from the point of morality and not from the point of view of context,” he said. “The irony of our focus on cities, and almost our lack of exposure to non-urban environments, is that we don’t even remember in our smaller cities what the rest of the world looks like.”
The time has come to embrace high and deep artificialities and simultaneously seek “a compatibility with those artificialities and a respect for nature, or a different constructive relationship with nature,” Koolhaas said. In Holland, for example, there are initiatives to grow things above-ground in completely artificial environments that are not influenced by daylight and water use is reduced to an absolute minimum. Also worth considering is “whether some forms of wisdom in different cultures but also different periods can be resurrected to interact with this highly technological kind of domains,” Koolhaas said. “The artificiality is leading to almost a new definition of what biological can mean.”
The architect later joined Sigrid Kaag, the minister for foreign trade and development cooperation of the Netherlands, and Louise Fresco, president of the executive board of Wageningen University & Research, in a discussion with Troy Therrien, the Guggenheim’s head curator of architecture and digital initiatives. Noting “how cities are an acknowledgment of agricultural success,” Kaag pointed to the fact that cities are about 6,000 years old. But after three or four generations of city-dwellers knowing that food is a given without any direct link to agriculture due to psychological and technological distance, she said, “There is this nostalgia and longing for a simple past where we are close to our food.”
Afterward, Koolhaas spoke with WWD about the exhibition, consumerism and fashion. As for what the accessibility of technology-empowered shopping means for the countryside, he said, “I’ve never related necessarily shopping to the countryside. I’m happy to actually not talk about shopping in the countryside, but obviously.…Let me pass on that question,” with a laugh.
It is a given that consumption will be one factor that museumgoers consider. “But that is so clearly in the air. That is just part of the same mood. There is no deliberate section that is anticonsumption. That’s just the background against which the show will be read.”
OMA continues to work with Prada, as it has for a number of years on the house’s runway shows. Regarding the less-is-more collection that Miuccia Prada showed last week in Milan, Koolhaas said, “I thought it was a very smart show. You could see that it was less complicated and less decorative. It was more about line than about layers. So I liked it for that reason.”
As for whether more designers will move in that environmentally minded direction, Koolhaas said, “Fashion will always move in predictable and unpredictable directions. Right now there is a kind of pressure to move in that direction. But I’m sure that at some point Prada will say, ‘F–k simplicity. I want to become complex again.’”
Saks shoppers can find OMA’s work in the prismatic-colored escalator at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship. Asked whether others will follow suit in using design to take a more enhanced role as art, Koolhaas said, “We just introduced one element. I don’t really have thoughts about that.…It was kind of a one-off thing that we kind of did for fun. It was not more significant than that.”
Last year The Fondation d’Entreprise Galeries Lafayette commissioned OMA to open an art space “that is almost like a laboratory. That has nothing to do with their commercial operations,” he said of the Parisian retailer.
As for c-suite executives’ shift to a more purposeful approach to business, as indicated by the Business Roundtable’s recently signed pact by nearly 200 ceo’s, Koolhaas said, “I think everything will help. There is now a general awareness that simply going on is untenable. Therefore, there are different initiatives that eventually will crystallize a coherent situation.”