Huxley’s quote is from his book Brave New World Revisited published in 1952 and it applies to the letter to Countryside, The Future, the new show organized by Rem Koolhaas and his think tank AMO that opened on 20 February at New York’s Guggenheim. In architecture school I really admired OMA/AMO, and now I have to say that I am really disillusioned. This practice is turning very sour in times we cannot afford this kind of cynicism.
In an article called Why Are Museums So Plutocratic, and What Can We Do About It? published online by Frieze magazine on 26 February – the week that same journal republished on its newsletter of 25 February an article written by Koolhaas’ last October with the headline of The New Rural Sublime – artist Andrea Fraser said: “What is very specific about the US model: [is] not so much that many museums were founded by individuals or that they depend on private funding, but that the system supports the non-democratic and often plutocratic governance of putatively ‘public’ institutions.”
Ian Scoones, one member of the coordinating team for the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) from the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University of Rotterdam warns us:
Architects even those with good intentions, don’t always have the best interests of inhabitants in mind. If you are living in areas where you have this kind of corporate influence, you might be rightfully suspicious of metropolitan designers suddenly showing an interest in the rural.
Is the exhibition normalising dictatorship?
Cities, the cradle of democracy (the Polis for the ancient Greeks), were for a long time thought the most efficient solution to ecology and overpopulation, as it concentrated people, resources, energy and distribution, leaving large amounts of natural areas untouched. Like most architects of his generation, Toyo Ito (Japan, 1941) long considered the city the only place to work and construct a discourse. Koolhaas (Netherlands, 1944) who came a bit later into architecture from journalism even called his practice The Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), studying since its inception the culture of congestion and ‘bigness’, the metropolitan environment and so on, up to his last exhibition in New York at the New Museum called Cronocaos (2011), on urban preservation.
In the academic reception of this exhibition almost all authors criticized the lack of scientific thoroughness of the analyses presented. In a response to OMA’s Preservation Manifesto, Jorge Otero-Pailos Director and Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia GSAPP wrote: Cronocaos gave the false impression that preservation had overlooked post-war socially committed architecture, making preservationists appear to be in collusion with ruthless developers and free-market ideologues, when, in fact, preservationists were fighting to preserve market-averse brutalist social housing projects like Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens in East London (1972) long before OMA sounded the alarm….The graphic tables and wall labels in the exhibition, while often compelling, regrettably tended too quickly toward the hyperbolic and jumped to conclusions based on undifferentiated data. They did more to conceal, rather than reveal, the contemporary changes in the nature of the relationship between architecture and preservation.
Multiple screens give Boris Johnson a temporary home in the Guggenheim
Also in 2011, Taschen published Koolhaas’ collaboration with Hans Ulrich Obrist for the book Project Japan. Metabolism Talks on post-war Japanese architecture group the Metabolists, the intellectual mentors of architects precisely like Toyo Ito.
Metabolism asserted that architecture should be adaptable and able to respond to disasters both natural and man-made, be it a tsunami or an atom bomb. “We are not going to accept metabolism as a natural process, [reads their manifesto] but try to encourage active metabolic development of our society through our proposals.”
In 2007 the UN declared that half of mankind was living in cities, and that it was likely that by 2050 it will increase up to 70 or 80 per cent, a tipping point suddenly transforming advantages into liabilities, since now, the overconcentration of metropolises generate way too much heat for the planet and is accelerating the greenhouse effect. Now they say the ideal situation is a 50/50 divide between cities and the countryside. That is, the ideal situation for 7.5 billion people… We’ve long passed the point of ideal.
In Brave New World Revisited – written nearly 30 years after the original novel – Huxley said: “The problem of rapidly increasing numbers in relation to natural resources, to social stability and to the well-being of individuals….is now the central problem of mankind.” Over-population “leads to economic insecurity and social unrest. Unrest and insecurity leads to more control by central governments and an increase of their power….the probability of over-population leading through unrest to dictatorship becomes a virtual certainty.”
Koolhaas told us in the press conference that Countryside, The Future, is “a show about sociology, anthropology and politics”. Curated by Troy Conrad Therrien and organized together with Samir Bantal – head of his think tank AMO – and a vast array of international collaborators and students, the exhibition chooses to portray a limited number of very specific conditions in non-metropolitan areas throughout the world. Koolhaas’ pretentious slogan for the press: “I'm interested in the country for the same reason I was paying attention to New York in the 70s. No one else was looking,” sounds really catchy but it’s not true. Just like with Cronocaos. It’s more like fake news.
The idealism of the rural life
Actually it’s Japanese architects again – unfortunately as a consequence of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake – who might be the first architects to see opportunity outside metropolitan areas. And Koolhaas knows this very well, since the postscript of his Metabolist book is written by Toyo Ito where he says, “We need to start by questioning the way we relate to nature….Being an architect from outside, I had a hesitation in getting involved in reconstruction planning for towns and villages….I think now is a good moment for us architects to break away from this mode and regain a viable relationship with nature.”
In 2013 (DAMN° 39) Yoshi Tsukamoto from Atelier Bow-Wow was interviewed about the reconstruction of a fishermen’s village, trying through a fast initial ‘core house’ to preserve the community in place. The system they invented is quick and easy to build while preserving local traditions and materials and being very Japanese.
Bow-Wow, Toyo Ito, SANAA, are the most well-known faces of these new investigations outside the city. As Kayoko Ota (architecture curator, Harvard professor and working at AMO for a decade between 2002-2012) says, “The islands and villages are – potentially – a frontline of architectural reinvention today.” In her essay The Posturban Phenomenon she writes: “In the new relationships emerging in these islands and villages, architects have managed to realize a testing ground where they can insulate themselves from the systematic penetration of modernization and attempt to forge a new engagement with society—an act that is also one of professional survival in the face of capitalist urbanization.”
Inside the Guggenheim exhibition – which despite its apparent complexity is more or less organized geographically – I was surprised to see that in the Japanese section the only topic at hand was robotisation. No mention at all of the Japanese posturban phenomenon and the community oriented work Japanese architects are doing there, despite having an expert on the topic in their team (Ota is quoted as a key collaborator). Instead AMO chooses to highlight, as Koolhaas explained to us, how robotic prosthesis might be used to prolong the working years of Japanese peasants whose tired bodies can no longer do physical work on their own… I must say, a rather less humane and less relevant approach to what Japanese architects are actually developing in their countryside. As poet Marianne Moore (1887-1972) wrote beautifully: “Omissions are not accidents.”
Is architecture a social practice? I guess it depends on which architect you ask…
In that same postscript for Project Japan, Toyo Ito asks himself critically “I think our task now is how we assume ‘design conditions’, rather than reviewing the conditions. We need to start questioning the way we relate to nature. The people or community which we always argue for in our architecture – aren’t they just an abstracted scheme?” In the Guggenheim they sure are… Koolhaas talking about a post-human architecture in a show spearheaded by overpopulation?!
Just a typical day working the land laid bare in 1970s America.
This very ambitious exhibition mapping the whole world with plenty of omission and simplification is far from being naïve, as Oliver Wainwright from The Guardian gently points out: “There is a naivety to how Koolhaas recounts some of these revelations.”
“It has nothing to do with architecture,” Koolhaas admits. “It is more anthropological and sociological.” Really? If the show is truly anthropological and sociological why is there no research on the biggest sociological problem the countryside faces today: that is the rise of populism, which is responsible for bringing the far right into power again and putting at risk our democracies. The countryside voted Brexit and Donald Trump.
The coordinating collective of ERPI addressed this in its 2018 conference called Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World. The international conference focused on the social and political processes in rural spaces that are generating alternatives to regressive, authoritarian politics. None of which can be found in this exhibition either, and they live in the same city… Luckily, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) is well aware of all these issues and you can find all this information in its website’s Japanese Chapter CCA c/o.
In Quatar "they are now exporting Mozarella," says Koolhaas… Unfortunately this industry is now well-know to be contributing to global warming in an alarming way. A ‘blessing’ according to Koolhaas. Not for the cows… Veganism could be a more gentler alternative for the planet’s ecology and the animals.
The link between corporatization and industrialization of agriculture and populist politics is a reality of which, after all these extensive researches with hundreds of collaborators around the world, has an importance that Koolhaas seems totally unsure about. As the US formally starts to retire from the Paris agreement and Brazil is accelerating the Amazon’s deforestation, the dramatic implications that these politics can have on the environmental crisis is not a priority for OMA. Koolhaas’ Rural Sublime article in Frieze, which when republished in its newsletter was six days after the press conference, said:This neglect [of the countryside] had devastating effects, of which perhaps the emergence of a worldwide populism and the current waning of globalism are only the most identifiable.”
Perhaps it’s interesting to see what images Koolhaas chose to illustrate his article. There is not one single inhabitant of the countryside (out of the more than three billion who live there) in any of the 10 images. Only a gorilla with a photoshopped Angela Merkel. Very funny. Boris Johnson, who for some reason is also part of this exhibition, could have made that joke. Oh! And I forgot to say that Hitler’s planning achievements occupy the whole German section. And I ask myself why is Hitler glorified by being in such an important museum while Merkel seats alone with a gorilla? It feels like Koolhaas is making the wrong friends – that is if you are a firm believer in democracy and the European Union.
The industrial sheds that Koolhaas sees as a great opportunity for architects
The person who is actually showing up everywhere – in the first image of his own article and culminating in one of the last images of the spiralling show – is Lance Gilman. Fake shock tactics? Gilman is a real state developer and a brothel owner in Nevada, where apparently prostitution is not illegal in all the counties of the State. Perhaps this is Koolhaas’ version of ‘professional survival’. After all, at the press conference he said that the corporate sheds of Gilman’s properties is where he saw opportunity for architects, and he also wrote that this is “perhaps [again] more exciting than anything we have seen since the birth of modernism in the early 20th century: a new sublime”.
Let’s read in Gilman’s website what this new sublime is:
“Called the Horse Oasis, this 20 +/- acre site currently has active construction of a 30,000 SF, divisible, three-storey, multi-tenant office building. Offering a central location within TRI and abundant parking, this new facility will be the perfect home for an expanding firm within the park or a new company wanting to connect to this hot bed of technology, manufacturing and distribution.”
It doesn’t sound very visionary… And of course the State of Nevada has no state income tax and has also relatively low property taxes making it a deal for corporations.
While Japanese architects are thinking how to empower and solidify rural communities in the Islands and Villages project, Koolhaas is looking to squeeze more working hours out of a tired body to increase productivity or in building the new corporate cathedrals in the desert. Two very different approaches to the countryside.
Post-human or post-humane?
When Scoones was interviewed by David Hubers on populism and rural politics he said: “Solidarity economies, a counter to authoritarian populism, can be facilitated by architecture and design, linked to new forms of open source information technologies, radical urban planning and so on.” It is necessary “To think about design in this political way, about creating spaces for emancipation, confronting authoritarian forms of populism, bringing spaces and economies back to people in a transformative way.” Which begs the question, why is the show at the Guggenheim not about this?
Paradoxically, authoritarian forms of populism is what this show has plenty to offer. As mentioned before the German section is dedicated to Hitler, while the Russian section to Khrushchev and Stalin (who is for some reason running around on top of a robot), and in China we find Mao. There’s also Gaddafi, the idiot the US installed in Libya. When do we glorify criminals by having them in a museum? Is this exhibition normalizing dictatorship? This is extremely disturbing considering the show runs for six months just right before the 2020 US presidential elections where a wannabe dictator could have a second term.
Picture of Philip Johnson in his glass house with guests occupy the Museum’s ramp
The big absence in this show is precisely the social and not by chance. Wainwright’s story in The Guardian notes very intelligently the similarities with Philip Johnson’s 1934 exhibition Machine Art Show at MoMA. Only two years before and at the same museum, Johnson had already removed all the social components from the famous Modern Architecture: International Exhibition. Let’s not forget that the modern movement had a social motivator, as with the Japanese Metabolists and the current Islands and Villages project: social and physical reconstruction, for the country and its people.
Architecture should be at the service of society as a whole and when it does, something magical happens. The International Style as it was called in its North American export without the social, became the style of the corporate world and died. Johnson repeated the same move with postmodernism and killed it again, and then he did the very forced and formal Deconstructivist Architecture (1988) that put Koolhaas on the map. In 2018, The New Yorker called Johnson “the man who made architecture amoral”; he was a Nazi sympathizer and by the way, Donald Trump’s architect too. And he is also showcased in this exhibition. I guess Koolhaas is giving back. The excuse might be that Johnson had a glass house in the countryside. But why isn’t Mies Van der Rohe in the museum then? All his glass architecture is because of its relationship to nature, after all Johnson just copied his Farnsworth House idea… Why Hitler, why Philip Johnson, and no Mies?
What creature can resist a catchy slogan?
The project Koolhaas sees in vast industrial sheds housing the technology behind the blockchain, the cloud, and Amazon (that he called an opportunity for architects), is the ultimate ‘Decorated Shed’ as theorized by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (VSBA) in Learning from Las Vegas in 1972. Bob and Denise are one of Rem’s most important influences as an architect. His book Delirious New York (1978) comes straight from Learning From Las Vegas and architecturally, OMA’s Karlsruhe ZKM competition-winning entry (1989) is almost a replica of Venturi’s Football Hall of Fame competition entrant (1967) – to name just two examples. Funny that Johnson also ripped them off and made a joke of postmodernism turning it into a conservative corporate style promoting architects like Robert Stern who really misunderstood Venturi’s ideas. Venturi was such an iconoclast, a humanist, a Quaker, a rebel and very socially concerned. He cared deeply about society through the lens of architecture.
As in life, Stalin dictates the Russian section of the exhibition
Urban planning today is carried out according to an increasingly corporate logic driven by the market economy and underpinned by increasingly non-architectural thinking, what is called ‘Capitalist Urbanization.’ It is true that the architect’s influence is shrinking. Japanese architects are finding a renewal of possibilities in the countryside. A wider dissemination of architectural thinking might also broaden what participatory planning and design can achieve. It could be, in Toyo Ito’s view “an alternative to the individual genius or star that architecture so desperately needs today”.
If I am writing this article so passionately it’s because it is really time for a new order of things, for the solidarity economies some sociologists are working towards to, for real sustainable thinking, for less growth and a better management and distribution of resources, etc. It’s the time for us to make it right after 50 years of debauches or we are fucked. I wish I had seen in this exhibition, the prime minister of New Zealand for example (on the cover of TIME magazine when I wrote this), who is committing to be carbon neutral by 2050, instead of Boris Johnson showing in several huge screens in the middle of the ramp. This show is quite fascist if you ask me… Corporations and dictators in a museum show called anthropological and sociological shows no social concern whatsoever, just a veneer of research made by students. This is not what the Metabolists had in mind when they wrote, “to try to encourage active metabolic development of our society through our proposals”.
Rephrasing Otero-Pailos’ words, this exhibition does more to conceal, rather than reveal, the contemporary changes in the nature of the relationship between architecture and the countryside and it is very badly timed, although I guess some corporate sponsors at the Guggenheim might think differently.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Workers at Koppert Cress check movable growing tables filled with leafy “Shiso Purple” cress, an edible seedling with a flavor similar to cumin.