Connie Zhou

A few decades ago, I worked on Colors, the magazine published by Benetton in which we distilled the world’s cultural schisms into sunny images and caption-length texts. Our editorial director, Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani (famous for his advertising photos of smiling, sweater-clad multiethnic models), would occasionally pop into our New York office and offer critiques of our work: “It is too generous,” he told us about one issue. He thought our compulsive editorial team should do less, should shoehorn fewer ideas and factoids onto each page.

I remembered Toscani’s “too generous” as I looped around the Guggenheim rotunda during my visit to Countryside, The Future, which runs through Aug. 14. Created by Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, his in-house think tank, AMO, and the museum’s curator of architecture and digital initiatives, Troy Conrad Therrien, the exhibition purports to examine “radical changes in the world beyond cities.” While it is encyclopedic in its aspirations, it is Wikipedic in its execution. It manages both to be too generous and not nearly generous enough.

Connie Zhou
A display featuring the 19th-century French philosopher Charles Fourier’s network of phalansteries, designed to house around 1,600 agricultural workers
Connie Zhou A display featuring the 19th-century French philosopher Charles Fourier’s network of phalansteries, designed to house around 1,600 agricultural workers

Which is a shame, because this was an exhibition I thought I couldn’t miss, even though I’m not much of a Koolhaas fan. Sure, I loved his 1978 book, Delirious New York, and have great affection for some of his projects, like the 1992 Kunsthal Rotterdam and the 2004 Seattle Central Library, both of which initially struck me as unusually optimistic expressions of the near future. Countryside also appeared to have promise; it seemed like it might feed into my obsession with the places where the man-made and the natural worlds overlap: I’m fascinated by wetlands crafted by landscape architects and hills fashioned by engineers. I’m intrigued by urban farms and rural hipster enclaves. I arrived at the Guggenheim believing Countryside was a show I was going to love.

A Harbinger of Obviousness
My problems started outside. There, parked near the museum’s entrance, stood a massive green Deutz-Fahr tractor, with rear tires taller than most of the New York architecture critics who clustered around it during the press preview. It was there to make a statement, to be an emblem of rural life in the most urbane setting imaginable, the stretch of Fifth Avenue known as Museum Mile. But the gesture—the screaming incongruity—was a harbinger of the obviousness to come.

The Deutz-Fahr tractor parked outside the museum
Connie Zhou The Deutz-Fahr tractor parked outside the museum
The show didn't shy away from the obvious
Connie Zhou The show didn't shy away from the obvious

Inside, members of the press were herded into the museum’s basement auditorium where Koolhaas spent more than an hour (I can’t be sure exactly, since I walked out mid-lecture so I could actually see the exhibit) detailing each of the “15 specific narratives” that comprised the show, from the view of the countryside held by the ancient Chinese and Greeks to high-tech farming in the Netherlands. The architect apparently spends his summers in a Swiss village, which has been subtly changing over the years, growing in population and losing many of its original inhabitants, presumably farmers. Koolhaas complained about the transformation, like “the conversion of stables into minimalist houses costing 4 million Swiss francs.” He disparaged one of his neighbors: “What we thought was a typical Swiss farmer was in fact a dissatisfied nuclear scientist from Frankfurt.” (It apparently hadn’t occurred to Koolhaas that the scientist might be having similar thoughts about him, also not a humble farmer, but a world-famous architect.) The Swiss epiphany inspired Koolhaas to begin thinking about the 98% of the planet where OMA doesn’t work, the portion that is not urban—terrain that would prove to be as deep and inaccessible to the architect as the Mariana Trench.

Nothing provides the moments of transcendence we hope for in museums. Nothing builds. Nothing adds up. Nothing makes you say at the end of the spiral, "Oh, this is why they mentioned that other thing at the very beginning."

One of the show’s introductory images is a 1909 photo, obviously colorized, of three Russian peasant women in traditional dresses, looking stonily at the camera. “The countryside is depicted as a stable environment where everyone—man, woman, child—knows their place,” reads the accompanying text, which goes on to bemoan the soullessness of present-day country life: “monochromatic, fully enclosed, proud of techniques and efficiency.”

A study in pixel farming, in which robots plant crops
Connie Zhou A study in pixel farming, in which robots plant crops
More pixel farming
Pieternel van Velden More pixel farming

Never mind the generalizations, never mind that the deprivations of Russian peasant life was a driver of one of the world’s great cataclysms, the Russian Revolution. Just think about the phrase a “stable environment where everyone—man, woman, and child—knows their place.” Think about what that implies, what a world in which everyone knows “their place” would look like for women, for African Americans, for the descendants of the Russian peasants in the photo.

Another foundational image can be found further up Wright’s famous ramp: a photo of two stacks of books, one very tall and one very short, comparing “publications (in the architecture world) on the city and the countryside.” It’s intended to be a quick visual confirmation of the shortage of books about rural places. But the conceit hinges on the curators’ definition of “in the architecture world,” whatever that means. (In Koolhaas’s personal library?) In reality, there’s no shortage of books about non-urban places: Books about farming were a major fad in publishing a few years ago. But they apparently aren’t sitting on Rem’s desk.

An image of the Zeestraat (Sea Street) by Constantijn Huygens, designed in 1653 to connect the Hague and the fishing village of Scheveningen, next to one of the cutout-figure robots that wander the exhibition
Connie Zhou An image of the Zeestraat (Sea Street) by Constantijn Huygens, designed in 1653 to connect the Hague and the fishing village of Scheveningen, next to one of the cutout-figure robots that wander the exhibition
One of the show’s didactic narratives documenting how Franklin Delano Roosevelt had millions of trees planted to lessen erosion during the dust bowl
Connie Zhou One of the show’s didactic narratives documenting how Franklin Delano Roosevelt had millions of trees planted to lessen erosion during the dust bowl

Nor did the curators bother to read the books in the photograph. I noticed the architect Carolyn Steel’s 2008 book, Hungry City, in the stack of the urban tomes, even though it explores the intimate connection between the city and the countryside. When I read it, I was fascinated by one idea Steel put forth, that the density of industrial farming is a mirror image of the density of urban life. “Fields of corn and soya stretching as far as the eye can see, plastic polytunnels so vast they can be seen from space, industrial sheds and feed lots full of factory-farmed animals—these are the rural hinterlands of modernity.” Hungry City was a precursor to this show, and it belonged in a third pile of books, one concerned with the very transformations that Koolhaas intended to explore.

Still, for all that, I experienced a brief moment of hope when I encountered yet another totemic display at the beginning of the exhibition: a reproduction of The Bull, a 1647 painting by Paulus Potter of a peasant and several of his farm animals, surrounded by walls full of questions depicted in “slightly blurry type,” as Koolhaas described it. This grand display of textual overload—my favorite moment in Countryside—was the work of book designer Irma Boom, whose bag of tricks gives the show its visual character. The questions—there are hundreds of them—suggest a loose-knit, exploratory show full of surprises. “Is hay still relevant? Can we relearn romanticism? Who would have guessed that the future is wood?”

A flurry of questions surround a reproduction of "The Bull," a 1647 painting by Paulus Potter—one of the show’s opening salvos
Connie Zhou A flurry of questions surround a reproduction of "The Bull," a 1647 painting by Paulus Potter—one of the show’s opening salvos

But, somehow, as I headed up the ramp, the looseness slipped away. The open-ended questions went unanswered. And I instead encountered didactic mini-narratives with this kid-doing-homework vibe about them. For instance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to combat the conditions that turned much of the Midwest into a “dust bowl,” had 220 million trees planted between 1934 and 1942 as windbreaks to help the soil retain moisture and lessen erosion. More flamboyantly and less successfully, from the 1920s through the early 1950s, German architect Herman Sörgel promoted a concept he called Atlantropa, a scheme to lower the water level of the Mediterranean and Adriatic by building dams in strategic locations like the Strait of Gibraltar, thus creating habitable land on former sea bottoms between Europe and Africa.

It’s not news that we humans have dedicated ourselves to manipulating nature to our advantage. Even the most startling objects exhibited, including a round, air-conditioned, automated 100-cow “milking parlor” in Doha, Qatar, or a cardboard beehive in a high-tech Netherlands greenhouse, have a familiar quality to them. For one thing, agriculture has always—from the day the first human intentionally dug a hole and dropped a seed—been technological. The technologies may have evolved, but anyone who’s ever paid attention to a cornfield or a vineyard knows that they are impositions of human needs and desires on the landscape. They are nurture, not nature.

A study of land use and demographics for the average Chinese village
Connie Zhou A study of land use and demographics for the average Chinese village
A timely question
Connie Zhou A timely question

Upstaged by Reality
Koolhaas isn’t wrong about the significance of Countryside. I think the interplay between urban and rural, between the artificial and the natural, deserves all the attention we can give it. Everything we’re dealing with at this moment in history—with its apocalyptic buzz—is about the conflicts between natural systems and man-made ones, between our needs and the needs of the planet. A museum show that tackles this most fraught relationship should be a powerhouse: exhilarating and jaw-dropping. This show is nothing like that. It offers little that is moving, or visually satisfying—an unfortunate outcome, because I greatly admire Irma Boom. She specializes in books that are overstuffed with type and images, including another Koolhaas project, The Elements of Architecture (Taschen, 2014), which has more than 2,500 pages and weighs nearly 8 pounds. But somehow, her technique doesn’t have the same magic on the Guggenheim walls as it does on the printed page. No image or idea gets the breathing room generally given to objects in museums. It is all collaged together in a way that is typical of today’s concept-heavy exhibitions. It implies that there is too much to say to privilege any one thing, too many ideas to give pride of place to any of them. There are some good photos (the ones of Tiksi, a Russian settlement near the East Siberian Sea, shot by Evgenia Arbugaeva, a photographer who spent her childhood there, are gorgeous). But this isn’t a show that invites you to focus on aesthetics.

courtesy the Guggenheim Museum

Nothing provides the moments of transcendence we hope for in museums. Nothing builds. Nothing adds up. Nothing makes you say at the end of the spiral, Oh, this is why they mentioned that other thing at the very beginning. For instance, Countryside covers the urbanization of the desert southwest in the U.S. (with massive data centers) and Kenyan villages (with smartphones) and rural China (with actual cities built to house farmers) without delving too deeply into any of these new hybrid places. We just need to know they exist. The show is everything the project team turned up, assembled in an order that seems like a compromise between geography and chronology. It’s too generous. It’s not generous enough.

The saving grace of Countryside is that while it has the look and feel of one of those gigantic Koolhaas/Boom concept books, the actual catalog is delightfully undersized, a pocket-sized paperback (also designed Boom) that is much more satisfying than the exhibition itself. For one thing, you can sit down and read it. The best story in the show gets full-length treatment in the catalog in an essay by Niklas Maak. As he writes, refugees from places like Iraq and Eritrea are reviving dying European towns—a story about people and not technology (and people, especially the denizens of rural places, are in short supply in this show). But what I especially love is that it’s a story about people who don’t know their place, or who have fled the place they know. Intentionally, or not, it’s the inverse of Koolhaas’s Swiss village: a new population arrives in an isolated town, establishes itself, participates in the local traditions and, over time, in a repudiation of right-wing nationalist rhetoric, begins to fit in. If it was the kind of exhibition that had a narrative, if the spiral led someplace, this would be a fitting conclusion.

Of course, at the moment I’m writing this, the Guggenheim has been closed temporarily because of the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 was allegedly harbored by bats for millennia and likely infected humans via transmission from another wild animal, perhaps a scaly anteater, that was sold as a delicacy at a market in Wuhan, China, a city of 11 million people. In other words, Countryside was shut down by exactly the kind of uncanny connection between urban and rural it was curated to reveal. The show has been thoroughly upstaged by reality. Even a seasoned provocateur like Koolhaas can’t compete.

As detailed in the show’s pocket catalog, refugees from the Middle East and Africa have helped revitalize the villages of Camini and Riaci in Italy
courtesy the Guggenheim Museum As detailed in the show’s pocket catalog, refugees from the Middle East and Africa have helped revitalize the villages of Camini and Riaci in Italy
More images from the catalog
courtesy the Guggenheim Museum More images from the catalog
courtesy the Guggenheim Museum
courtesy the Guggenheim Museum
courtesy the Guggenheim Museum