“Countryside, The Future” | Rem Koolhaas in the Guggenheim, or Non-Architecture in the Age of Posthumanism.
Author: Juan Trias de Bes | TDB arquitectura
On 20 February – just a few hours ago – Dutch architect and journalist Rem Koolhaas unveiled his latest exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The large show is the result of the research Koolhaas has carried out over the past few years as a member of the AMO Think Tank.
4 years ago, at the Arquitectura y Sociedad congress held in Pamplona under the supervision of Patxi Mangado, I attended a lecture by Koolhaas. He’d been invited to take part in the event as one of its star speakers. The packed auditorium was expecting some kind of anthological overview of the OMA, but instead Koolhaas explained how advances in agricultural production had sparked a revolution in environments far away from city centres. If I remember rightly, the first image compared a John Deere tractor from the 1970s with one from the present day. The more modern vehicle not only didn’t need driving: it also had a video screen and a hot-dog dispenser in the cab.
At the time, I was very impressed by Koolhaas’s lecture, but I must admit that the news reports and articles that are beginning to appear in the social media about this latest exhibition have given me a feeling of lost opportunity. I’ll try to explain.
The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through a series of issues associated with non-urban land, the common theme being activities carried out in productive spaces in what Koolhaas calls “the countryside”. The display rooms are full of giga-factories, tablet-controlled tractors and crop machinery, crop surveillance drones, the threats of the so-called permafrost and, basically, large scale changes affecting vast geographical areas. Koolhaas himself expressly acknowledges that this has nothing to do with architecture, while Troy Conrad Therrien – the curator of the Guggenheim exhibition – describes it as a “pointillist portrait of a mutating territory”. For Guardian journalist Oliver Wainwright, the show is “about curiosity and questioning rather than providing answers”.
Equidistance sometimes facilitates flexibility. It can give those who think differently room to manoeuvre or it can simply provide time to reflect and search for solutions. But I think there are other occasions when it’s necessary to take a stance and express an opinion – even though you may not be 100% right. That’s precisely what the architect’s job is all about. An architectural event is the result of the best compromise its creators are able to achieve between society and builders within a given time limit.
The exhibition at the Guggenheim is undoubtedly an architectural event, both for its venue and for its content: land. Koolhaas tries to transpose it into the field of anthropology and sociology, and that is possible … but Koolhaus is also an architect. Very few of the world’s architects get the chance to indulge in an exhibition like this. It’s all very well to identify and decry situations like those depicted – indeed AMO should be applauded for doing so – but the opportunity seems to have been lost to place architecture, and what it can contribute, at centre stage in the land revolution.
This was the moment to talk about architecture’s relevance in the posthuman age.
Juan Trias de Bes, Barcelona Abril 2020.