PRINT July/August 2020


Exterior view of “Countryside, The Future,” 2020, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. From left: Industrial tomato-grow container; Deutz-Fahr TTV Warrior tractor. Photo: David Heald.

“COUNTRYSIDE, THE FUTURE” opened at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on February 20, 2020. On March 13, the show prematurely closed, joining the ranks of exhibitions and public events interrupted by the spread of Covid-19. Organized by Rem Koolhaas, Troy Conrad Therrien, Samir Bantal, and an army of collaborators, the expansive exhibition is dedicated to the “radical changes” ostensibly taking place in “rural, remote, and wild territories . . . or the 98% of the Earth’s surface not occupied by cities.” Framed as a corrective to architects’ enduring habit of privileging the urban, the show traces a path through countrysides across the globe, presented here not as bucolic outsides or compensatory alternatives to the havoc or violence of capitalist urbanization but as wellsprings of “exciting and innovative solutions to modernity.” Defined by technology and phenomena such as “data storage, fulfillment centers, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotic automation, economic innovation, worker migration,” today’s countryside, according to this show, is a place brimming with experimentation, a site of intense productivity and anticipatory forms of life, a testing ground for radical invention liberated from architectural norms and strictures: a new interdisciplinary “frontier.”

But if the exhibition attempts to imagine the future of the rural, the novel coronavirus troubled those prognostications. Almost overnight, the show became a potent historical relic: an architectural imaginary from the now distant-seeming era of February 2020. The question today is what can be recovered.

First inspection of Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, Nevada, 2017. Third from right: Lance Gilman. Photo: Tomas Koolhaas.

THE ORGANIZERS OF “COUNTRYSIDE, THE FUTURE” maintain that the show is not an exhibition of design work. Nor is the material on view meant to be put to work in the service of design. Theory, moreover, is “verboten.” These assertions don’t simply raise ontological and epistemological questions about the show; they raise political questions, too, for they bear on architecture’s possible relation to the futures yet to emerge in the wake of Covid-19. New York City serves as my entry point and self-consciously parochial demarcation, and not just on account of the Guggenheim’s location. The American city where I have lived for decades, New York has recently found its populations and forms of life unevenly ravaged by the pandemic, and, more recently, energized by an uprising in defense of black life. New York also haunts architectural discourse in ways inextricable from the show: Koolhaas’s 1978 book Delirious New York and its attendant theory of “Manhattanism” significantly recast the discipline’s imaginary, harnessing the writings of European leftist intellectuals who at the time were coming to terms with the burgeoning governing apparatus of neoliberalism. Yet Koolhaas’s volume was far from being in alignment with those figures’ politics: To the contrary, he adopted a distinctly affirmative position, one whose legacy is now forcefully desublimated at the Guggenheim.

An expansive show, “Countryside, The Future” occupies the entirety of the museum’s rotunda, spilling out onto Fifth Avenue, where the curators have sited a massive green Deutz-Fahr TTV Warrior tractor and a sealed microclimate within which tomatoes bathe in pink light in a shopwindow-scale display. Inside the building, visitors encounter a dense and relentless collage of projections, screens, vinyl transfers, vitrines, and photomurals that spirals upward along the museum’s ramp—a heterogeneous array of documents and formats including archival, historical, and popular images, as well as videos, diagrams, charts, maps, digital animations, models, texts, and reproduced artworks. Along the way, one finds sections titled “Leisure and Escapism,” “Political Redesign,” “(Re-)Population,” and “Nature/Preservation.” These areas feature stories about ancient Rome, American hippies, and wellness culture; presentations on the “radical redesign” and the “Promethean efforts” of figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung, Jospeh Stalin, and Muammar Gaddafi; and case studies of subjects such as African and Middle Eastern refugees revitalizing European towns, Chinese-built railways arriving in African villages, and much, much more. In the show’s compelling pocket-size companion book, Koolhaas characterizes this fragmentary array as a pointillist portrait, a “composite picture of the current condition of ‘countryside.’”

View of “Countryside, The Future,” 2020, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald.

Countryside, The Future is not an art show but it’s also not a science exhibit,” writes Therrien in the accompanying reader, “nor an architecture exhibition.” Reiterated in an opening wall text and during press previews, the refrain “This is not an art show” initially rings as self-congratulatory, as if filling a major art museum with non-art objects was in itself noteworthy (motorcycles, anyone?). But it also situates the show within a genre of architectural-research exhibitions, particularly those developed since the 1990s by AMO, the research arm, or “think tank,” of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, which Koolhaas cofounded in 1975. In its presentation of Pearl River Delta research for Documenta X and its exhibition “The Gulf” at the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale, AMO established the formats, graphic techniques, and aesthetics of this mode, which are now familiar to many architects, if not to the wider public.

But if “Countryside” embodies the research-based architectural exhibition, it also strategically mirrors and reenacts the visual and informatic logics of contemporary media. The profusion of texts and images assumes a subject able to scan for connections and change channels, to switch from screen to screen with virtuosity. (Many reviewers complained of information overload.) Slowing down to focus would be anathema, because the research was not designed to impart knowledge as such, much less sustain attention or contemplation. More apt would be a momentary pause for an Instagram shot, with the prefab hashtag #countrysidethefuture poised to circulate the exhibition’s meme production. And while moments in the show are productively complex—such as the presentation on gorilla reserves in Uganda—the overall picture is smooth, resolved, recalling the appropriation of avant-garde collage techniques for advertising. Bodies, plants, machines, and environments integrate harmoniously, with little or no sign of resistance, decoupling, or friction. 

Almost overnight, “Countryside” became a potent historical relic: an architectural imaginary from the now distant-seeming era of February 2020.

Koolhaas famously attributed the “genius” of Manhattan’s skyscrapers to their way of “surrendering wholeheartedly” to capitalism: “This architecture relates to the forces of the Groszstadt like a surfer to the waves.” At the Guggenheim, web surfing and social media feeds function as updated interfaces onto capital flows; the show itself comes across as a recursive gesture of surrender, a reflection and exacerbation of that wider apparatus and the forms of subjectivity it assumes and conditions. In a distinctly Koolhaasian manner, “Countryside” at once emblematizes and exploits contemporary techniques of power, deploying a citational intelligence that, in turn, appears designed to set the terms for the architecture to come.

View of “Countryside, The Future,” 2020, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: Stephen Bailey.

ARCHITECTS HAVE LONG BEEN in the business of scripting the future, and in doing so they remain, almost by necessity, in a complicated dance with capitalist speculation. But given the inherent instability of our economic system—the way in which forms of life and work, institutional logics, scientific knowledge, geopolitical strategies, and media-technical infrastructures constantly shift and reconfigure—they can also resist the perceived need to adopt a neoliberal disposition. For clues to alternative strategies for opening toward “the future,” we might turn to the work of Ant Farm, the activist architecture-and-video collective founded in 1968. In 1973, Ant Farm (at that point consisting of Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, Doug Michels, and Curtis Shreier) mounted an exhibition called “20:20 Vision” at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Opening in the wake of the OPEC oil crisis, its dual targets were American imperialism and ecological catastrophe as filtered through a multinational oil industry, a petroleum-dependent automobile culture, and a militarized economy. The show ironically adopted the genre of the science fair or World Expo, presenting, for instance, an “Avenue of Progress” that led from Ford’s Model T to NASA's lunar rover, along with exhibits dedicated to gas pumps, General Motors’ 1939 Futurama, inflatables, space suits, image processing machines, Ant Farm’s own projects, and more. Here, Ant Farm eschewed didacticism to foreground the sometimes-ridiculous aesthetic quality of these outmoded objects and images: “Entertainment value increases as information value wanes,” they wrote in a related statement. Older images of the future are ways of accessing a different era’s ideological battles, and in that moment of laughter, such retrofuturism can, in turn, open up a different kind of space, puncturing the coherence of our own moment’s ideological visions.

As for the collective’s own predictions for the future, they remain hauntingly prescient. On the immediate horizon—and in a nod to Disney’s 1958 “Magic Highway USA”—Ant Farm envisioned “freeways of tomorrow” made up of the “picture phone, Xerox’s Telecopier, two way cable TV and computer networks” that integrate a world of stay-at-home “nomads.” Sound familiar? To imagine “life as it might appear in the year 2020,” or life in that “data-controlled future,” Ant Farm presented Kohoutek, a “community living space” without “permanent context,” replete with a “post-privacy surveillance gland, a central intelligence bank, and other biotech control mechanisms.” Ant Farm’s ironic projection for the year 2020 did not anticipate a global viral pandemic. But in its recognition of Bay Area computer entrepreneurs and engineers as outsize influencers of our social relationships it did identify the contours of what Gilles Deleuze would memorably term, some seventeen years later, the “forces knocking at the door”—that is, the diffuse and immaterial control systems of late capitalism.

In preparing for “20:20 Vision,” Ant Farm visited Xerox parc in Palo Alto, California, a research-and-development corporation then at the forefront of creating local-computer-networking techniques. In preparing for “Countryside,” Koolhaas and his team visited Xerox parc’s bastard offspring: the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, a massive, privately owned industrial park in the western Nevada desert. Founded by adult-entertainment entrepreneur Lance Gilman and occupying more than 150 square miles, TRIC is a major hub of global corporate operations dependent on data flow—logistics facilities, data centers, fulfillment centers, and headquarters for companies such as PetSmart, Home Depot, and Walmart. It has attracted what Koolhaas describes as a “Who’s Who of unicorns,” including Google, eBay, and Tesla, and is home to the largest data center in the world, which is operated by Switch. Tesla’s Gigafactory, also sited at TRIC, is said to be the largest building on the planet, a pastoral emblem of a new Koolhaasian “Bigness.”

In “Countryside,” the display dedicated to TRIC is located on the museum’s uppermost level, amid a collection of exhibits cast (without evident or adequate irony) as the culmination of a quasi-modernist narrative. Nestled alongside displays on automated agriculture and “pixel farming,” the TRIC installation embodies a shift in presentation technique. Gone are the dense, collage-like displays, replaced instead by more spacious displays of new technologies and a series of freestanding photomural panels. Among these roam robotic sculptures, including one bearing a Stalin cutout. A photomural depicts an all-male group surveying a vast, undeveloped terrain—in the catalogue it is labeled: “First inspection of TRIC; Lance Gilman with cowboy hat.” The figures stand together, timber on the ground, wild horses in the distance, pondering the incipient markets and territories of the postindustrial economy: a new phase of Manifest Destiny.

We don’t need to read neoliberalism between the lines: Koolhaas personifies it explicitly.

In his reflections on TRIC in the accompanying reader, Koolhaas celebrates the terrifying beauty of cybercapitalism and the equally sublime forms of life it portends. We learn that Gilman “creates a corporate utopia of instant permits here that enable a brave new architecture to be realized in record time, without bureaucratic interference.” This libertarian utopia unfolds seemingly without human intervention, governed by free-market capital (actually, it is designated an “Opportunity Zone” and is therefore the beneficiary of federal tax subsidies) and giving rise to an architecture that evolves without the encumbrance of planners or architects. Like Koolhaas’s “retroactive manifesto” of Manhattanism, it portrays an architecture supposedly born without internecine disciplinary struggle, free from Oedipal preoccupations: “a virgin birth.” Koolhaas describes these conditions in rapturous tones: “With a shock, you sense that ‘degree zero’ has not been achieved before . . . this is the real thing. . . . Thousands of years of architectural and cultural history are ditched. Debates, predictions, ideologies ignored, literally.” He invites us to succumb to neoliberalism’s relentlessness, to acknowledge its intelligence and virility:

There has been no Architecture of a similar vigor in the last 100 years. It is based strictly on codes, algorithms, technologies, engineering, and performance, not intention. Its boredom is hypnotic, its banality breathtaking. Inside, because there is not daylight, the effect of multiple light sources, vibrating machines, is mesmerizing. “Degree zero” is attractive. . . . There is no context. There is no expectation. There is nothing. But the implication is exhilarating.

This ode to the nexus of capital, technology, and aesthetics is classic Koolhaas. We don’t need to read neoliberalism between the lines: He personifies it explicitly. If Koolhaas’s ecstatic prose and appropriation of capitalism’s mechanisms once seemed self-evidently ironic, even funny—as in Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture and “The Berlin Wall as Architecture” (both from the early ’70s) or Delirious New York—that irony has waned. Given Koolhaas’s influence over the discipline, this raises important ethico-political questions. The vast data and fulfillment centers emerging in Nevada are, as Koolhaas well knows, key nodes within a high-tech contemporary governing apparatus, a militarized, monetized security system now touching down in photogenic new rural landscapes, themselves born of data-dependent forms of life, with equally vast environmental, social, and subjective consequences.

In New York, where we have been told to “stay home, stop the spread, save lives”—the mantra repeated like a perverse reprisal of “Turn on, tune in, drop out”—and where we now witness and participate in an unfurling uprising, we are reminded of the multitude of information that flows through sites such as TRIC. Screens are not just means of connecting to goods and services like entertainment, education, health care, and wellness. They are also a nexus of sociality, refashioned as and through social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok; artworks, too, circulate through global media infrastructures, aggregated on apps, encountered via digital interfaces. This technical apparatus is not, of course, new, but lockdown amplified its prominence in our lives.

Architectural research has the capacity to trick or redirect the dominant disciplinary apparatus, to make it falter or hesitate, and to produce solidarities and effect transformations.

In 2013, the artist John Kelsey created a series of watercolors based on aerial images of data centers owned and operated by Apple, Google, and Facebook that he had sourced online; he mounted these paintings on Plexiglas or aluminum, knowingly displaying the pictures “framed without glass for a more direct encounter.” Channeling the isolation integral to new forms of connectivity, the images—whose delicate colors and “pastoral feelings” allude to the bucolic landscape genre—evince a remoteness that speaks not just to the material infrastructure of networked estrangement but to art’s decontextualized institutional contexts. They refashion a site/nonsite dialectic of earlier decades to occupy the convoluted topology of context/noncontext through which art now circulates. Recognizing that communication technology materializes not only in sites like TRIC, but in bodies, psyches, art practices, communities, these images deftly navigate the treacherous space between assimilation and refusal, without falling into the trap of what Koolhaas would dismiss as “moralism.”

John Kelsey, Server Farm (Apple), 2013, watercolor on paper mounted on Plexiglas, 10 1⁄4 × 7 1⁄8".

IN QUESTIONING the analysis-program at work in “Countryside,” I am not suggesting that architectural research, let alone the varied category of architecture exhibitions, constitutively harbors an instrumentalizing function, let alone neoliberal tendencies. Quite the contrary. As shown by the work of figures such as Keller Easterling, Laura Kurgan, Mark Wasiuta, Nora Akawi, f-architecture, or Who Builds Your Architecture?, to name only a few New York–based practices, architectural research has the capacity to trick or redirect the dominant disciplinary apparatus, to make it falter or hesitate, and to produce solidarities and effect transformations that depart from the largely market-driven narrative on display at the Guggenheim. My point is that “Countryside, The Future”—perhaps unwittingly, and largely automatically, and thanks to institutional logics and disciplinary histories—is predisposed to work on an architectural public in particular ways. If the show tacitly provides a road map for architects, it does so by advocating for alignment with a neoliberal status quo (even for those who imagine themselves to be Trojan horses). But after the events of this spring—the pandemic and the uprisings—the show, with its breathless appeals to innovation, has been confined to a now-past era. As in “20:20 Vision,” entertainment value eclipses information value—an unanticipated ironic twist.

To that end, I want to come back to the future. Architecture as a discipline makes projects, in the sense of projections; it is structurally aligned with futurity. Yet as the rupture of the pandemic reminds us, the future remains unknowable, difficult to plan for, and impossible to regulate with design. Faced with this paradox—of the impossibility of planning for the future but also the desire to script it—architecture tends to make claims in the form of “ought to.” The discipline, in turn, carries the (often violent) legacies of the modernist telos, utopian dreams, and heroic actors, driven by aims ranging from techno-social progress to humanitarian aid to avant-garde refusal.

View of “Countryside, The Future,” 2020, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photos: David Heald.

In the right hands and armed with the right attitude, however, architecture’s predisposition to think the future can embody more progressive and even radical political possibilities. It can release other potentialities, even abruptly reconfigure the battlefield. Architecture, after all, is a paradoxical discipline: It has critical, ironic, activist, and other modalities for deploying its expertise, for reinflecting its entanglements, whether with techniques of environmental governance, digital media, or aesthetic and semiotic logics. It can be a spanner in the works rather than a cog in the machine. Perhaps Koolhaas’s ambivalent switching between research-based analysis and programmatic projections might be put to work by others in a way that introduces friction between these modes, allowing architecture to play its game to different ends. Can one appropriate neoliberal operations and, with a wink, cynically refashion futurity to facilitate glitches, openings, gaps, fissures? Can one fashion strategies that are not in alignment but out of sync, disjunctive? As the ironic gestures of the Ant Farmers reminded us, the future does not follow a linear, or even a spiraling trajectory; nor is it headed toward a knowable end. And as Covid-19 has made visible, the world is full of exploitable entry points, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses. Governments have rechanneled funding, and we have seen emblems of capital and the military—New York’s Javits Center, cruise terminals, hotels—put to use, at least temporarily, as sites of care. Now is a cogent moment for challenging the submission to global capital so vividly on display at the Guggenheim. Architects are experts at recognizing entry points and finding connections. They put things together, they re-valence words and images. Can they also exploit ambivalence and redirect the disposition of this machine—or even dismantle it? 

Felicity D. Scott writes on architecture, art, and media, and occasionally works collaboratively on exhibitions.