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‘The countryside is where the radical changes are’: Rem Koolhaas goes rural

The seer of sizzling city architecture now says the countryside is where the future is being built – and it’s a ‘toxic mix’. Ahead of a major Guggenheim show, he explains his epiphany

It was while visiting a brothel on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada, that Rem Koolhaas had his latest epiphany. The Dutch architect was there to meet Lance Gilman, the cowboy hat-wearing proprietor of the Mustang Ranch bordello who is the unlikely visionary behind some of the planet’s largest yet least known buildings. What Koolhaas saw that day would radically alter his thinking on the future of architecture.

A short drive from the heart-shaped swimming pools and red faux crocodile-skin furniture of Gilman’s office in the adult resort, a strange apparition of enormous white rectangles appeared in the desert. “It is a fantastically beautiful landscape,” says Koolhaas, “with rolling hills and wild horses. And in the middle of it all were these colossal structures, placed in a way that didn’t seem to suggest any coherence or sign of human inhabitation.”

If you look at the area on Google Earth, these blocks appear like large chalky fields, or the salt evaporation pools of a lithium mine. But they are mines of a different kind: vast industrial sheds housing the technology behind the blockchain, the cloud, and the future of electric vehicles.

This is the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center (TRIC), the largest industrial park in the world, a 107,000-acre swath of the Nevada desert that has become the backroom for Silicon Valley’s big tech companies, lured here by the favourable tax regime and instant building permits. Gilman bought the land for $20m in 1998 from Gulf Oil, which had planned to fill it with big game and turn it into a luxury hunting reserve. Gilman quickly had it zoned for industrial use, and the big boxes have sprung up like rectangular fungi after rain. It is now home to gargantuan hangars for Google and Apple, along with distribution warehouses for businesses such as Walmart and Amazon, and the new Tesla battery “Gigafactory” – set to be, at 1m sq metres, the world’s biggest building when finally complete.

It might be fitting that a brothel baron now presides over a landscape of “fulfilment centres” of another kind, but what interested Koolhaas wasn’t the developer, nor the chance of another commission. It was that the buildings were thrillingly different from anything he had encountered before.

“There has been no architecture of a similar vigour in the last 100 years,” he writes in an ode to the sheds. “It is based strictly on codes, algorithms, technologies, engineering and performance, not intention. Its boredom is hypnotic, its banality breathtaking.” For Koolhaas, these buildings embody a new kind of sublime.

A pair of 12ft-high photographs of the data centres now hang on the top floor of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, occupying the final level of a sprawling exhibition, momentously titled Countryside, The Future, set to open next week. Five years in the making, and drawing on a decade of research undertaken by his team at AMO (the “thinktank” of Koolhaas’s practice, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, or OMA) and armies of volunteer students, the scope of the show is nothing if not ambitious.

“We decided to focus on the 98% of the Earth’s surface that is not occupied by cities,” says Koolhaas, casually, as if the prospect were like any other design brief. “At a certain point, the UN declared that half of mankind is now living in cities, since when there has been an avalanche of books and biennales talking only about cities. As a result, there is an enormous deficit in understanding what is happening in the countryside, which is where the truly radical changes are taking place.”

At the age of 75, Koolhaas is turning his back on the very thing that made his career. For the last 40 years he has been the seer of cities, provocative poet of the urban condition, producing polemical texts on the unintended consequences of modernity. He made his name with the sizzling “retroactive manifesto” for Manhattan, Delirious New York, in 1978. Since then he has theorised on everything from the explosion of Chinese megacities to the lure of shopping malls, and the proliferation of bland “junkspace” in airports and business parks.

His tone is at once celebratory and contemptuous, as if simultaneously intoxicated and repelled by the phenomena he describes. The buildings produced by OMA have occupied a similar realm, treading a fine line between the bold and banal. They often reflect the unvarnished, brute reality of the city and, more recently in the case of his blocky, mixed-use building the Timmerhuis in Rotterdam, the naked financial interests that shaped them.

But now the rest of the world has caught up and the urban obsession has taken over, the self-styled contrarian has had to move on. “I am interested in the countryside now for the same reason that I was paying attention to New York in the 70s,” Koolhaas says. “Because no one else was looking.”

His interest in rural transformation was first piqued by changes that he noticed in a Swiss village in the Engadin valley, where he had holidayed for years. The area’s population was decreasing, yet the village was expanding, with an ever-increasing number of holiday homes and a new demographic: urbanites seeking wellness, accompanied by a transitory community of south Asian housemaids. These discoveries prompted Koolhaas to survey a chunk of the Dutch countryside, where he found farmers diversifying alongside an influx of wealthy city-dwellers wanting to sample life in the country, “attracted by the aura of authenticity”.

“We started to find deeply absurd conditions,” he says. The more he looked, the more he started to see the global countryside as an enormous canvas on which anything too large, complex or unsafe to blend with urban life takes place. “A world formerly dictated by the seasons and the organisation of agriculture,” he writes, “is now a toxic mix of genetic experiment, science, industrial nostalgia, seasonal immigration, territorial buying sprees, massive subsidies, incidental inhabitation, tax incentives, investment, political turmoil – in other words more volatile than the most accelerated city.” While we were all concentrating on cities, he argues, the next revolution was forging ahead in the hinterland, undisturbed.

There is a naivety to how Koolhaas recounts some of these revelations, which suggests a sheltered urbanite whose musings on rural life are as ill-fitting as muddy wellies in his Prada wardrobe. Yet much of the strength of his work has come from approaching topics as an innocent outsider. One mentor from his early life as a journalist, before he moved into architecture, told him to treat every situation as if he was a Martian new to Earth. It can be a compelling style of writing, but will this detached observer’s deadpan study of disparate rural phenomena translate into a meaningful exhibition?

The sense that this is no ordinary Guggenheim show will begin before you enter the building. Visitors will be greeted by a gigantic hi-tech tractor, capable of being controlled from an iPad, parked on the pavement next to a large module growing tomatoes under pink light: objects from the digitised frontline of agriculture brought back to the city.

In a manner reminiscent of the architect Philip Johnson’s seminal Machine Art show in 1934 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (which placed utilitarian, industrially manufactured objects in a museum setting for the first time) visitors will encounter a satellite dangling in the atrium, along with a big bale of hay and an underwater drone designed to patrol coral reefs. From here, the rotunda spiral will extend upwards in a continuous stream of consciousness, with sections on leisure, politics, preservation, agricultural automation and numerous other facets of rural existence that have preoccupied the busy Dutchman and his extensive cast of collaborators.

“It is a total panoply of voices and themes, cutting across space and time in a really unconventional way,” says Guggenheim curator Troy Conrad Therrien. “It abandons the usual museological preciousness of classification and creates juxtapositions intended to make people think.”

The list of themes reads like the contents page of National Geographic crossed with Wired. It includes the countryside as a cradle of culture in ancient China and Rome; how dictators from Stalin to Mao have left their mark on the land; the ways that Chinese investment is transforming chunks of Africa; how refugees have been housed in abandoned towns in eastern Germany; how gorillas are interacting with tourists in the Congo; the impact of thawing permafrost in Siberia; technological change in American midwest farms. The list goes on. They sound like fascinating, urgent stories, but it is hard to see how they might form a coherent narrative. And what has it all got to do with architecture?

“It has nothing to do with architecture,” Koolhaas admits. “It is more anthropological and sociological. I find it exciting that an art institution would dedicate so much space to something that is not art or architecture.” Therrien describes it as a “pointillist portrait of a mutating territory”, a show about curiosity and questioning rather than providing answers. “Will it feel overwhelming to the visitor? Yes.” Might it feel colonialist and out of touch? Maybe. “We haven’t tried to put a wokeness veneer over the show,” he says. “In the age of outrage, there are some things that people might take out of context and create a hurricane around, but they are what they are.”

There is a tendency for “research-led” architectural exhibitions to end up feeling like a book stuck to the wall, and there is a danger the Guggenheim exhibition could fall into that trap. Therrien says that text will be a big part of the show, along with huge printed curtains and long ribbons of wallpaper that will wrap around many of the walls, with video screens showing documentary footage. There will also be a handful of roving robots, of the kind used in fulfilment centres, adorned with styrofoam cutouts intended to “constantly throw the curatorial ball up in the air”.

Some who were involved in the project fear Koolhaas might have finally bitten off more than he can chew. “It’s problematic to call it ‘research’,” says Charlotte Leib, a doctoral student at Yale, who was part of the exhibition’s team when she was studying at Harvard. “There are thousands of experts in these fields, and some of them were contacted, but it was a process of sculpting their findings towards the worldview of Rem.” Another research assistant is frank: “It’s symptomatic of architectural hubris that they take snapshots of a topic like this and present it to the world as ‘new’.”

So what does Koolhaas want visitors to take away from his grand rural ramble? “I’ve always tried to put relevant issues on the architecture agenda,” he says. “I am not thinking there should be more planning of the countryside, or that it is the next big place for architects to intervene.” His attraction to the megastructures of the industrialised hinterland is precisely because they have nothing to do with architects. They are ultra-utilitarian sheds, divorced from architectural ambition.

“There is a danger of Midas in reverse, in terms of the consequences of architectural attention suddenly shifting to phenomena that were being developed innocently on their own,” he says. “But I think it’s more likely that architecture will change as a result of what’s happening outside cities, rather than architects spoiling this new field.”

Koolhaas says his own practice has already been influenced by what he calls the “post-human” architecture of the colossal sheds at TRIC and elsewhere, which he sees as embodying a kind of unparalleled purity. “We are programmed to think that any ‘next’ architecture can only be the outcome of a struggle,” he writes, in an exhibition catalogue essay. “Modernism was born in a relentless campaign of stripping: of ornament, bourgeois values, frivolity. Because it takes place in the countryside, this is a stealth revolution … The buildings here are not for humans but for things and machines. Thousands of years of architectural and cultural history are ditched.”

He describes OMA’s new performing arts centre in Taipei, still under construction, as a result of this logic – “halfway between a building for humans and machinery”. It incorporates a huge amount of back-of-house space for scenery and mechanisms to transform the auditoria in multiple configurations. The Factory, a new £130m venue being designed for Manchester, looks distinctly shed-like, and one wonders if OMA might be taking the “post-human” idea a bit too literally, judging by the blank street frontage of its recent building for Brighton College.

Koolhaas’s exit from the city comes at a time when he seems increasingly detached from the built output of his practice. He keeps his own separate office in Amsterdam, away from the 300-strong team in Rotterdam, where he can concentrate away from the hubbub. There has been a restructuring of the partnership, so he is no longer the dominant overseeing principal, and OMA’s buildings are now credited to the individual partners. He rarely attends the openings. Is this epic exhibition his swan song before quitting architecture?

“Am I going to retire?” he barks, incredulously, before changing the subject to a new kind of tractor.

  • Countryside, the Future is at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 20 February-14 August.

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