Rem Koolhaas Plans a Countryside Exhibition at the Guggenheim

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Rem Koolhaas, the architect whose ties to urbanism run so deep that his firm is even called the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, has shifted his focus to the countryside.

His recent research obsession will be the subject of “Countryside: Future of the World,” an exhibition planned for the Guggenheim Museum’s spiral rotunda in fall 2019.

The exhibition — organized by Troy Conrad Therrien in his most ambitious project since he was hired as the Guggenheim’s first curator for architecture and digital initiatives three years ago — will explore how the world’s rural landscapes have been altered by technology, migration and climate change.

In an interview, Mr. Koolhaas said that there are obviously architectural and cultural reasons to consider the countryside (which he defined as “anything that is not the city”), but in the wake of Brexit and President Trump’s election, “there’s also a political reason to look at it.”

“We know now the political consequences of ignoring the countryside,” he added.

Mr. Therrien said the many headlines in the past year about the role small-town America played in the election have made interest in the countryside “roar back to life,” which, he added “raises the stakes for the exhibition and puts pressure on us to remain nimble” while the show is in development.

The idea first struck Mr. Koolhaas several years ago when he noticed that a Swiss village he visits annually had lost much of its original population while drastically expanding to accommodate tourists who built houses they rarely inhabited. And, he said, a local farmer he thought had come from a rich tradition was in fact a dissatisfied nuclear scientist from Frankfurt.

Mr. Koolhaas — along with AMO, the research arm of OMA, and his students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design — began to look into roughly 15 to 20 areas around the world that, he said, “together describe comprehensively what is going on” with changes to rural environments on every continent.

In Russia, for example, agriculture has migrated northward as permafrost melts, Mr. Koolhaas said, while farming communities have become increasingly isolated by hundreds of airport closures around the country. And in the United States, the California-Nevada border near Reno has been turned into “Silicon Valley’s back of house.”

“You could say it’s not a city, yet,” Mr. Koolhaas said, although “the scale of development is definitely kind of urban. But it is a new kind of urban, because it will be inhabited by machines and by robots, and few people.”

Mr. Koolhaas observed that more than half of the typical magazine covers on newsstands in cities showed images related to the countryside. “It’s there and part of our subconscious,” he said, adding that rural images also work their way into a faux-rustic aesthetic of urban coffee houses, hotels and shops.

“It’s a very ironic situation,” Mr. Koolhaas said, “that we are at the same time ignoring yet profoundly influenced and infiltrated by the semiotics of the countryside.”