In February 2020, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum will present an exhibition titled “Countryside, The Future.” The brainchild of a team led by Rem Koolhaas and AMO, the exhibition will mark the latest chapter in one of Koolhaas’ fields of study from recent years; the impact of an increasingly urbanized world on the non-urban areas “left behind.” This investigation is for good reason.
As described in Carolyn Steel’s “Hungry City,” the once-symbiotic relationship between urban and rural has morphed into a present-day where major cities can only function with the support of vast sways of rural, industrial landscapes. London, for example, requires a total amount of land approximately 293 times its own area to produce the necessary food, energy, water, and raw materials needed to sustain itself. With 68% of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050 (a figure currently at 55%), cities will devour ever-larger areas of land to support the ever-larger demands of their citizens.
In the past decades, I have noticed that while much of our energies and intelligence have been focused on the urban areas of the world – under the influence of global warming, the market economy, American tech companies, African and European initiatives, Chinese politics, and other forces – the countryside has changed almost beyond recognition.
While immediate reflections of “countryside” may evoke romantic images of sleepy villages, desolate mountains, or uninterrupted silence, many of these landscapes are alive and responsive to global flows of energy, food, finance, policy, ideas, and people. While cities concern themselves with the human experience, these landscapes operate on a macro scale generating millions of tons of food for supermarket shelves, raw metals to manufacture iPhones, wind farms to power them or data streams to activate them.
One proposition for the future of the countryside can be found in the Netherlands. On the Hook of Holland, a vast sea of greenhouses surrounds vernacular Dutch farmhouses, alive with high-tech, innovative food production. Despite its small size, and dense population, the Netherlands is the world’s second-largest exporter of food. Such an accreditation would not be possible using conventional farming methods. But the Dutch countryside is far from conventional. In place of plowed furrows and green grazing fields, there are extraordinary greenhouse complexes with climate-controlled farms, some spanning over 175 acres.
The manifestation of these built structures across the Dutch countryside is the result of global flows of policy and ideas. In the early 2000s, the Dutch made a national commitment to a new form of sustainable agriculture, which has seen the elimination of chemical pesticides in greenhouses, and a reduction of antibiotics by 60% since 2009. Meanwhile, driving this innovation is the nearby Wageningen University & Research (WUR), an institution regarded as one of the world’s leading researchers in agriculture. As new techniques and understandings emerge of how to feed ever-increasing urban populations, countryside such as those in the Netherlands will continue to adapt and grow in response, moving further away from the idyllic and natural, and more towards artificial, industrial, and controlled.
Given the Netherlands’ unique countryside, it is unsurprising that Koolhaas himself has studied how the region encapsulates the changing nature of “rural” landscapes. In a 2014 essay for ICON, Koolhaas recalled that “husbandry of the land is now a digital practice. For example, the tractor, which revolutionized the farm in the 19th century, has become a computerized work station. It is a series of devices and sensors that create a seamless, yet detached digital interface between the driver and the earth. The countryside in terms of how we work is becoming similar to the city. The farmer is like us – a flex worker, operating on a laptop from any possible location. […] This is not to say that it is all bad. It is only ironic that such drastic transformations are barely on the radar in our education and thinking.”
Koolhaas’ last line is telling. With skills focused on not only on the human perception of space, but also on the ability to respond to political, economic, climatic, and physical contexts, architects of the future will be required to confront a new reality when designing outside cities. Increasingly, the demands of the city on its rural surroundings will see architects perfect new layouts and functions for greenhouses, more efficient organizations of data centers, and a new paradigm of what place there is for recreation and relaxation in a countryside geared towards cold, hard, automated industry.