I visited Countryside, The Future on February 29, 2020, on a crowded Saturday, before most people had a sense of how the coming months would unfold. The exhibition in the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York ran from February 20, 2020 until February 15, 2021, and closed in between when the city shut down. Even though the show has now concluded, adjacent materials abound on the Guggenheim website in the form of images and podcasts, talks that Rem Koolhaas has given at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (archived on YouTube), and, of course, the exhibition catalogue. Countryside, The Future is bursting at its seams with information for anyone interested, though nothing I experienced at the Guggenheim, that last time I ventured into a crowded space, offered more than the catalogue and essays.
The exhibition is arranged from bottom to top in the Guggenheim’s spiral in distinct themes, each occupying one level. The “semiotics column,” a display of images from magazines collaged on the outer surface of the service-core of Wright’s building, argues that the countryside is an advertising fiction created by glamor shots and ideals of nature as a nostalgic refuge from the overstimulation of the city. This wall of images, argue the curators, prevents us from seeing the reality of the countryside, which is in fact a massive post-Enlightenment design project that includes river management in India, river reversal in Eastern Europe, Stalin’s countryside, and post-human industrial centers in Reno, Nevada. Where architects in the 20th century might have argued that the car on the highway was the emergent spatial experience of the future, Koolhaas seems to find the car and highway a barrier—a wall, like the semiotics wall, that prevented one from seeing the true infrastructure of modernity. Shuttling in the gray space between Rotterdam and Amsterdam, Koolhaas one day stops and steps out of his car to investigate what is behind this wall of a highway.1 What he discovers amazes him. Koolhaas discovers an uncontainable “real real” that can only be referred to by the empty, negative signifier of the countryside.2
The Guggenheim’s architecture curator, Troy Conrad Therrien, writes, “Countryside, The Future is not an art show but it’s also not a science exhibit. Nor an architecture exhibition. It’s a collection of stories told through case studies, global zooms, into an assortment of episodes, scientific, cultural, historical, futuristic.”3 This is the strength of the exhibit: it proposes an alternate form for the architecture-exhibition, one that doesn’t treat architecture as an artifact-producing practice but an information- and theory-producing one. It does this by placing a tractor and the replica of a mammoth alongside scanned and downloaded images, which, collaged together, propose alternate artifacts within the space of the museum.