This piece appears as part of "Not In Paris," an online exhibition hosted and curated by Highsnobiety. Head here to see the full series.
In the months since the world shut down, I’ve made a new habit of going for a run every other day. I descend seven floors to the street from my building onto 81st Street, dash up past to the other buildings like it, and run in circles around the constructed reservoir that sits in the center of Central Park, the world’s most famous man-made patch of “nature.” In the entrance between the street and the park, I always pass by a shipping container filled with hydroponically-grown tomatoes that is currently sitting in front of the Guggenheim Museum. Staring into the laboratory-calibrated pink LED light that feeds these fruits day and night — as I breathe heavily into my own little ritual of getting in touch with the more animal-side of my being — I cannot help but feel like one of these tomatoes.
This new daily metaphor in my routine is the handiwork of Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, the Director of AMO, the think tank arm of Koolhaas’ firm OMA. With a wide portfolio of projects ranging from Prada runway designs to Hyundai showrooms and Virgil Abloh’s exhibition “Figures of Speech” at the MCA in Chicago, AMO is like a Bell Labs for contemporary urbanism and visual culture. Its full takeover of the Guggenheim, titled “Countryside, The Future,” is the result of a sprawling in-house research project about the 98 percent of the world that is lumped under the term “country.” Coiling up the museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright edifice, the exhibition contains everything from a diorama on UBI in Kenya to a diagrammatic breakdown of the German Autobahn system and a wandering robotic Stalin. And — perhaps apropos to the low population density of the countryside itself — the exhibition has been deserted and closed to the public since mid-March.
In an exclusive project for “Not In Paris,” AMO has created a series of video collages that give a taste of the exhibition for those who cannot wait for its reopening in September. During this time of bizarre mass confinement — where the idea of the city itself is beginning to feel more precarious than ever — I spoke with Bantal about the strange new relevance of thinking about a future in the countryside.
THOM BETTRIDGE: I find it staggering how many people tell me that they don’t want to go back to their pre-quarantine life. And I don’t think they’re scared of getting the disease — they’re scared of re-entering the hamster wheel of their life.
SAMIR BANTAL: Well, the timing of what’s happening right now — both the virus, then the social unrest — is very interesting, because in both cases these events are an outcome of how we’ve modeled our societies and our cities. I’ve been thinking often about what would happen if we had another viral outbreak — not a natural virus, but a digital virus — and how devastating that would be. Because we’ve just transitioned from physical life to digital life, almost overnight. So the idea that this realm that we’ve voluntarily retreated to — where we’ve stayed sane, and found food and entertainment — would also be disrupted, would be catastrophic.
I find it interesting that you use the phrase “voluntarily retreated,” because I think the word "voluntary" is important. In these online incel communities, they have this phrase, “taking the black pill.” It’s like the red pill in The Matrix, where you are able to enter reality, but in the case of the involuntary celibates, taking the black pill means that you’ve accepted that you’re never going to have sex or a romantic relationship in your life. And I feel like that cynical surrender is happening to us right now on a society-wide level, where we’ve accepted that we’ve already lived our lives online and that we actually prefer that life to “real life” — that we prefer Seamless over restaurants, that we prefer messaging our friends over seeing them, that the little things we were doing to not be completely atomized as a society were actually a charade. I always think of the city as a place for the hopefuls of any country, who are drawn to the center as a way of participating in something larger. But even before Covid, I’ve seen the economic promise of a place like New York decline for the young people who come here. And then after the virus, entire populations of these hopefuls are being laid off and moving back home with their parents. So where do they go? Do they come back to the city? Because even people who still have jobs are realizing that they can just as easily do them from an Airbnb in the mountains, as long as they have their laptop. Do you think that this time we are in has put the idea of the city itself in danger?
I think it makes you realize that our urban life was extremely fragile to begin with. You have this virus that comes from outside the city, and within a couple of months, it’s able to disrupt a global economy. I read once that the most efficient system is also the most vulnerable, because it’s so rigid that it’s almost like crystal: one little break and everything just falls apart. Whereas something more chaotic and organic is able to adapt. Our modern lives are not like that.
It’s true, because the fact that our global infrastructure is so powerful is the reason that this thing was able to spread so fast.
And in this confined space of quarantine, you realize certain basic principles of survival get lost in the tech world. Like, how many of us are able to make fire? And you have these little efforts, like urban farming and having gardens on your roof, but you cannot grow enough that way to sustain yourself completely. You cannot make your own clothes. We cannot keep ourselves alive without technology.
But doesn’t technology inherently disrupt the supremacy of the city? Because in the 1970s or '80s, you’d move to a city like New York or Los Angeles because that’s where the means of production is. That’s where movies are made. Or that’s where the stock market is. That’s where magazines are printed. Et cetera. But now, you don’t actually have to be in the city to participate in these economies or cultures. Now, the city almost exists more as a symbol of cosmopolitanism than anything else. In the United States right now, we’re revisiting the symbolism of the American Civil War, which was basically a war between country people and city people, and that cultural war still exists. Up until this year, the record industry still called rap and R&B “Urban” music.
The way we’ve modeled our cities is very entangled with the way we’ve modeled our economies, and I believe that inequality will reach a point where we can’t contain it anymore. With all these things happening, I think it’s a good time to rethink our cities, and rethink the market-driven, Eurocentric idea of the city. For example, during this pandemic, you’re seeing the biggest remote working experiment in the world, ever. In architecture school, we’d always discuss how one day the internet will be so fast that you won’t have to go to an office. But we always found a reason to go to the office. Now that we can't go to the office, people are leaving the city, because work was the only thing that kept them there. So this is a beautiful kind of acceleration, and I'm very curious to see how long people will stick to this. We also have to remember that this is very much a luxury problem. If you’re someone in a third world economy whose job it is to finish 50 pairs of jeans in a day, you can’t work from your laptop in a cabin. It has become very clear through this crisis which employees are the most vulnerable — jobs in production and distribution, and basically all jobs that cannot be performing digital, but require physical presence and activity. The Covid crisis has uncovered the physical versus digital work-mode as a new form of inequality.
And even in a super modern service economy, being able to do your work remotely is such a clear-cut indicator of being a member of the white-collar class. So this scenario sets a lot of pre-existing class distinctions into even sharper relief than before.
And that’s why I see this moment as an opportunity to rethink how we live.
I appreciate the optimism.
You need to have it. Otherwise we’re just taking the black pill.
So much has changed since "Countryside" opened at the Guggenheim in February. We’ve been in touch a bit on how the implications have changed, but I wanted to ask you about the status quo that this body of research was speaking to.
Well, first of all, I think it’s too easy to say that the countryside stands in opposition to the city, and that the exhibition is about the city versus the countryside. Rather, I think what we realized is that, as architects, we’re fed this idea that that city is kind of inevitable, and that the city is the only way forward, and that the city is the epicenter of desirability. So what we were addressing as a pretext was this focus on only studying urbanization as a societal mode. I think of the countryside as the “dark matter” of architecture, because it comprises 98 percent of the world, but so much more attention is focused on the city.
Were there any big “aha” moments in this research journey?
It’s hard to say, because the research happened over so many years, and it kept shifting — there were many "aha" moments. One big idea was comparing how both the ancient Romans and Chinese had these similar philosophies about how to spend free time, and that free-time was this space of contemplation and self-development — and that you were supposed to do these things in the countryside, because that’s where your brain opens up to creativity. Ever since humans invented the city, we've been leaving the countryside. But, throughout time, we've also been leaving the city, because the city was too rigid of a structure and it didn’t allow us to live in freedom.
So throughout history we've found that there were several groups who already came to the conclusion that the city is not the forefront of innovation — whether it’s hippies or doomsday preppers. For all of them, they found that the countryside was actually this space for freedom. Then you have moments, like the communities designed by Charles Fourier, where you see a concept of living outside the city that is neither urban nor rural. Fourier’s communities were these high density settlements in a rural setting, so it was kind of the best of both worlds. In China, you’re starting to see something similar with these Taobao villages, which are built so that certain villages specialize in producing certain products — a village that makes Nike sneakers, a village that makes Ikea knockoffs — with e-commerce playing a big part in the logistics of that.
You said that "Countryside" isn’t about city versus country, but don’t models like these directly challenge the construct of the city?
We normally think of the city as this exciting place, but they’re actually becoming quite predictable in the way they’re set up: social housing, luxury housing, entertainment areas — it’s almost like this recipe that’s repeated around the world. But you’re now seeing these patterns being questioned, like this rising movement in Africa that’s questioning the Eurocentric idea of a metropolis, and instead thinking of villagization or "counter urbanism" as a much more interesting kind of model.
I’m sure you get this question a lot, but considering that AMO is the mirror organization of the architecture firm OMA, how does a project like this plug into creating new architecture? Or are the connections more abstract?
The way we work is much more like a magazine, or investigative reporting, than it is like architectural research. So the actual implementation of some of these things into architectural practice will happen, but it will take some time. One place of intersection is this idea of creating architecture without people — such as data centers, which embody a new type of building and a new form of the sublime. How do you design a building for machines? We actually ended up doing a project in Nevada that was a museum and a data center combined, because the climate conditions for servers and for artworks are almost identical.
Aside from the fact that data centers are often in the countryside, I feel like this idea of architectures without people is very rural. It’s like when people say there are more cows in Oklahoma than people.
Farming as we know it today has very much been hijacked by these almost masculine forces: bigger, larger, more power, more efficient, no birds, no insects, no animals. And the result of this is a completely depraved nature. We went to this place in Holland that’s actually very close to our office where vegetables are produced in the most high tech environments imaginable. With these environments, they want to trick nature, and create a controlled kind of ersatz nature, because the real nature cannot be trusted: you never know exactly when the sun shines, or when it rains, or how hard the wind will blow. So once you control all these things at a place like this, you can suddenly have the perfect tomato, or the perfect cucumber. With the touch of a button, you can do things like increase light, or only use the red part of the light, so that the vegetable gets more sweet. And I really make a connection between that and how we treat nature, as if we can accept it only in a perfected form. In this environment we call the city, everything is regulated and everything is spoon-fed with dials and buttons to create this perfect environment. But it’s clearly not perfect, and it’s clearly not functioning how it should function.
Do you think our relationship with the city makes us callous toward nature and its crises?
I think modern society can be much more like indigenous societies that are more in balance with nature. Currently, we’re completely out of balance. I read two days ago that an Arctic part of Siberia had a temperature of 38 degree Celsius, which is a tropical temperature in an Arctic area. If that’s not a warning sign, I don’t know what is. I think we’ve grown to see nature as a provider, either a place for our consumption of aesthetics, or as a place where we grow our food, but always as a service to the city. And if you’re not confronted with these climate crises on the daily, you’re not so concerned about it.
Something I really enjoyed about this exhibition is that it’s different from the normal art show, where you hang different pieces on the wall and let them vibrate off each other and be open for interpretation. Instead, "Countryside" almost reminds me of a natural science museum, in that it tells a very specific story and shares a mode of thinking.
We felt strongly about that — how it was almost like a book that you walk through with all the pages stitched together.
Exactly. And I found that Virgil’s show [Abloh’s “Figures of Speech” at the Chicago MCA], which you did the exhibition design for, was set up in a similar way. It was almost didactic, like a form of public education.
Virgil’s show is almost like a manual to his approach as a fashion designer, but also as a visual artist and a musical artist. You can simply look at that chronologically, but what I thought was much more interesting was his network and the world he moves in. One thing in that show that I fought very hard for was this chapter called “Black Gaze.” I thought it addressed some things that we never speak about in art, architecture, and fashion, and that was something I wrote about in my piece for the book: how Virgil is from African descent — his parents are from Ghana — and how he had to fight from a position that wasn’t privileged, and therefore had to develop certain diplomatic skills. I think that inspires a lot of kids in Europe as well, where kids from African descent are trying to find a way to use their ethnic background in everyday life. It hasn’t been very easy, and when that story shoots up and into Men’s fashion at Louis Vuitton, it’s not a natural thing within the ecosystem of fashion. And that was something I wanted to highlight and present clearly: Virgil as the diplomat, more than just a talented designer.
Right before that show opened, I was following Virgil around, working on a piece for GQ, and I went to this talk you guys gave in New York about the show. And there was something Virgil said that was very powerful — with the gun violence in Chicago, he said he measured his success by every kid who was at that show for the day, and therefore wasn’t on the street and in danger of being shot. And I thought that this idea, of a museum also being a place where you aren’t, is very fascinating.
I think, fundamentally, a museum also stands for school. It’s a place where you develop your interests and your cultural affinities. And part of that is about checking out from your own environment, and therefore finding yourself exploring a different world.
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