Countryside

Half of mankind lives in the city, but the other half doesn’t. Rem Koolhaas presents his manifesto on the countryside, revealing how little attention has been paid to the countryside in the past decades and how this unknown territory is rapidly transforming.

LecturerRem Koolhaas
HostStedelijk Museum Amsterdam
LocationAmsterdam, The Netherlands
DateApril 25, 2012
It’s probably as plausible as a nuclear scientist giving a lecture about wind mills as it is for me to give a lecture about the countryside. But that is what I am going to do tonight. It’s the first time and I hope you will understand by the end of the presentation why I think it is an urgent subject.
Architects have focused particularly in the last century on the city and there are actually very few manifestoes for the countryside or about what the countryside could be.
I have only found Thoreau’s Walden from 1854 as a significant voice.
It’s by now an enormous cliché that half of mankind lives in the city. And the other half doesn’t.
But this has in an ironic way been a pre-text to focus on the city only. And for that reason we are bombarded practically every day with statistics saturating the ubiquity of the urban condition.
In Rotterdam, for instance, now for the third time there is a Biennale dedicated to the city.
If you take magazines as an expression of popular interest; this is a typical newsagent’s wall in Amsterdam...
...and if you illuminated everything there is an amazing amount of magazines dedicated to the countryside, as we discovered by our own surprise too. More than 50%.
Through very fortunate circumstances I was in the privileged condition to visit a Swiss mountain village for almost 20 years. So over time I took this for granted, but then I started to see certain mutations. And over time I became genuinely interested in trying to understand these mutations.
One of the biggest paradoxes was that the village was emptying, its original inhabitants were disappearing...
...but at the same time it was growing. This simultaneous evacuation and extension became a very interesting thing to investigate.
The original buildings look like this; there are of course many rules to maintain this aspect and this heritage.
Obeying all these rules the buildings can also look like this.
And if you looked between the barriers you saw of course the typical contemporary style of consumption, minimalism with an exceptional amount of cushions as if to accommodate an invisible pain.
When I became interested, and I used to be a journalist, I also became inquisitive and asked farmers what they were. I asked this one, he was a former nuclear scientist from Frankfurt turned into a farmer.
When at the same time I looked at the Swiss meadow I discovered, I saw a Sri Lankan driving the tractor...
...and when I looked at the typical village square I saw three Thai ladies. Of course the Thai are necessary to maintain Switzerland, to look after the pets, the kids and the houses. At that moment I made it my mission to understand what had happened in a century.
 This is a picture from Russia, but it could in a way be everywhere: highly stylized, highly ritualized environment, almost hundred years later a totally and radically different condition.
 It’s totally unwise to announce future books. Hereby my announcement that my next book will be on Countryside.
So if we look at countryside, what do we actually mean? The city, we of course all know what this is. It occupies 2% of the earth, 50% of mankind lives there and together they cause 80% of pollution.
What is the countryside: it’s 98% of the world’s surface, 50% lives there and causes 20% of pollution.
 I think that our exclusive and accelerating focus on the city creates paradoxically a situation comparable to the beginning of the 19th century. To discover the new world, mostly coastal areas were mapped and we had to describe other parts as terra incognita.
 I think our focus on the cities is causing a colossal terra incognita which is the countryside.
The world population is still 50/50 divided between city and countryside...
...but this diagram shows that percentage together with the amount of people who actually work in the countryside. We see in Europe that this is a percentage somewhere between two and eight so almost negligible and you see that in most of the so called ‘backward’ areas of the world – in Africa, India and China – where there is still a lot of agriculture, the figure that doesn’t go below 50%.
So even in countries where agriculture is still critical, this depopulation is a fact.
And if we then look at the 50% of urban employees [3.7 billion], who in this discussion will only appear in the end of the conversation and will be ignored for the time, then we see that on average in the countryside only this percentage [1.3 billion farmers] are working in agriculture, so there are actually two billion people lost. They live in the countryside and we don’t know what they do.
To actually test and see whether this hypothesis was true, we did a test last week, very nearby in Noord-Holland in a municipality called De Rijp.
This is it. Very classical Dutch. By asking what was happening, we discovered that there were radical mutations.
These weren’t farms, but a recruitment office, a tax consultant and a band member, a heritage mill, relaxation center and a yoga studio.
And here again if we look at this rectangle we discover that only the red was connected to the countryside and white was actually a very contemporary expression, where for example even a famous children’s book author lives who just received the Nobel prize for children’s books in New York or you would find a breast feeding center. And every one of these blue patches is a heritage site...
...but within these heritage sites there is a huge transformation so that at bar/restaurant Bij Skeep at 5pm we see farmers having rosé.
I think therefore the countryside is the city in terms of the transformation. If you look at the countryside you see genetic experimentation, industrial nostalgia, seasonal immigration, buying sprees, massive subsidies, incidental inhabitation, tax incentives, political turmoil, digital informers, flex farming, species homogenization. I don’t think you could write such a radical inventory of the city.Now depopulation is a fact, and perhaps there is a preferred relationship between the transformation and the digital and we are seeing this in the countryside, more brutally than anywhere else.
Animal husbandry is increasingly automated. You probably know this, but you probably don’t know how it is done.
How feeding...
...barn cleaning...
...and dung removal is taken care of by robots...
...and how the farmer in fact has become an office worker, sitting in his cell with a one-way mirror to the cows and sitting behind the screen.
And off course the information he processes is digital information and in this sense they are very much like you and me, accept that he still generates 2 million liters of milk per year.
And of course he is irritatingly dependent on services.
It’s not only the animals but it’s perhaps even more the agriculture of the land.
The tractor which revolutionized the farm already in the 19th century has now become a digital work station...
...with a whole series of additional devices and sensors that almost create a seamless digital interface between the driver and the ground.
 And these are the kind of technologies which are available for the treatment of individual patches of ground.
So what you see is that the digital is promising and delivering the ultimate exploitation of the last drop of potential from each patch of ground.
You could even say that landscape...
...and iPad have become identical.
That the iPad is now the earth and the farmer works with it. And that on the iPad the ground is now defined.
And every single action from planting to weeding is specified for the smallest pixel to create the largest possible yields.
So this is the farmer.
And the farmer works with spreadsheets, again like most of us.
And if he wants free time there are devices that enable him to leave.
Then of course there are also the drones...
...that can even be more effective in his absence and that can now be applied to either agriculture, the inspection of farms, and for surveillance and security. So the countryside will be and is partly already a vast and unending digital field.
Of course this has huge impact. Those few people produce, for instance, more and more yields in developing countries.
There is a paradoxical situation: the fewer the people, the more is produced. This used to be the life of the farmer in the 17th century.
An inspiring sequence of inevitable steps that actually left little space to maneuver.
This is the current situation: research, server management, administration and holiday. I hope your laughter is nervous.
So the farmer is us or we are the farmer. He works on a laptop and can work anywhere.
And off course the farmer meets the knowledge worker...
... who is longer connected to the city, who is also discovering the countryside for very different reasons.
The flex worker is converting the abandoned farms of the former farmers and turning these spaces in excellent flex spaces...
...where the wooden construction is a very welcome signal of the past or of continuity.
The architecture of work space – where a lot of freedom is suggested, which is off course a forced and authoritarian system – ...
...pushes its entrance to the countryside.
It’s even to the extent – and this was for us a surprising discovery – of how rural Germany works...
...and how urban Germany works and invests its time.
There is a huge degree of overlap. The countryside is in terms of activity very similar.
The digital and the West of course still have enormous power, but not necessarily economic power or military power, but the power of rules. This is a book I made in a different context about all the rules of the European Union, its 7000 pages.
A considerable amount of these rules are exported to other countries and enables foreign countries to trade with the EU.
So therefore special software is written to accommodate this type of interaction and this software creates again a new digital frontier in countries very far removed from Europe.
Here you see how software is so fool proof that even illiterates can use it.
And you can say that by this device every single tree in certain regions is identified and tracked so that no illegal wood can go through the EU.
So the digital also triumphs in the jungle...
...of course taught by the white man to such an extent that a piece of jungle is now a carefully inventoried environment...
...where digital informers notice gorilla’s, their nests, and notice evidence of illegal logging. Basically every square meter of this terra incognita is extremely well known and better known than many parts of the city, but we of course don’t know that it is known.
It’s no surprise nature is over.
And also Slavoj Žižek confirms this feeling.
So what are the consequences of this vast terra incognita?
And how is it used?
I talked about the deep engagement with the digital, but there is also architectural evidence.
This is an almost random picture of a section of America. You see the evidence of farming, but what you don’t see – and this is almost the same language as missile sites or other military installation, they could be nuclear sites – but these are enormous pigsties that are built in increasing sizes all over the world.
It’s not only agriculture or life stock, but it’s also server farms...
...for wich in in the countryside that little camouflage isn’t even necessary.
This colossal new order consists of more rigor than we have ever seen appearing everywhere.
Basically I have an instinct that the countryside will be increasingly a hyper-Cartesian rational order that enables massive whimsicality in the city.
 In order to illustrate the point you see here a feed lot for cows – you can call it a city of cows.
This hyper-Cartesian order is needed to produce the poeticism reserved for cities. This is one thing I can announce for the countryside. So the countryside is the ideal situation for these types of conditions.
Another terra incognita is of course that we have a tabula rasa situation with little information. There are too few people to verify information or narratives on the countryside or the non-urban.
So the countryside becomes a blank sheet on which a narrative can be projected whether it is a right-wing or left-wing narrative.
So at the same time it becomes better for a banker.
It becomes the total subject of speculation as well as the territory of an extreme food crisis...
... in a time of over-production and affluence...
...but also food prices and tragedy.
And of course these tragedies are increasingly brought to us to the courtesy of NGO’s that are increasing the need to identifying these problems – so therefore we have land grabs, land change, food spikes and support for small scale farming, seemingly telling us what has gone wrong on the countryside but each of these is obviously not more than a mediated diversion and a PR version.
One example is the land grabs in Africa. A while ago there was news about how dangerous China and the Middle-East are in buying Africa.
But actually a friend of mine, a professor in Leiden, checked and showed that a miniscule proportion of these stories could be verified and only a relatively modest amount was bought.
So what we hear from the countryside...
... is utterly unreliable and utterly manipulated.
The countryside, so what is happening in this weird and unknown territory...
...is on the one hand a simultaneous escalation of an upward trend of many different situations, everywhere and not only in Europe.
An increase in agriculture, therefore an incredible increase in immigration: this is an Indian manning a milk farm in Italy...
...this is a former construction worker being retrained to be a farmer in Ireland to accommodate the crisis.
So the countryside is perhaps so far the most contested and emotive field and we are basically trained at this point to be indignant of workers’ conditions in cities like Dubai, but so far working conditions in the countryside escape us.
Because of the immigration in the countryside there is also an influx, a migration of complete populations to the countryside.
It is also becoming an area of intense political protest.
One further similarity or upward trend in the countryside, and these are series of upward trends which are all closely interrelated, is the market and the market economy, the increase in international tourism and an exact parallelism with heritage sites.
This makes of course perfect sense: you can pay for the heritage sites, and they are necessary for tourism.
But that means the countryside is also becoming a playground not only for NGO’s but also for an elite that can enjoy the emptied spaces...
...and re-inhabit the authentic environment of the former farmer and his wife.
That happens at enormous scales where entire villages in Tuscany are now bought by German tourist agencies...
...so they can be an aura of serenity for this large number of people. So all of these are upward trends.
But there are also a number of downward trends. The number of world languages is declining quickly, as well as the biodiversity, animal diversity, traditional architecture and the arable land per capita. So these downward trends are more gloomy.
We try to inhabit this emptiness with remnants of former cultures or animate them with it.
We try increasingly to maintain in the name of intangible heritage the traditions that were once preformed and animated on farms. You get a very strange situation of two different strains of artificiality: on the one hand the digital artificiality and the expressions of all things increasing and, on the other hand, the melancholy of the official maintenance of tradition through UNESCO.
And also some kind of German bread.
So what I think is totally fascinating about the countryside now is the weave of all these tendencies that are happening at the same time, outside our overview and outside our awareness.
Therefore the countryside is inhabited by an entirely new population that we have to begin to understand and really deserves to be taken seriously.
 I said I would talk about city in the end. And I have the feeling that there might be one similarity at the end called thinning. You probably all now that there is a discussion about shrinking cities that certain city grow and others are becoming depopulated. I have an instinct again – I don’t call it anything more – but both the city and the countryside are increasingly inhabited in a more provisional way. Thinning is therefore defined by an increase in the area covered and a diminishing intensity of use of the area.
 A typical example of thinning is this house in the Swiss village I mentioned, which is used two weeks a year, but constantly maintained because it’s partly inhabited by Thai people. But compared to the huge intensity of people and animals who used to inhabit it, I would say it’s thin use.
 But you see the same phenomena in Dubai. We looked at these completed buildings and we were unable to detect real signs of life. So we then looked at the second best thing, which are signs of irregularity and these were the signs we could find. For me this is also a sign that, whatever we think of the city, it is true that the density decreases because families simply become smaller and more people live alone. So that is already a phenomenon of thinning, but I would not be surprised that in 10 or 20 years we discover that thinning is actually taking place on both sides. In that sense the city and countryside remain communicating vessels signifying that our current preoccupation with the city is highly irresponsible because I think you can’t understand the city without understanding the countryside. Thank you.