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The countryside is not as empty as you think

The countryside is transforming into something new, writes Rory Olcayto

A year ago, in the OMA-designed Maggie’s Centre at Gartnavel Hospital, I pressed Rem Koolhaas to discuss the wider townscape around us: Glasgow. What were his thoughts on this strange northern city? Did he like the grid? The proto-skyscrapers? The tenement housing? But he wasn’t interested in talking about Glasgow. Or any other city. ‘I am now writing about the countryside,’ he said.

‘The countryside is changing more radically than our cities,’ he added. ‘Millions have moved to cities from the countryside. But what do they leave behind? They have left behind a weird territory for genetic experimentation, intermittent immigration and vast property transactions. It’s truly amazing when you look closely.’ It was one of those moments as a journalist when you know your subject has said something genuinely interesting and new.

A few months later, Koolhaas gave a lecture on the subject in Amsterdam telling his audience: ‘Architecture books bombard us with statistics confirming the ubiquity of the urban condition, while the symmetrical question is ignored.’ It’s true. Over the past decade, and partly inspired by OMA’s own books and projects hatched in the ’90s, data-led Urbanism has mesmerised architects. Yet few have chosen to investigate conditions beyond the city limits, the 98 per cent of land out there.

Popular books on cities, often with smug, hubristic titles, have also proliferated. Books like last year’sTriumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser. Smart guy. Interesting thesis. Yet hardly a new one. 50 per cent of mankind may live in cities - but that means more than three billion don’t. The countryside is not as empty as you think: and what are they doing there anyway?


This is the question Koolhaas is asking in his new - unfinished, untitled - book on the subject. In the meantime, Biannual Berlin-based magazine 032c has published an essay by Koolhaas on the subject, and some research pages - Holland Strip Search, a Google Maps-inspired study of the countryside.

It wasn’t Holland, however, that inspired Koolhaas to turn his back on cities, but Switzerland and its Alpine villages. In a recent interview for the Smithsonian. com he recalls his trips there. ‘We came here with a certain regularity and I began to recognise certain patterns. The people had changed; the cows in the meadows looked different. And I realised, we’ve worked on the subject a lot over the years, but we’ve never connected the dots. It has sort of been sublimated.’

A Swiss village in the Engadin valley is a major focus for his research. It is typical of villages throughout Europe. It is being hollowed out, ancestral residents moving away, new ones moving in, contracting but growing too. Heritage rules mean original building forms are maintained but facilitate conversion into luxury second homes. Writing for 032c, Koolhaas wittily notes, ‘if you look between their curtains, you see the typical contemporary style of consumption: Minimalism, but with an exceptional amount of cushions, as if to accommodate an invisible pain.’

Koolhaas points out that of those living in the countryside, two billion do not work in agriculture and those that do are just like you and me: ‘[The farmer] works on a laptop, and can work anywhere.’ Robots milk the cows. Old agricultural buildings now house yoga classes, solar panel vendors, museums. ‘While the city becomes more itself,’ he writes, ‘the countryside is transforming into something new.’

It would be a great theme for the next Venice Biennale.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Interesting to hear that Koolhaas is pondering the rural condition, and he is ceryainly not alone - though the idea of hoardes of uban architects suddenly turing their attention to the countryside gives me a bit of a chill. I suspect many urbanites do regard the countryside as somehow 'natural', even empty, as you suggest. The British countryside is a complicated place where many different agendas are played out. A serious exploration of these is certainly overdue; maybe you're right about the Biennale. In the meantime anyone interested in thinking about this some more might enjoy my blog

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