Rem Koolhaas’s Speech on the Closing Symposium of “The Chinese Village in the New Era” Exhibition

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Rem Koolhaas spoke on the Closing Symposium of “The Chinese Village in the New Era” Exhibition

Record of the speech

Today, I don’t really mean to introduce to you the overall concept of our exhibition that will open at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But I would like to speak about the idea and the philosophy behind the exhibition.

I have always been doing urban researches. But about ten years ago, I started to realize that my attention to cities had been a bit excessive and exaggerated, and we knew almost nothing about the countryside.

For example, the books on the left are about cities that have been published in recent decades, while the books on the right, which are just few, are about the countryside. We could tell the great imbalance in between. So I began to be very keen on the countryside with the hope to do something about it to improve this imbalance.

During my research process, I became more and more critical of the problems occurring in cities and found out there are many qualities in the countryside that worth our research and yet we had completely ignored.

This is a picture taken many years ago in the Russian countryside. We can see the  existing inherent coherence and a harmony in their culture. Look at their costumes for example, there is a connection between the people and their environment.

This one is a village of Switzerland. And what you could tell from this photo is completely different from the last. There are three Southeast Asian workers in it, but there is no sense of pride in them as was shown in the previous one, and there isn’t any national costume.

I wanted to investigate what has happened over the past years ,and all the research results will be exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. That is a good opportunity for me because New York is still a center of the metropolitan culture, and  it is quite extraordinary to be able to present the results of our countryside research there. It will be the first time we have spent six months on such an exhibition in an institution of New York. This exhibition is not all about architecture, but includes sociology and some political processes and political phenomena. That is why this opportunity is very attractive. The spiral space of the Guggenheim Museum is another attractive point for me. It means that no matter what narrative technology we are going to use, the museum’s space itself will make the narrative coherent.

And also, you would see beyond what’s just before your eyes in this museum. You will be aware of the surrounding elements during the visiting. It gives a strong sensation of synthesis of the independent elements.
The entire exhibition is actually a bit like a movie script, where there will be some independent stories, some from the 20th century, some from history, and some are related to the present. The stories come from all continents and are presented here in a way of a film script.

The ppt shows the comparison of the characters and cultures of ancient Rome and ancient China in the same period of BC. It includes their perceptions of world culture, how people developed themselves,and their ideal philosophy of how to use platforms to interact with others, such as how to think about the world, how to write poetry, how to meet friends which are quite contrary to a city. A city is a place that is very bustling, but lives in the countryside are more graphic. We can see there are quite many similarities between ancient Rome and ancient China in the same period of time. For me, this is a very important foundation of the entire exhibition. There is the attribute of the countryside that we have ignored. What does the countryside bring us? How does the countryside promote people’s internal development?I hope we would do research into this resonance further.

This is a picture of the ancient China. It reflects people’s understanding of some rural concepts. The other picture is a comparison between ancient Rome and the image of the ancient rural China. In fact, the concept of “rural" has become less acute than before, especially with the development of tourism. Many people that used to live in rural areas are now urban residents, and areas that used to be countryside have become tourist attractions. Now the development process of "rurality" has become increasingly narrowed.

I didn’t know much about the countryside before. My architectural career started in the 1980s. At that time, especially in Western culture, the interest in the countryside was actually very little.At the beginning of this century, the concept of “countryside” was on a political rise .Politicians used countryside as the region or as the area to achieve their goals and ambitions. They intervened into the countryside to act on some issues, to increase production, to increase the potential of the rural, to resist urban erosion against the rural, and to slow down rural degradation. So in the early 20th century,“countryside” was a very important focus in the political level.

In today’s China, countryside has always been one of our focus, such as the countryside development movements in history, the situation of the development of the traditional countryside, and the development of the countryside in the Mao Zedong’s period. Many political and academic concepts of that age still bear important significance today.China has carried some academic researches of how to develop the countryside, including how to maintain its “rurality" with China’s own characteristics.

This is quite an interesting project, a research started in Germany since 1928. If the sea level of the Mediterranean Sea is to be lowered by 100 meters, some new land would be created. For example, To the north of the Mediterranean is Italy, and to the south is Egypt, Libya,and Tunisia. There would be new land generated in those areas, and a bridge through Sicily would be built to connect Africa and Italy. Or you can build power plants at both ends of the Mediterranean, turning it into a useful facility for Europe and Africa by taking advantage of the discrepancy in water levels. I find this project very interesting. This concept of connecting Europe and Africa together will greatly improve the state of segregation and fragmentation that have existed for the past two centuries.

This is Germany. Germans are also fascinated with its countryside.They believe that their countryside embodies the spirit of the German nature. They established a highway system so that every German can go to the countryside. Ten years later, when Americans thought about how to deal with Germany after the World War, they also thought about the concept of German countryside and how to get Germans into the countryside. Americans proposed to eliminate all industrial and urban elements of Germany after the war, so that Germany would always remain as the countryside. It was considered a post-war
punishment for Europeans by the United States, and it is also our little understanding of Europe.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Europe began its integration process. But their integration process has never been completely completed. Why was it so? In the beginning, European countryside brought in machines that were more productive. So they had made great progress in agricultural production at the time. The European Union proposed to implement a unified agricultural management for the whole Europe.But in fact Europe is not completely unified in terrains. There are mountains, flatlands and so on in the North and the South. A unified agricultural management is useful for flat areas, but problematic to the terrains as complicated as in Europe, such as places like Greece or Italy. Now we can also see that there is a certain tension between Northern and Southern Europe. Many consider it as a financial or cultural tension. But in fact it embodies a fundamental difference in the topography nature between the North and the South Europe.

There are many production facilities that are common in the countryside, rare in Europe and the United States but very common in Qatar. A year ago, Qatar imposed serious blockades against countries between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Under such circumstance, those countries didn’t have any way to develop their own countryside. They basically imported 2,500 cars in less than a week, and in less than half a month, they, with their own efforts, established large automation projects  in  the  countryside.  Basically  speaking,  without  any interruption, they have stopped importing from other countries by developing their own countryside, completely relying on their own production.

It is very powerful as I perceive, because these countries almost completed their countryside development history over one night, and their countryside became very intelligent.It is very interesting that we, Western thinkers, may often ignore the countryside and the phenomena in the countryside. We literally have no idea of the development and phenomenon of the countryside, and this is a major flaw of ours.

As for China, as I mentioned earlier, Chinese villages are a very important part of our exhibition. Stephan Petermann fully compared the differences between China and the United States over the past 50 years with a panel like this. We can see on this chart that China’s countryside development has been rapid in the past 50 years, while the situation of the United States is actually in decline. We could basically see the development of the Chinese countryside in the international context. We have made a certain display in the room next to Guggenheim and hope to show what China’s concept of the countryside would look like and what kind of development the general Chinese countryside could go through.

We have thought of the development in different areas, such as the development of ecological civilization or the development of tourism in the countryside. In other words, we will display in the exhibition specifically how each Chinese village uses their own natural resources to survive. And we will take a look at the development strategies each village has adopted. In addition, through the research, we found out that China actually attaches surprisingly great importance to their countryside. We see that the Chinese government has been very committed to promoting the development of the countryside. So we hope to discuss, through this exhibition, the impact of the development of Chinese countryside to the world. Besides, we will also show some modern technologies, such as drones, the Internet, mobile phones, etc., and show how these modern technologies have helped China’s countryside to achieve their late development.

In fact, I was amazed when using a mobile phone in China recently. We can find what kind of fish I want by merely scanning with the phone. With a mobile phone you can do a lot of things, and this has greatly shortened the distance between the city and the countryside. This is unseen in any other part of the world. It proves that China is applying advanced technologies very actively to the promotion of their countryside development. It also proves that a lot of propaganda of Mao Zedong’s time is not just a propaganda any longer, but the reality with everyone’s efforts.

Thinking of China while living in it, we have to consider and look at China in the context of the world. For example, this is a railway in Kenya built by China. We see that by the application of various building structures, railways were established while Kenya’s ecological environment were protected. This is the rural situation of Kenya. Looking at these pictures, we may consider the relationship and the impact of the railways built by China to the African countryside. At the beginning, the impact doesn’t reveal, but as I mentioned earlier, using advanced technologies such as mobile phones and applying new
technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet to agricultural production will bring in huge development space. It will bring many innovations, just as how China uses advanced technology to promote their countryside development.

However, new technologies may not be so obvious in other countries.We also took a look at the situation in Siberia Russia. Siberia has a lot of frozen ground, which is a great limitation to the construction of Siberian infrastructure, though the infrastructure may promote urban developing. Now with the global warming, a lot of frozen ground and ice are melting. It has brought about a very serious impact. Therefore, by the research of the countryside, we have a more direct knowledge whether global warming is real and how urgent it is. By this way, we understand the global warming first hand, and we also know how such environmental problems affect cities.

Countryside research means that we have to study the traditions, the nature, and the wild animals. We also study the impact made by climate warming. Moreover, we discovered gradually that new architectural forms have emerged in the countryside. Architecture is an art in itself. It’s a form of art that we apply to the environment to build the residence for human beings so that they can happily and satisfactorily dwell in, and they can also fully exert their potentials in such a living environment. Architecture can also enrich people’s social life.

Meanwhile, we now see a new type of building complex, as the ppt shows in Nevada. Silicon Valley is here. We can see that there is a lot of infrastructure here. Infrastructure is very important for Silicon Valley, and many services and community centers are built in this area.The scale of the building complex is getting larger and larger, occupying more and more land. This area is now as big as Manhattan,so you can also call it a city.

But we know that there will only be more and more box-shaped buildings in this kind of city. Take this Tesla electric car production factory for example, you don’t know what it is for if only looking from the outside. From the exterior wall, It’s like a box without windows at all. But inside these buildings, we can see a variety of architectural models. These architectural models cannot be seen elsewhere. The ones we see here are brand new architectural models. It meets requirements of both human, machines and robots. And it also satisfies the needs of industrial production for machines. That’s why I think it is a brand new architectural model. But we haven’t got a good understanding of the building models. Our learned life doesn’t really make us familiar with it or manufacture such a building model. What we have learned doesn’t tell us how to contribute our strength into such building models.

I believe we need to look at the countryside from various perspectives.For example, where the agricultural land and industrial land are. We can use satellite sensors or technologies such as drones to observe the country land of various usage. Nowadays we have more and more opportunities to increase the output of agricultural production, and the harvest of crops becomes very visualized for farmers. Many times farmers just sit behind the screen and use high-tech to do the farming.

In future, there will be more countryside that becomes like a lab, as is presented on ppt. Machines can be used to simulate photosynthesis.So we would know how exactly the crop yields when the plants just sprout by doing simulating experiments. So, we will have more similar expertise to help increase agricultural production.

At first we didn’t thought that our exhibition involves the whole world,but only focused on the 12 to 15 original types on a world wide scale,as the ones we have just mentioned. But if you put the scenes we’ve discussed so far together, you will be amazed that our exhibition has covered quite a large scale. With all these areas we have established connections. For example, in China we cooperate with CAFA. We also establish cooperations with Harvard University and with Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Many people have expressed their hope to work with us to further study what the countryside means and what the countryside of other places looks like.

So it makes me firmly believe that even though more and more people move into cities, and that the urban population will increase by 70% to 80% in 30 years, we do not necessarily have to follow the same trend. Actually it’s a crazier idea if we follow such a trend. To have 80% of the population living on 2% of the planet surface (cities) is a very crazy idea, all of us crowding into a very small space. This trend also happens in other countries of the world. Eventually, it may lead to some results that we would not particularly like to see.

We found out people of many places are now reinvestigating and rediscovering the countryside, and even carrying out so-called rural revitalization. These are some of the original ideas behind our research, thank you all.

Group photo of the guests at the Closing Symposium of  “The Chinese Village in the New Era”




Chief Editor / Dong Huiping
Text/ Luan Ning
Live pictures and Layout Editor / Zhang Yueyan
Image and the Shorthand / Cultural Rural Construction Studio of CAFA Visual Art Innovation Institute