Rem Koolhaas, the prominent Dutch architect, claims that the city is now a cliché. His practice which spans architecture, research, and writing grew from his interest in the urban metropolis New York City. His book, Delirious New York, about the metropolis, now marks 42 years since its publication date. A lot has changed since then. Koolhaas is now focused on the countryside. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City presents a show without art, without architecture by the research branch of Koolhaas’ practice AMO. The exhibition by Koolhaas, AMO, and collaborator Samir Bantal called Countryside, The Future examines the sociality, anthropology, and politics of the countryside.
As American Vogue writes: the countryside exists in a network of connections to cities which transport materials. With its conglomeration of ideas, people, and capital flows, the city, as Koolhaas rightly points out, is now a cliché. The future belongs to the countryside.
Has the countryside become cool?
Fashion brand Sies Marjan develops, according to Vogue, its fall 2020 collection “around ideas of the countryside in partnership between the brand, the museum, and Koolhaas”. Creative director of Sies Marjan Sander Lak goes on a fashion and philosophical journey to the outskirts of the city for ideas on his new collection. He presents techniques and strategies which are tied to the processes and spaces for labor that go back thousands of years. For example, Lak uses plant-dyeing techniques that produced beautiful floral patterns. Their aesthetic effect is similar to the artist Alex Katz’s flower paintings.
A series of 12 Images by Sies Marjan from Sander Lak’s fall/winter 2020 collection. Click images to view the set.
Plant-dyeing was traditionally done in a specific atmosphere. Ancient large-scale dye-works were located on the outskirts of populated areas, on windy promontories. The countryside, on the outskirts, is by definition on the periphery, outside, and outward while the city is characterized by its interior, an inward design. These are contradictions explored by Lak. If the countryside provides a vast network of connections and escapes from the city, we find it in the processes of labor and transport of material that lead back into the city. Lak’s collection references the countryside but the clothes are made for urban dwellers.
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Lak employs techniques tied to the labor practices associated with a direct connection to human and animal energy. Lak employs techniques like hammering leaves directly onto fiber; the utilization of raw pearl earrings made in collaboration with jeweler Marlo Laz; his collaboration with a Dutch artist, Claudy Jongstra, in making sustainable wool materials made from sheeps’ sheddings to further inform his take on countryside labor.
It is cool to get out of the city, to go to the outskirts, to experience the connection to nature even while creating ideas that sell in the city. The atmosphere creates a different orientation to labor than the city opening up new techniques, materials, and ideas to explore the creation of cultural products. An example is former downtown New York artist Dan Colen who makes work from his farm – Sky High Farm – in upstate New York. His studio located on his farm, the latter is a 501(c) non-profit organization, informs his work. Colen made pastoral landscape paintings influenced by German Romanticism informed by the atmosphere away from the city. The countryside continues to draw artists, thinkers, and makers.
Farming becomes Abstract
What characterizes the countryside as the future is its orientation toward labor practices that have moved from anthropomorphism toward abstractness, toward remote practical control: its technological orientation. French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, writes in The System of Objects, that there occurred a great shift from “a universal gestural system of labour to a universal gestural system of control”. The traditional gesture system was one of effort, expendable human and animal energy. The tools utilized, scythes, baskets, and plows, in labor practices which are the gestures of effort made for working the land. Baudrillard further describes “a revolution in energy sources had to occur – long-range practical control had to become possible, along with the storage and measurement of a newly mobile energy…only then could man embark upon an objective process of social development and the object likewise tend in the direction of its own truth, that is its functionality multiplied by the amount of energy released.”
The theme of abstraction is prominent in Lak’s collection. He uses plant roots engineered by artist Diana Scherer that grow in specific patterns as part of the techniques for producing the surface materiality of the clothing. The technological development of the countryside is now governed more by technology than by antiquated forms of expendable human and animal energy.
In the city, financial advisors who offer services in capital management worry about the rise of artificial intelligence and Robo-advisors. The latter causing an existential crisis for the industry of capital management. Robots, too, are doing the work on vast farms in the countryside. The influence of algorithms and mathematics to engineering more productivity stands in contrast to the sensuous relationship between a human being and their labor. These social contradictions become political. According to Koolhaas, the election of Donald Trump points to the neglect of the concerns of the countryside which now face a post-human architecture, a future in question. Large-scale retailers like e-commerce giant Amazon have fulfillment centers in the countryside inhabited predominantly by autonomous machines; our need to stay connected turns the term farming on its head through the location of server farms which need a vast amount of space and energy to house the infrastructure of the world wide web in the countryside.
In more mundane ways, Lak references the connections of transport through his use of the layers of wrapping used for the transport of materials as functional fashion. He uses industrial textiles and blankets as material and form in his collection. Playing on the tension between the countryside and its relationship to the city, Lak utilizes artist Claudy Jongstra’s wool material to make blue-green vests and blankets. Exploring that tension further, he produced fabrics by screen-printing a gold film onto cotton twills and a mossy fil coupé. He then references the symbolism of color in physical labor such as the sun yellow French worker jumpsuits imitated also in Holland orange. His color palette – black, dust, moss, and pyrite – falls victim to the trap of color: as Baudrillard writes, the language of color is no different than the language of flowers: banal. Where Lak is successful, though, is his play on surface materiality and its relationship to manipulation.
Leon Battista Alberti writing during the Renaissance in his seminal book, On Painting, explains that a surface is the outer limit of a body. Next to the skin, on the surface, the material becomes form when the irregularities are shaped with programmatic clarity through the role of functional origins. Lak’s formal origin concerning his collection for Sies Marjan is the role of the countryside as the future of social development.
Countryside, an origin
A lot of the contemporary questions facing social development focus around the countryside. Its role in fashion is historical through its relationship to large-scale industrial production and the factory floor: the mass migration of people from the countryside to the city working under dangerous conditions in factories tied to management science and engineering. Human energy challenged by the productivity of the machine, consumption habits at vast scales, made mass production of clothing into an ecological and sustainability nightmare.
The exactitude of the algorithm now operates in vast spaces where post-human labor occurs. Yet, the connection to the land is a real human desire: it is simply to connect to nature. The role of leisure and escapism which informs the wellness industry also originates from the countryside. The prescription is to clear out our system through its unique atmosphere, vastness, and openness at the outskirts of the city by reconnecting to ourselves, to our true nature, and the earth.
As humans, we return to this dialectic of the origin of the outskirts connected to the city through its outward design, an atmosphere for the propagation of biological material and the city as a receptacle for matter transformed into products which fuel consumption. The Sies Marjan fall-winter 2020 collection presented in Midtown Manhattan embodies this dialectic of the countryside informing the city and the city informing the countryside through its flows of people like Dan Colen, ideas like distributed computing, and the movement of capital like e-commerce fulfillment centers. Consumption stands in contrast to production. Perhaps, Lak can be forgiven when he says “he is interested in making things people really want.” The statement begs the question: under what social, anthropological, and political circumstances are these “things people really want” made, what are their origins?