RURAL GROUND

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Across the urbanized world, the contemporary countryside is a paradox. While media attention is absorbed by the city, many rural regions are experiencing accelerating change due to increased automation, the emergence of megastructures and new self-learning systems, all of which are reshaping the terrain. The divisive political events of 2017 exhibited just how much today’s countryside has grown apart from the city both ideologically and spatially. To kick off 2018, in New Ground I, the first of a two-part feature series co-authored with Christine Bjerke from In-Between Economies, we will briefly explore a selection of major shifts that have influenced how the countryside operates today. We check in with rural demographer and sociologist Ken Johnson from the University of New Hampshire and Ivan Sergejev, an architect exploring the potential of the data center typology. In addition, will be tapping into the latest research from international architecture practice OMA*AMO, who have been involved in mapping how modern agriculture is modifying the American countryside.

It was the In-Between Economies event IBE#7: Ukendt-Denmark which first began our discussion on the contemporary countryside. When speaking together after the event, we realised that as architects we were significantly detached from the countryside as it exists today—its technologies, issues and its future—and perhaps that blind eye was shared by the architecture profession more broadly, as, let’s face it, the majority of us live and work in cities.

At the event we also picked up on that the countryside was repeatedly being discussed in comparison to the city. There seemed a need to focus on countryside as a topic in and of itself: a study with the same care and attention to the rural as our profession has offered the city. In ‘New Ground’, our aim is to challenge this tendency by instead turning around and looking out. The focus of the two-part series is to define the tendencies and trends occurring in countryside of our digital age to attempt to shed some light on what might happen next as we fast-forward to 2030.

Architect and educator Rem Koolhaas is currently delving into the topic of the modern countryside in preparation for his upcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York, ‘Countryside: The Future of the World’. Writing in The Economist, he challenges architects to pay attention to the elephant in the room—“today there is an almost complete lack of exploration of the countryside. Yet if you look carefully, the countryside is changing much more rapidly and radically than the ‘city’, which in many ways remains an ancient form of coexistence.” Koolhaas goes on to suggest that the countryside is shape-shifting at a breakneck speed. “The countryside is becoming a colossal back-of-house”, he continues, “organized with relentless Cartesian rigor. That system, not always pleasant, is proliferating on an unprecedented scale. The resulting transformation is radical and ubiquitous.”

If you are up to date with the mainstream press, you will have read that rural America is being blighted by crisis after crisis—mass unemployment, the opioid epidemic, rising gun felony; not to mention the political swing to the right (analysts following the 2016 election results suggest the best predictor of which candidate voters selected was population density). Within this chaos, opinion pieces such as this in the Washington Post cite not only rapid demographic shifts but also religio-cultural differences are having a part to play in what seems like an almost unrecognizable caricature of rural America and those who live there.

But this is only a partial picture. If look to the past, history seems to suggest that the American countryside has always been sensitive to both political agendas and technological innovation. “Economic interpretations of Trumpism have failed to convince many, in large part, because so few are aware of rural America’s industrial history,” writes historian Keith Orejel, “the election returns since the 1950s paint a picture of a rural and small-town electorate acutely sensitive to economic trends.” However it is indisputable that the Great Recession of 2008 hit rural America hard in a myriad of ways. The political neglect of some rural communities combined with the incursion of a private sector unchecked by both urban planners and the authorities is forming a new terrain that is increasingly setting the standard for rural areas in Europe and, increasingly, in the Global South.

In the recent article, ‘Where is Rural America and What Does it Look Like?’, demographer Kenneth Johnson touches upon the staggering diversity of the American countryside which includes nearly 72% of the national land area and around 46 million people. The cultural significance of these regions run deep—America was built from a 95% rural society, one which was and continues to be revolutionized by technological innovation. Since the 1920s, rapid industrialization, farm mechanization and boom of urban living has shifted the balance of rural dwellers from 50% of the population to just 15% today.

While in the past thirty years rural America has experienced an overall depopulation, some areas have seen an influx in newcomers due to amenity migration and international arrivals. “There isn’t one rural America, there are many”, Johnson explains to us, “trying to talk about rural America as a whole would be like trying to talk about urban America as a whole. Both are extremely diverse places with a wide variety of demographic social and economic forces at work.” While urbanites may picture the countryside as a version of the rural idyll advertised to us on milk cartons, the manufacturing parks, automated food processing plants and rural expanses speak more to the 21st-century tech industry than the rural ‘good life’.

“The continuing consolidation of farms over the past 100 years has diminished the demand for workers in farming and many young adults have left rural America for the social and economic opportunities of the large urban cores,” Johnson explains. These population losses have been most pronounced in the Great Plains, which Johnson has previously written on in his book chapter, ‘Where is Rural and Who Lives There’, published last year in ‘Rural Poverty in the US’ by Columbia University Press. However, demographic changes differ significantly county to county due to whether the base industry is farming, manufacturing or recreation, a division which Johnson highlights in his research.

The USDA defines 403 farm-dependent counties which represent the traditional rural sector, where populations have been gradually declining and aging for over a hundred years, such as Kansas and Jewell. While these traditional agricultural areas do enjoy some advantages such as relatively low poverty levels and strong community bonds, research appears to show that recent trends are challenging the livelihood many of these places, encouraging incremental decline to set in, illustrated in rising child poverty rates.

It is the manufacturing countries, such as Surry County in North Carolina, that were not only hit the hardest by the Great Recession, but since have experienced poor recovery. In these areas, around 25% of all children live below the poverty line. Recreational counties, by contrast, are experiencing some net growth, and while this was also stunted by the recession, it has been propelled by the fast-growing recreational and retirement communities such as those in Grand Traverse County, Michigan.

“Recently, the Great Recession and its aftermath disrupted established rural demographic trends”, Johnson writes, “both immigration and internal migration diminished as residents were ‘frozen in place’ by houses they couldn’t sell and buy a national job market that provided fewer incentives to move. Fertility rates also dropped to record lows during the recession and have yet to recover.” These trends have formed an American cartography of rural areas for the most part left behind by the urban land value boom clustered around the US coastline. Interestingly, the countryside might not have been excluded from the digital economy, but despite what the land values may suggest, may, in fact, be in the driving seat.

Just south of Silicon Valley, San Joaquin in California is farming at record levels of production. Despite it accounting for just 1% of US farmland by area, it generates 8% of the nation’s produce, rendering the region the fifth largest supplier of food in the world. It appears to be a modern success story—stepping up to the increased demands on the agriculture industry to produce more and faster than ever before. San Joaquin is hitting targets by switching manual time-consuming and traditional practices for sensors and high-tech automated machinery.

Take the driverless tractor for instance. It can find its own way out to the fields with pre-set routes programmed by a remote farmer. If the individual tractors and other devices are scaled up into a conceptual ‘megamachine’, the automated swarm can carry out out the jobs of an entire farming community. Although the automation of farming is reducing labor costs, it is meanwhile reforming the layout and nature of what it means to live in a farming community. In the case of the San Joaquin Valley, one-third of total employment is tied to agriculture and the displacement of the farmers is causing significant job losses and depopulation.

Such shifts taking place within the automation of agriculture have been carefully researched by AMO which operates as a complimentary think tank to international architecture office OMA. By applying research into broader issues beyond the built environment, AMO enables new ways of thinking about architectural production and its landscapes and have highlighted the incursion of the automated and digital into the countryside. Their research methods, along with a group of students from Harvard Graduate School of Design, include getting into the driving seat of the automated tractor to investigate what the daily lives are like for the modern farmer working within the augmented environment.

As the robotic machinery supersedes manual labor, the geolocation of the farmer is no longer tied to the countryside. The use of automated and driverless machinery enables the farmer to instead conduct their work through a portable interface. These new digital ‘workers’ on the farms are collecting real-time data and introducing unprecedented abilities which streamline farm processes. In addition, the working day of the farm is extended significantly as the automated machinery can operate 24-7 and regardless of day and night. While this automated swarm of machines can be used in combination with traditional machinery, today they are also being run simultaneously on some fields without human disruption.

Beyond the automation of agriculture, another key shift in the American countryside in the past thirty years is the increasing roll-out of industrial parks to serve the tech industry, housing corporate data centers and associated functions. At the time of writing, there are now over 8.6 million data centers globally.

In Storey County Nevada, we find the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, the largest industrial park in the world which stretches over more than 107,000 acres (80,000 American football fields). It is privately owned and accommodates more than a hundred industrial and commercial companies, including high profile inhabitants such as Tesla and Google. Due to the Nevada location and economic zoning policy, there is no state income tax for the companies renting the land, which makes the floorspace very attractive to the tech industry. Services are installed before the plot is sold, so they are ready for operation when the corporate client arrives to claim their spot.

Due to the privatized land ownership model at the industrial park, companies are also able to score building permits on ‘fast-track’ schedules, the pace of which is also reflected in design and production of the megastructures they host. We discussed that it appears that the architecture profession seems to be somewhat split in the procurement of these buildings—they are generally not projects by design architects but instead technicians and construction architects, which may explain why the buildings themselves are in the main excluded from cultural and artistic debate and criticism. From our perspective they appear to exemplify of the architect working ‘inside-out’, the automation of the inner workings dictating the volume and economic necessity informing the outer ‘box’.

A cogent example of a development generated by these conditions is the aforementioned Tesla Gigafactory 1—the largest building in the world by footprint. Just a few years ago, Tesla purchased the 1200 acres of desert where they began the construction, relatively unbeknown to the architecture and design press. The Gigafactory is 71 foot tall and 5.5 million sq foot wide and serves the production of lithium-ion batteries. Both the astronomical size and placing of the Gigafactory is representative of a silent revolution in rural architecture: towards anonymized, vast and automated megastructures.

To better understand the complexity embedded in these new rural megastructures, we caught up with Ivan Sergejev, architect and co-creator of Project Rhizome, which investigates the data center typology. For him, the data center is representative of how the contemporary American countryside as it exists today, hidden in the shadow of the city. “As architects, we try to integrate our ideas into any environment, and the rural environment can be even more of a challenge than a city, where you can ‘hide’ easily,” suggests Sergejev. From the megastructures we investigated for this piece it appears the integration into the context has been somewhat of an afterthought, and instead a design is inputted into the theoretical Cartesian grid in which Koolhaas speaks about.

The construction of megastructures is also resulting in extensive flattening of rural terrain. Prior to the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center development, the landscape was undulating and hilly. This flattening is primarily an economic decision as it makes prefabricated buildings easier to expand and operate. To prepare the ground, specialized earth-moving companies are introduced to turn the land from habitat into usable floorspace. Utilizing simple methods, robots compare the highest and lowest points of that specific piece of land to determine how to move the earth effectively. Land from the high points will be shifted to fill the low areas, in turn creating a flat middle ground, a technique which is now used across the country.

Thousands of acres of land earmarked for megastructures are being rapidly transformed without debate. The move will be irreversible if the technology was to fail. As Sergejev explained to us, “for the most part, the data center phenomenon does not care about the countryside. It’s just cheap and out of everyone’s view to be there […] data centers are monofunctional beasts in a sense that everything in them are means to a single end – storage or computation, depending on the business plan.” Nevertheless, data centers continue to serve as the engines for our cities and our interdependency cannot be denied.

Ground flattering and the fencing off of vast areas due to both shifts in the automation of agriculture and new rural developments is impacting America’s wilderness: from the large migrating mammals to the smallest birds and insects are under threat. According to the Washington Post, in the past 25 years humanity has lost an irreplaceable 10% of all its wild places. While the most marked habitat losses are in South America and Russia, the US is also losing precious environments at an alarming pace. The majority of copy and paste mass-scale rural development is treating a ‘no-building’ landscape like the empty plain in which it isn’t: even the flattest land may contain flora and fauna which are almost impossible to reintroduce.

Data centers, like our work and home lives, also require significant energy to maintain, which for the most part is produced in the countryside. While energy once moved from the countryside into the city, there is now a shift between where volumes of electricity are produced and used, in part due to the emergence of the data centers and server farms a long way from urban areas. Solar and wind farms (some even panda-shaped) are also occupying vast expanses of the wilderness, and while it is indisputable they offer a possibility for a more healthy and stable environment, they continue to be controversial with local communities.

When it comes to energy generation, location does matter: as data centers are growing larger they need to be closer to water to sustain themselves. As suggested by AMO architect Janna Bystrykh in conversation with Rem Koolhaas and Benjamin Bratton, “the landscapes that are being designed are not just a matter of shape or scale, but it’s also a matter of how much energy they consume and how much within a nation the shift goes from a city where energy previous was consumed. They now have to be placed remotely in order to for them to even be able to sustain themselves. As they would cause blackouts in cities.”

Although the Gigafactory by Tesla is a testbed for incorporating clean and renewable energy into the building lifecycle, many developments continue to be fired by finite resources such as coal, giving them a stunted operational existence. The Gigafactory is pioneering in this regard as it will produce its own energy via geothermal, wind and solar, not to mention the use of innovative manufacturing and optimization and it will have the world’s largest solar panel roof when completed.

The mining industry is arguably as pivotal in the creation of modern America as the agriculture or transport industries. Gold prospecting led the pull to the West coast and the development of cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles which have undoubtedly altered the course of global development. In 2016, the value of coal, metals and minerals mined in the US amounted to $109.6 bn, ($22bn of coal) which makes the US, alongside China, one of the top coal producers globally. Despite the media outcry over the politically-backed resurgence in the mining industry, since 2016 jobs in the mining sector have continued to steadily decrease.

Yet some rural mines are experiencing a markedly different trend, that is if they extract of specific elements to support the tech industry. This includes the resurgence of cobalt mining in Idaho, used in rechargeable batteries for wireless devices and hybrid vehicles. At the time of writing, 90% of the ‘rare earth elements’ (metals used in the majority of our digital devices) are mined in China, due to the energy-intensive and environmentally damaging extraction process. However, due in part to China’s drastic reduction in rare earth elements export quotas in 2010, formerly closed mines in the US are now being reactivated, such as the rare earth elements mine at Mountain Pass Summit in California which reopened in 2011 after its former closure in the 1990s following an environmental disaster. In addition, mergers and acquisitions within the mining industry are increasing, leading to larger companies controlling more mines and land than ever before. Globally in 2016, some 477 deals worth around $44 billion US dollars were conducted, targeting major tech industry commodities such as gold, coal, and copper.

The radical shifts that continue to shape rural areas challenge the notion of the countryside as we think we know it. From micro to macro scale, a constant flux of data has begun to overlay innumerable and invisible layers onto the terrain to form a ‘new ground’. In this condition, machines are our mediators—filtering, analyzing and learning from the data.

The complexity and interconnected nature of the changes affecting today’s countryside, which are occurring over vast distances both in the US and across the digital world, form a new condition difficult to grasp or define as the uptake of technologies is both diverse and varied. We have illustrated some key shifts in an attempt to illustrate to architects the magnitude of some of the changes which have taken place and continue to shape the future of the countryside. As Koolhaas suggests, “the countryside is now the frontline of transformation. A world formerly dictated by the seasons and the organization of agriculture is now a toxic mix of genetic experiment, science, industrial nostalgia, seasonal immigration, territorial buying sprees, massive subsidies, incidental inhabitation, tax incentives, investment, political turmoil, in other words more volatile than the most accelerated city.”

This volatility also represents a political divide between those occupying the physical terrain and those influencing the digital. While some regions and counties exist relatively unchanged, the political and spatial decisions made and enacted remotely are molding the rural landscape into a terrain which in the most extreme cases, is becoming unlivable. It is, therefore, an impossible feat to attempt to understand the countryside without the policy making, technology and innovation that is created in the city.

As architects, we are interested in the advancement of the new cartography, the new meaning and significance the countryside has adopted as a colossal ‘back of house’ of digital culture. To take floorspace as the yardstick, we are now creating the largest buildings humanity has ever known, yet they are almost devoid of cultural significance and debate. In fact, they are not produced for humans whatsoever, but instead they are the first structures essentially dehumanized for occupation by machines. The split in the architecture profession has also caught our attention—could this be why are these issues are not widely discussed?

In the words of Koolhaas, “we are witnessing the emergence of a new sublime. And this will have repercussions 
not only for architecture but also for citizens more broadly. It has a beauty that is in itself really amazing”. We take ‘sublime’ to mean an immeasurable quality of greatness (whether metaphysical, spiritual, physical moral…). Is the architectural production of the countryside living up to this new sublime? This will be our point of departure as we zoom to 2030 next month. The countryside is advancing…