Taking the Country’s Side. Common trajectories in agriculture and architecture: Sébastien Marot interviewed by Christophe Catsaros

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Last winter saw a battle of the giants. While the long-awaited Rem Koolhaas/AMO Countryside, The Future exhibition in the New York Guggenheim Museum was still under preparation, Sébastien Marot and his team were able to open Taking the Country’s Side in Lisbon as one of the main Lisbon Architecture Triennale exhibitions (October-November 2019). Currently remounted in the Archizoom gallery in Lausanne, Taking the Country’s Side explores “the complex relationship between architecture and agriculture over the past 10,000 years.” Marot’s position may be comparable with the one Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley developed in their Istanbul Design Biennial Are We Human? show, exploring 200,000 years of design. Their take was that design is not something new, an offspring of industrialization, but deeply human and therefore present from day 1 of human’s presence on Earth. Design is who we are. TCS argues that the architecture of the city and of the countryside have developed in parallel, intertwining more and more closer to the present. Unlike this disciplinary take on the world that surrounds us, its roots and potential futures, the Guggenheim show is investigating how modernity and post-human forces are shaping and defining “98% of the globe”. As in most OMA/AMO’s work, taking the present seriously and use what is in its contradictory diversity as the material to work with is also underpinning this body of research. It results in a set of stories from different parts of the world, showing phenomena that are impacting this 98% with an incredible speed and radicality. Conclusions are left to the visitor.
Taking the Country’s Side, on the other hand, proposes four scenarios, four ways or attitudes that will result in different futures. The curator doesn’t present a preferred option, but he does put his trust in the ability of architecture to shape that future.

Christophe Catsaros sat with Sébastien Marot to discuss the contexts of this exhibition, the concerns and problems it shows and the message of hope it ends with.

Christophe Catsaros: The project Taking the Country’s Side – Agriculture and Architecture assumes an intrinsic link between the countryside and cities. The aim is to confront the idea that there is a logical antinomy between rural and urban and to show that the two entities have always been linked.

Sébastien Marot: The concept at the origin of this exhibition is that agriculture and architecture are twin disciplines. They were born at the same time, during the Neolithic revolution. In the same period, two things happened: on the one side a domestication of plants and animals, and on the other a domestication of humans, who, on becoming sedentary, began to build in a more permanent manner. Agriculture and architecture became caught up in an auto-catalytic process in which each one encouraged the other. In order to think about the relationship between town and country, it strikes me as important to understand the origins of the link. Indeed, the simple fact of drawing attention to this complementarity is itself interesting. Subsequently, we need to see how the link has evolved over the ages, particularly over the last five centuries, with the considerable transformations brought by the industrial revolution and, more generally, the surge of the market economy. While these two developments produced similar effects, both on agriculture and on urbanism, they also led to a distancing of the two worlds, a loss of awareness of their complementarity.

Taking the Country’s Side as shown in Lausanne. Photo Olivier Christinat

CC: The modernity of Chicago is also that of its abattoirs. The idea that the industrial revolution originated in an agricultural revolution is evoked in the exhibition. Was it the ability to cultivate in another way, enormously and more intensely, which finally led to industrialisation?

SM: Let’s say that a form of ‘rationalisation’ or simplification, linked to the emerging market economy, to the privatization and dismemberment of common lands and to colonial appropriation, helped to prepare the way. As ever, it is difficult to know which came first, the chicken or the egg, and that also goes for the Neolithic revolution. Prehistorians are divided on whether it was settlement that led humans to master the energy convertors that are animals and plants, or if it was the other way around, if humans settled because they had begun to cultivate and to farm livestock. I have neither the means nor the will to resolve this question. However, what we do see is that there is some degree of interaction between the two phenomena. In the same way during the industrial revolution there was an interaction between the simplification of intense agriculture generated by monoculture, and this other simplification that took the form of the economies of scale that were enabled by the use of high-density energies. The changes that affect agriculture and industry are analogous. There is a concomitance, without being able to say which one made the other possible.

CC: What comes through very clearly in the exhibition is that the same advances in chemistry are going to change industry as much as agriculture.

SM: Mathieu Calame clearly demonstrates that chemistry in the 19th century provided better understanding of what helped plants to grow, the role of minerals and phosphates in the process. In the wake of Liebig, organic chemistry identified in particular the role of nitrogen in plant growth.
Liebig himself protested against the way the industrialised nations, England in the first place, pillaged reserves of mineral nitrogen in other regions (bones from the battle fields of Waterloo, Sicilian catacombs, guano mountains from the coast of Peru, etc.), to enrich the soil they had impoverished through monoculture. And it is this realisation that incited chemists to look for ways of converting atmospheric nitrogen, which was finally achieved at the beginning of the 20th century with the Haber-Bosch process of ammonia synthesis. It was the hydrogenation of nitrogen that made artificial fertilisers possible. The problem is that this process uses huge amounts of energy and as such would have remained long inaccessible to agriculture had it not also been the basis for the explosives industry, which was massively developed during World War I. This military industrial process was hence redeployed for agriculture in the second half of the 20th century.
Chicago is another story. A theatre of operations was deployed based on a new transport system. It was this evolution in transport and processing that made it possible to distance a production site from a processing site. It is a process that became generalised during the 20th century, as a consequence of the two World Wars.
The two wars provoked a degree of industrial mobilisation around certain military processes, which went on to find an application in agriculture. The transference of processes from the military industry into agriculture involved the whole supply chain: transport, processing, fertilisers, as well as pesticides (another innovation whose origins lay in organochloride gases, also developed by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch during World War I). As for herbicides, they were particularly used in WWII to destroy Japanese paddy fields. Same for barbed wire: although it had been used in the US since the 19th century, it was its use during WWI that stimulated its development.
And the transfers didn’t stop there. Beyond the shift from tank to tractor, supply logistics to the Front gave rise, after the War, to the industry of packaged food, the culture of preserves. Of course, these technology transfers did not concern only agriculture. It was the same story for concrete. We know that the sector’s growth after 1945 was due to its massive use during the War, particularly by the Germans. There is a close link between the war effort and technology progress. But agriculture was undoubtedly one of the principal theatres of operation in the recycling of the war industry.

The 42 exhibition panels have a black ‘verso’ presenting the architectural translation of what’s on show on the white ‘recto’ side. Photo Arjen Oosterman

CC: Agriculture, or rather its destruction, is also a strategic weapon. What happened in Japan, with the destruction of paddy fields as an act of war, was re-enacted in Korea and in Vietnam.

SM: These operations, which consist of destroying the enemy’s supply chain, had an impact on what came next, in what could be called the food war.

CC: Like the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état, incited by a fruit importer, the United Fruit Company?

SM: Among others, but more generally, making entire regions dependent on elaborate systems is a strategy for monopoly inspired by colonial exploitation.

CC: One of the exhibition’s chapters looks at zones of resistance, mountain regions in Asia, which consciously kept out of complex societies and progress.

SM: It is James C. Scott, an agrarian historian, farmer and anarchist, who developed the thesis that we evoke in the exhibition. He studied this wooded, mountainous region called Zomia, which straddles several countries in South-East Asia and is five times the size of France. What is surprising in his study is the idea that the autonomy of these dispersed populations was not so much due to their ‘primitive’ nature, but more a deliberate and recurrent movement to escape, to avoid the control and mobilisation of the rice-states that generally settled on plains and in valleys.
As Scott shows clearly in Homo Domesticus, the first states built up around intensive arable cultivation, firstly because cereals keep well, but also because they are clearly visible, and, being annual, are predictable and regular. In other words, these cereals are eminently controllable and taxable. There would have been no cities without this harvesting, without the tax inspector and the bio-political control that the city exerts over the country. The state is born from the servitude of populations surrounding areas of annual cereals crop cycles: maize, wheat and rice. A kind of consubstantiality exists between the cultivation of cereals and the establishment of cities.
Scott reanimates Pierre Clastre’s thesis, which recognised in many so-called primitive societies not ‘stateless societies’, that is to say left behind by this evolution, but rather ‘societies against the state’, that is to say organised so that the characteristics of the state (such as social division and professional hierarchy) would not emerge. These populations lived apart not because they hadn’t yet reached the step of state organisation, but precisely because they were seeking to avoid its bio-political hold.

CC: The history of colonialism has its agricultural aspect as well.

SM: Yes indeed. The consequences on agriculture of ‘new world’ colonializations preceded the effects of the industrial revolution and largely paved the way for the latter. Here, too, we see certain phenomena that occurred more or less simultaneously, between the 15th and 18th centuries, which in agriculture manifested themselves in the appearance of enclosures. In Europe, the end of the open-field system, of common land and customary rights (such as grazing or gleaning rights), that is to say the generalisation of private property, coincided with the intensification of the market economy and the way it shaped urban centres.
The practices of the Middle Ages of communal cultivation disappeared under the pressure of the division of land. In the same period began the colonial plantations, whose scale and labour required the rebirth of slavery. Historians enthusiastic about the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment never cease to belittle the Middle Ages. Yet serfdom and slavery are two very different things. Serfdom is not the total subjection of the human beast in the way that slavery is. Serfdom was something different, less clear-cut, and mitigated by unwritten customary rights.
The real entry into the market economy begins with the colonial plantations, with the exclusive appropriation of land and labourers by conquistadors and sea trading companies. Inevitably this situation had repercussions throughout Europe. Rich land owners and aristocrats sought to apply the same methods so as to increase the yields, to the detriment of the hitherto prevalent subsistence farming. This was the context of the policy of enclosures. I am not a historian in this area, but a striking coincidence is evident.

The 42 exhibition panels have a black ‘verso’ presenting the architectural translation of what’s on show on the white ‘recto’ side. Photo Arjen Oosterman

CC: Permaculture appears in the exhibition as a counter-model, adrift from the techno-scientific agronomy.

SM: We do indeed highlight the importance of this movement, even though it may be considered as marginal, in the face the green revolution’s common practice, in other words the industrialisation of agriculture on a world scale. The movement stirred my interest because of its depths of philosophical and practical reflection, as seen in the important book by David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
Holmgren defines permaculture as a practical philosophy applied to nutritive and resilient production in a context of declining energy resources. It’s a practical philosophy orientated towards local production and destined to reply to the crisis situation that presented itself in the 1970s – the end of fossil fuels. The concept of “energy descent” came from the ecologist Howard Odum, author of Environment, Power and Society (1971). In this book Odum applies himself to the description of ecosystems based on their energy profile. His method consists of considering energy transformations (or rather ’emergy – embodied energy’), from the sun to plants, in industry and as far as information, which would constitute its most dense and refined form.
Odum’s systemic work hugely influenced Holmgren. What most struck him was the way in which agrarian communities, in particular the way they structured their land, were transformed by the arrival of high-density and non-renewable energy sources such as coal, gas and petrol. With this in mind, there would be no metropolises today had it not been for high-density energies. It is the possibility of transporting high-density energies that stimulates urban concentrations. Odum explained that decline would definitely occur once fossil energy has peaked, and that no substitute would compensate for the abundant quantity of energy consumed over the last two centuries.
Permaculture One, which came out in 1978, is essentially the 3rd-year thesis of a student in environmental design – inspired by Odum, the first Club of Rome report and the whole environmental movement – which looks at what to do in the face of declining energies. The model that it develops is at the crossroads of agriculture, landscape architecture and ecology. In summary, permaculture is a quest for autonomous systems in a context of decline. It is a profound reflection seeking to identify post-industrial technical systems that may be used in agriculture but also elsewhere. Permaculture potentially concerns many other areas, and constitutes a treasure trove of lessons and reflection for design-based disciplines such as architecture or urbanism.

CC: Permaculture is a technical quest for a post-industrial world.

SM: In Permaculture One, Holmgren and Mollison refer back to an architectural critic, Colin Moorcraft, who was a student at the AA in London at the beginning of the 1970s (as was Rem Koolhaas). In the July 1972 issue of AD, to which he contributed a regular ‘eco-tech’ column, Moorcraft published a substantially documented and well-defended article, ‘Designing for Survival’, which gave in particular a critical review of the green revolution, the loss of knowledge that it entailed and the rural exodus that it generated. In conclusion, the article estimated that post-industrial technology should be based on three principles: cooperation, integration and flexibility. In other words, what was needed was to develop technologies that 1) were not black boxes, but adaptable and repairable by their users (flexibility), 2) limited as much as possible negative inputs and outputs by closing their cycles (integration), and finally 3) optimised the relationship and interaction of their components (cooperation). A cooperative technical system, wrote Moorcraft, is a system “where each element fulfils several functions, and where each function is fulfilled by several elements”. This presents a sort of alter-functionalism, radically different from modernist functionalism, whose model was the machine and whose efficiency was based on the separation of functions. Here, the model is the ecosystem, whose resilience resides in diversity and the mutually beneficial interactions of its components.
Essentially, permaculture was conceived, right from the start, as the application and continued development of this alter-functionalist programme. A chicken is a simple example of the cooperation that it strives for – it does not only lay eggs, but also produces heat and feathers, fertilises by means of its excretions and by scratching the dirt, etc. The vision that reduces the chicken to simply a layer of eggs is essentially very limited. In a permaculture system, the aim is to place and integrate the ‘element’ (the chicken) into an organisation whereby its needs are best met, and to reap the benefits of the various services that it can provide overall. It is a simple example, which can be taken as the foundation of a system of reflection, of a practical philosophy based on complementarity.

CC: Let’s look at the four models mentioned in the exhibition: incorporation, negotiation, infiltration and secession. What is the interest of this modelling exercise? 

SM: The primary aim of this distinction is to clarify, by illustration, the varying, almost opposing discourses currently circulating about the notion of urban agriculture. I propose identifying four, arranging them like the cardinal points on a compass. They represent four different horizons, four different ways of seeing the possible relationship today between town and country, architecture and agriculture. I must clarify that these accounts are not really exclusive (at least not all of them), but coexist more or less everywhere, as much on the ground as in the mind. 

Four scenarios: Incorporation The capitalist metropolis takes over the countryside
This is the orientation of those who believe that the solution lies in pursuing urban concentration and the intensification of the technological path. Super greenhouses, vertical farms, GMOs, above-ground production, hydroponics. In this futuristic scenario, metropolises become the control towers of a countryside emptied of its inhabitants.
Photo Martin Etienne

CC: What are the main distinctions established by these four models?

SM: The first narrative, incorporation, is quite clear. It is that of the metropolitan ethos, dominant today in certain areas, which places all its hopes in progress and technical innovation, and which advocates concentration. To say that we must concentrate populations in cities to save the environment is one environmental discourse among others, and one that has powerful advocates. Steward Brand, the man behind the Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the major vectors of the ‘Back to the Land’ movement in the 1970s, has since turned totally about face and is now endlessly heard singing the praises of this narrative. In direct contradiction to the slogan he had launched at the time – ‘workers of the world disperse’ – he now advocates the ‘eco-modernism’ or ‘eco-pragmatism’ that sees the only viable solutions to the environmental problems in accelerated research & development and the ‘incorporation’ of agriculture and living things.

Four scenarios: Negotiation Urbanism integrates agriculture as a palette of new components
Agricultural areas are thought of as integral components of cities, which in turn are designed from the territories that feed them. In this perspective of ‘agricultural urbanism’, the approaches of town planning and agriculture renegotiate their respective jurisprudence and renew them in order to reinvent each other.
Photo Martin Etienne

CC: What about negotiation and infiltration? These two models seem to be close.

SM: The distinction between these two is less obvious at first glance, which is why I feel it is important to highlight it. Negotiation (or integration) considers the growth of cities to be inevitable (desirable, even), but looks for solutions in models of hybrid cities that integrate agriculture, livestock, horticulture, even ‘nature’ itself, as components of their brief.
Urbanism, armed with a reasonable wealth of precedents on the subject, is quite naturally drawn to this narrative, and we can undoubtedly recognise the concept of the ‘horizontal metropolis’ developed by Paola Vigano at EPFL, as a fairly explicit representation of this approach. Infiltration is rather the opposite movement, much less organised, which goes from agriculture or horticulture towards the city and existing urban fabric, here and there taking advantage of gaps and abandoned sites. Here, it is the cultivation of fruit and vegetables and its social practices that flourish and creep into the urban fabric. To clarify the difference between the two narratives, I would say that the first is about ‘agricultural urbanism’ and the second about ‘urban agriculture’. While they are not necessarily opposed in their results, it is clear that they don’t come from the same place.

Four scenarios: Infiltration Agricultural and horticultural practices colonize cities and their fringes
This is the approach, engaged in the many ‘urban agriculture’ initiatives, which invests the surplus or neglected surfaces of existing conurbations: wastelands, rooftops, parks, embankments, etc. Without questioning the logic and realities of the current urban condition, these initiatives take hold of food production, supply and consumption in order to initiate collectives and solidarity practices in the uprooted territories of metropolises.
Photo Martin Etienne

CC: Finally, the fourth scenario proposed by the exhibition, and that you seem to support in opposition to the others, is that of secession: a future of blockading development sites and of communities increasingly dispersed and self-reliant, with the idea that cities don’t have a monopoly on civicism and democracy, but that other kinds of communal life can exist in rural areas.

SM: Let’s say that our exhibition attempts to put forward this fourth narrative as a pole and horizon in its own right on the compass that we propose. While the distinction between Negotiation and Infiltration may seem subtle at first glance, the contrast between Incorporation and Secession is apparently clear-cut. It is in order to highlight this that I decided to name this fourth narrative Secession, possibly slightly excessive in that it appears to exclude rather than include. Hereby I went for clarity rather than nuance. Our exhibition attempts to overthrow the well-worn, received idea that cities are the exclusive depositories of democracy. Stadtluft macht frei. This commonplace prospered on the oversight and oblivion of the political and ‘participative’ dimension of a whole series of older rural practices. The most flagrant example, widely studied today, is that of common land and unwritten rights, consequently constantly reinterpreted and discussed. There was democracy and dialogue in the running of medieval villages.
So, the term chosen expresses firstly the idea of secession from the metropolitan regime. It describes the initiatives which attempt to free themselves from the metropolitan orbit (even when they themselves are located within the city) in order to develop living places for coexistence, endowed with a certain resistance or resilience, and in which the practical ‘post-industrial’ philosophies, harnessed in permaculture or agro-ecology, supplant ‘urbanism’.
Over the past decades, metropolitanism, of which Rem Koolhaas made himself the surrealist champion in 1978 (the same year in which Holmgren and Mollison published Permaculture One!), has installed itself as a real zeitgeist. Cities are obviously major actors in globalisation. They are defined by the furtive nature of their power, by their growth without any real boundaries. They are, in that sense, hyper modern, but shaped from the inside by contradictions in their desire for power, which environmental impasses keep highlighting. The other day I took part in a debate at the French Senate about the hypothesis of a post-urban era. That is to say whether the state of mind might change. In any case, questioning this metropolitan model strikes me as being essential today.

Four scenarios: Secession New forms of self-reliant communes part with the metropolis
This is the more radical and willingly agrarian approach of those who question the hegemony of the metropolis. Leaving the city in search of autonomy. To this nebula of initiatives can be attached a whole series of movements of emancipation and/or community rooting of a political nature, such as the ‘Zones to Defend’ or the groupings of voluntary communes.
Photo Martin Etienne

CC: Yet your exhibition seems to be linked to that which Rem Koolhaas has just opened at the Guggenheim in New York.

SM: Koolhaas’ exhibition project at the Guggenheim (Countryside, The Future) predates mine, and there was a possibility of my participation, as I had contributed a bit to ‘Elements of Architecture’, his large exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2014. For the last ten years or so I have been giving regular seminars (‘Architecture and Environment’) to Harvard students, who every semester come to work with him at AMO, which provide the occasion for exchange between us. But when the proposition came to do an exhibition at the Lisbon Triennial, and given the direction that his was taking, I chose to give to my own contribution the form of another exhibition, which can be seen as a transatlantic footnote to his. Originally, the two exhibitions were to open at the same time, last October, but his was delayed by a few months so my footnote became an hors d’oeuvre, or an aperitif, until it opened again in Lausanne.
Even though I saw some of the gestation of Countryside, The Future, at least up until last year when we still showed our projects to one another, I have not seen his exhibition, so I don’t have a precise opinion on it. But I note, in spite of the apparent paradox, a certain continuity with the exhibition Mutations to which Rem, twenty years ago, had given the task of exploring the following hypothesis: World=City. In the same way, Countryside presents itself a bit like a free seismographic experiment, a sampling on a global scale, of very varied situations and themes, which give particular focus to developments or astounding innovations of which non-urban territories would be today’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ theatres. Thus, the exhibition spotlights a collection of (mostly contemporary) phenomena that would supposedly provide some of the keys to the enigma of a ‘future’ (progress? ‘Cartesian grid’?) that has deserted cities to prepare new mutations elsewhere.
By comparison, our exhibition, centred on the relationship between agriculture and architecture, is much more classically didactic, even ideological, in that it assembles a body of ideas or references in order to substantiate an argument. We propose a perspective, a critical hindsight, a kind of rear-view mirror that allows us to appreciate the logic and dynamics of these mutations or scenarios in progress. ‘Taking the country’s side’ means first of all listening to, and learning from, a whole tradition of initiatives and reflections that have long preceded us in this field, from agrarian or eco-anarchist currents to agro-ecological and permaculture thinkers, and supporting the hypothesis that we can already find here a treasure trove of lessons for initiating or negotiating alternatives to metropolitan governance and its environmental impasses.
From this point of view, our ‘footnote’ to the OMA exhibition is also a counterpoint or, let’s say, a countermelody. And I am curious to sound out the assonances or dissonances that the intersection of our two discourses will produce.