Articles, Current Issue, Issue 27
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The Utopian Failure of Constant’s New Babylon

by Darren Jorgensen and Laetitia Wilson

For a period of almost twenty years, artist and architect Constant Nieuwenhuys, known simply by the name ‘Constant’, held tight to a revolutionary vision of a new world and a whole new way of life. From 1956 to 1974, he drew and painted, made collages and lithographs, designed experimental maps and built maquettes of this vision in a speculative city called New Babylon.  It is an exemplary vision of both the aspirations and the failings of the utopianism of the so-called ‘long 1960s’, an extended decade of cultural and political turmoil in Western countries.1

Fredric Jameson’s well known essay on this period, “Periodizing the 60s,”  argues that the failure of historical actors of this period, such as the counter-culture and civil rights movements, to bring about substantial change to the structure of Western democracies was built into the historical situation itself.2 This essay turns to New Babylon, the subject of recent exhibitions in Madrid and the Hague, to argue that this argument can also be made of this project, that it was its utopianism that made it unrealizable.3 To do this we turn to one of the first texts that grapples with the failure of the long 1960s, Louis Marin’s Utopiques: jeux d’espaces (translated as Utopics: Spatial Play). Published in 1973, it reads the two books of Thomas More’s original Utopia through the fulcrum of the uprising in France in 1968. There, at the height of the revolutionary actions of the 1960s, Marin glimpsed the possibility and origins of utopia, amid the student and worker uprising, only to think through its demise.4

The recent exhibitions of New Babylon allows us to glimpse this doubled sensibility of hope and loss that comes to returning to utopian projects from the 1960s. Imagining that in the near future, automation would free human life to dedicate itself to collectivity and play, Constant imagined his speculative city to be the architectural form of this freedom, in a series of interconnected platforms that would host different environments for living. It was designed as a decentered, multi-layered space for living, with underground and ground levels, as well as numerous layers above ground and terraces as the final icing. Configured as a rhizomatic network of huge links, it was made of a series of interlocking platforms raised above the Earth’s surface upon pilotis. These were built into various autonomous yet connected units—called sectors.

Symptomatic of the conundrums of returning to such utopian projects of the 1960s, of wanting to recapture their architectonic visions, is Mark Wigley’s essay in the catalogue for the recent exhibition, Constant—New Babylon. Wigley is the leading scholar on Constant, and here suggests that New Babylon’s connectivity anticipated the internet and its “new modes of social life.”5 Yet his essay quickly shifts to the archive, as he gives a detailed account of the visual development of the city from the 1950s through to the 1970s. There is a disjunction in Wigley’s essay between a history in which utopia seemed possible, and the present moment in which such change is part of an archival history. The politics of hope represented by Constant and the long 1960s have shifted to a period of utopian pessimism, or what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’, a widespread perception that there is no way out of the current economic and political system.6

 

Architecture without an Architect

Constant’s dream of a new beginning was forged in post-war Europe. His aspirations for Europe aimed to place it far from the devastation of two world wars. New Babylon can be read as part of the combination of conservatism and revolutionary politics that followed World War II in the 1950s and 1960s. Constant drew upon the space age and cybernetics in science, as well as the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and the crawl of post-war suburbia, to create a vision of a new futuristic, off-world existence free of a past shackled by trauma. Constant held that new materials, techniques and technologies were the most accurate tools with which to convey his ideas. He imagined an endlessly mobile, transforming series of spaces, scaffolded aloft from the earth below, and extending to the horizon in great corridors of human life. New Babylon was imagined to be architecture without an architect, as citizens themselves would determine the extension and uses of the spaces they inhabit.

The idea of a transformable labyrinthine spatiality was important as an element counter to both the formation of habit and utilitarian society. This is how Constant phrased it when he was designing New Babylon in the early 1960s:

If we situate all known forms of society under a single common denominator, ‘utilitarianism,’ the model to be invented will be that of a ‘ludic’ society—this term designating the activities that, relieved of all utility as well as all function, are pure products of the creative imagination.7

Macro-structures would support transformable, interior environments including clusters of dwellings, services and public spaces. Micro-ambiences created within these environments would reconfigure the climactic conditions, light, sound smell and colour, relative to the desires of the occupants. As Constant states, “the technical facilities are deployed as powerful, ambience-creating resources in the psychogeographical game played in the social space.”8

The excess energy gained from an absence of tiresome work was funnelled toward a kind of disciplined creativity for generating the ambient ludic sensorium. It was to operate according to a paradox of “permanent variation.”9 Traffic would be isolated to the old-fashioned urban feature of streets, located on the ground below this kaleidoscopic environment. Above the sectors air traffic would travel, with landing platforms, sporting fields and green spaces as part of the terrace designs. The world of work machines, zones of production, and automated factories would be held underground. The entire world would be seeded with a sophisticated telecommunications network. Constant describes New Babylon as the realisation of the city as artwork and specifically, the manifestation of the old Wagnerian dream of the total work of art, the Gesamtkunstwerk.10

Yet despite an excess of representation and explication it is possible to read in the details of New Babylon a cloud of ambiguity circling the details of the manifestation of Constant’s vision. He remained adamant that New Babylon was that which could only be created by the New Babylonian’s themselves. In this sense it was impossible to be prescriptive about the design and type of society that would eventuate. The conditions for its development could be set, but how it would unfold—its actual becoming—was left to this unknown population. Thus Constant built into New Babylon the contradiction of imagining a utopia that was also, to a great extent, also unimaginable.

It was only in the early 1970s that Constant realised that his project was not going to be realised. This was not because of the contradictions of New Babylon itself, but because humanity was not taking the possibilities of the 1960s seriously, not wanting to change their lives to become more utopian.  Instead of the rise in automation in society freeing time for play, it had led to a surplus of human energy that was released, more often than not, in the form of aggression and increasingly mundane leisure activities. At its dawn, the New Babylonian dream became a nightmare, a nightmare tied to the reality of European society. As Constant observed in 1980, “The relevance of the New Babylon project seems to have disappeared or to have been post-postponed to some shadowy future.”11 In this, Constant’s project was relegated to an impossible dream, and joined a more general demise of interest in utopian form over the course of the 1970s and 1980s.12

Consequently, Constant went back to painting. In this liquid medium the repressed returned with a vengeance, apocalyptic scenes of violence splashed the spaces of his future world. His first painting of this phase, Ode a l’Odeon (1969) was made the same year that Constant unofficially declared he was finished with the New Babylon project.13 In this and other paintings, such as Entrée du Labyrinthe (1972), the ludic sensorial ambience is contaminated, and the creative spirit turns destructive and dystopic. Amidst an architecture of lines and transparent panels, bloody shapes move, as if engaged in acts of violence.

To make sense both of this opening to the utopian imagination and its withdrawl, Marin’s Utopics proposes the concept of ‘the neutral’. The neutral describes a tabula rasa in space, and yet it is also tied to a story that takes place in time. Here Marin follows the two parts of More’s book, that are temporal and spatial. The first recounting a traveller’s journey, while the second spatializes a utopian society in which chamber pots are made of gold and shackles for slaves are made of silver. From such inversions of value arises the spatial difference of Utopia, in an alternative to More’s own time of political and economic transition in Europe. As Marin writes, “at a determined moment of history, utopian practice sketches or schematizes unconsciously, by the spatial plays of its internal differences the empty places which will be filled by the concepts of social theory at a later phase.”14 The utopia is not so much a society itself, but that which precedes this society, that which opens the possibility for it to be imagined, to come into being.

Constant’s own involvement in a series of avant-garde movements was one such context for an opening. His participation in groups such as the Experimental Group in Holland, Cobra, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, Situationism and Provo was driven by a desire to realize changes in architecture, culture and urban planning. Such historical, revolutionary avant-gardes are defined, according to art theorist Peter Burger, by their strategies to change society as a whole, rather than simply art.15 In the Experimental Group and Cobra, Karel Appel, Constant, Corneille and Asgar Jorn worked on everything from ceramics to garden design. Inspired by children’s and folk art, they radicalized exhibition designs and wildly decorated house interiors.

After the demise of these groups, Constant became a part of the Situationist group, led by Guy Debord. The practices of the Situationists centred on radicalising urban life, including the so-called détournement of city spaces: the transformation of Paris into a psychogeographic experience through late night and often drunken walks that aimed to reimagine the use of city space. Immersed in imagining new ways of being after World War II, both Constant and Debord have since become icons of the twentieth century artworld. Debord envisaged Situationism as a practice that took place beyond the circulation of commodities, criticism, and exhibitions that make up this world. It was, crucially, an avant-garde founded more on a rejection of modernity than a vision of the future, “contemplating the end to culture conceived as scarcity and property, and pursuing this possibility to its conclusions.”16 For Debord this meant policing the practices of other Situationists, excluding those who collaborated or betrayed its autonomy, as he maintained the dedication of Situationism to perpetual experimentation in rethinking the city.

What remains of these practices is minimal, including collages and writings that evidence the practice of dérive and its science, psychogeography. Dérive as the practice of exploring and reimagining the city through its psychic currents, brought into being collaged maps of existing cities, most famously Paris, that illuminated the Situationist’s experience of late night walks and collaborative explorations. From this context, from this Situationist fascination with the possibility of the city to reinvent life beyond the orders of modernity, Constant turned his back on the traditional arts and the role of the individual creator: “This dream, that I call New Babylon, is born out of the dissatisfaction of a modern artist who no longer believes in superior individual creativity.”17

Yet as Marin describes, such ideas are vexed by the gap between the free play of the imagination and a totalitarian vision.18 The anti-modernity of the avant-garde movements that Constant was associated with was available to only a select few individuals, and by their nature could not have survived a transition into the conservatism of major institutions. New Babylon can also be understood in terms of this gap between a self-selected elite and the mainstream, supplanting the religious morality tale of Babylon with a technological science fiction, and being politically orientated against the rising tide of consumer-capitalism and Americanization in Europe.

For Constant the point was to generate new aesthetics through architecture that was sensitive to psychological states, and this architecture enacted a critique of the cool functionalism of modernist architecture and urban planning. New Babylon was a utopian alternative to Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City re-uptake and the functions of the city defined by Le Corbusier: recreation, traffic, working, and living. Constant perceived contemporary recreation as meaningless, traffic as needlessly excessive, work as ultimately alienating and life as impoverished as a result. He writes,

Human beings are more than machine fodder; life is more than well-oiled participation in the production process. The slavish existence of living, working and recreation cannot possibly constitute the starting point for building our living environment, the starting-point for a creative urbanism.19

Such thought was inspired by Situationist ideas, though by this stage Constant had broken ties with the cantankerous Debordian circle of the Situationist International. While Constant is often remembered in the context of this so-called last avant-garde, his ideas folded into the passage of deconstructive visions and experiments of Situationism, he also stands apart from them as he became obsessed by the iteration and reiteration of New Babylon.

 

New Babylon as Utopian Form

At different points in time Constant denies and affirms the utopian orientation of New Babylon. The project is utopian in its ideals of liberation, its projection of a harmonious society freed from utilitarianism, and the obsolescence of human labour. It is also utopian in its insistence on absolute collectivity, and its picture of a world where the imagination and pleasure are primary. New Babylon is optimistic in its belief that such a society could be entirely driven by automation, beyond the need for monotonous human labour. Constant admits to utopianism in the speculation of a better world, the forecasting of a possible playful future society,

Hence, the New Babylon project … is an imaginary project; it anticipates history, it is a futuristic project; it is based on a desirable course of history and is therefore also in a sense a utopian project.20

Constant is insistent that New Babylon is possible, that it is not science fiction. As Wigley notes, “New Babylon is at once an idealistic artwork and a realizable technical proposition.”21 Essentially, as Constant writes, he defines it as “a realistic project because it distances itself from the present condition which has lost touch with reality, and because it is founded on what is technically feasible . . .”22

The scholarship on New Babylon has largely agreed with Constant. Anthony Vidler emphasises the realism of New Babylon, its veracity lain in its diagrammatic forms, plans and schemes that hold within themselves the utopian suspension of both reality and its possibility.23 Also of interest to scholars are the origins of New Babylon in Constant’s encounter with a nomadic Romany gypsy camp, and a subsequent playground design – Project for a Gypsy Camp (1956-58).24 Here transparent Perspex spiral shapes combined with wood were designed to be structurally reconfigurable by the inhabitants. As Tom McDonough argues, its curvilinear and streamlined forms played a social role, to,

transform the conditions of physical deprivation imposed upon the Romany people into a kind of sensorial richness, using advanced industrial materials to re-create the iterant campground as space-age centre of coordination, sheltering yet open, permanent yet flexible.25

Despite its roots in a real world project, albeit one that remained unbuilt, accusations of techno-utopia were often launched at New Babylon and as a result Constant’s writing regularly turned to this subject. He reprimanded both those who reified and those who mistrusted the machine, calling for technology to be used at the “service of a daring imagination.”26 On the topic of utopia, Constant asks,

But what is a Utopia? A Utopia is a picture of a society that ignores material conditions, an idealisation of reality.

Utopia is a world without aggression, without suffering, without doubt, without drama, but also, therefore, a world without change, without creativity, without play, without freedom. Automation is a material condition and achievable. New Babylon, which is based on this fact, is therefore also theoretically achievable.27

For Constant the veracity of New Babylon was ultimately tied to automation, which in combination with a radical reconfiguration of humanity’s environment and social relations, would provide the right ingredients and conditions for experimental collective creativity. He argued that the development of the robot, for example, would “sooner or later bring humanity, which is to say the masses, unprecedented freedom, an un-dreamt of opportunity for the free disposal of time, for the free realization of life.”28 New Babylon’s failure lies in Constant’s failure to fully imagine the conditions by which it might come into being, as if automation could be the single cause by which utopia could would be realized.

In this, Constant’s utopianism can be read alongside that of More himself, who also located his island of Utopia in an impossible place, one whose precise location is obscured by a cough on the part of the narrator. In this one moment, utopia turns from realism to surrealism, from fact to fancy. As Jameson points out, utopian fantasy is contingent upon this impossibility, as literary utopias contain a blind spot of a historical kind, being unable to conceive of the historical conditions for their own appearance.29 In More’s case this blind spot was capitalism, that was only coming into being in its modern form at the time he was writing in the sixteenth century. Constant’s blindness was born of the hopes of the avant-gardes of the 1950s and the revolutionary politics of the 1960s, whose optimism belied the powerful forces arrayed against changing the world, and instead turned New Babylon into one artist’s vision.

New Babylon would instead become what Michel Foucault calls a counter-site, which comes into being at the very founding of a society, in this sense a post-war society, as “a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.”30 So it is that New Babylon represents the desire to live in a post-industrial liberation from labor, to contest labor as the basis of a society, while reversing the notion of a settled existence that labor induces in human beings. Yet these are the very operations that disallow New Babylon from being revolutionary, from bringing about such radical changes to the world itself, since by performing these operations it remains a counter-site, rather than a site itself. Constant becomes a failed utopian, and ultimately a tinkerer rather than a visionary, who gets caught up in the details of some overall plan that could never come into being.31

It is no longer possible to read New Babylon as a kind of realism, or as having pertinence in contemporary times, despite the claims of those writing about the recent exhibition. Constant’s widow Trudy Nieuwenhuys-van der Horst told a newspaper, “The vision of Constant that people should change in more nomadic and less possessive lifestyles, in the sense they don’t need their own houses, cars, books etc., is happening now . . .”32 Here Nieuwenhuys-van der Horst argues, as Wigley does in the exhibition catalogue, that it is possible to see in New Babylon the emergent contours of a contemporary collective society.33 Yet this positivity obscures the precise history of Constant’s vision, that is mired in the contradictions of the long 1960s themselves.

The relics of New Babylon offer not only a look back at an era of utopian hope, but also a glimpse on the very different historical bases for this hope. New Babylon did not look ahead to a future that has partly come into being through technology, but offers a glimpse onto its own historical time, in which the imagination of utopia was part of a critique of Western modernity.

  1.  The phrase is used in Arthur Marwich, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c. 1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  2.  See Fredric Jameson, “Periodizing the 60s (1984),” in The Ideologies of Theory Essays 1971-1986, Volume 2: Syntax of History, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 178-208.
  3.  The exhibition Constant—New Babylon was curated by Laura Stamps and Doede Hardeman, and ran from 21 October, 2015 to 29 February, 2016 at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, then from 28 May to 25 September, 2016 at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in the Hague.
  4.  Louis Marin. Utopics: Spatial Play, trans. Robert A. Vollrath (London: Macmillan, 1984), 3.
  5.  Mark Wigley, “Extreme Hospitality,” in Constant—New Babylon, exhibition catalogue (Museuo Nacional Centro de Arte, Madrid, 2015), 123.
  6.  Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (New Alresford: Zero Books, 2009).
  7.  Constant, “New Babylon: Outline of a Culture,” trans. Paul Hammond, in Constant’s New Babylon: The Hyper-Architecture of Desire, ed. Mark Wigley (Rotterdam: Witte de With, 1998), 160.
  8.  Constant, “Unitary Urbanism,” trans. Robyn de Jong-Dalziel, in Wigley, ed., Hyper-Architecture, 134.
  9. Constant, “Description of the Yellow Sector,” trans. Paul Hammond, in Wigley, ed., Hyper-Architecture, 122.
  10.  Constant, “Unitary Urbanism,” 135.
  11. Constant, “New Babylon – Ten Years On,” in Wigley, ed., Hyper-Architecture, 236.
  12.  This is one of the arguments at work in Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).
  13.  Mark Wigley, “The Hyper-Architecture of Desire,” in Wigley, ed., Hyper-Architecture, 70.
  14. Marin, Utopics, 10.
  15.  See Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
  16.  McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (London: Verso, 2011), 142.
  17.  Letter from Constant to Anthony Hill, 25th December 1965, quoted in Wigley, “Extreme Hospitality,” 67.
  18. Marin, Utopics, 404-5.
  19.  Constant, “Unitary Urbanism,” 132.
  20. Constant, “Unitary Urbanism,” 132.
  21. Wigley, “The Hyper-Architecture of Desire,” 67.
  22.  Constant, “Unitary Urbanism,” 132.
  23.  Anthony Vidler, ”Diagrams of Utopia,” in The Activist Drawing: Retracing Situationist Architectures from Constant’s New Babylon to Beyond, ed. Catherine de Zegher and Mark Wigley (New York: Drawing Centre, 2001), 83-91.
  24.  See Tom McDonough, “Metastructure: Experimental Utopia and Traumatic Memory in Constant’s New Babylon,” Grey Room 33 (Fall 2008): 84-95; and Pedro G. Romero, “The New Babylonians,” in Constant’s New Babylon, 68-91.
  25.  McDonough, “Metastructure,” 88.
  26. Constant, “Extracts from Letters to the Situationiste International,” trans. John Shepley, October 79 (Winter 1997): 96-97.
  27.  Constant, “New Babylon, Ten Years On,” 235.
  28.  Constant, “Unitary Urbanism,” 133.
  29. Fredric Jameson, “Utopia and Failure,” Politics and Culture 2 (2000). < http://www.politicsandculture.org/2010/08/10/utopia-and-failure-by-fredric-jameson-2/>.
  30. Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986): 22.
  31.  Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, 43.
  32. Nina Siegal, “Exploring the Transition in Constant’s Work”, New York Times, September 8, 2016.
  33. Wigley, “Extreme Hospitality,” 123.

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