New Babylon, the hyper-architecture of desire
Constant Nieuwenhuis has worked over twenty years
on the development of his utopia New Babylon. Constant published
the first sketches of what later would become New Babylon as early
as 1949. The work was not exhibited for 12 years. The results of
Constant's efforts can be seen again in their full glory for the
first time since a long while. Until January 11th an impressive
number of models, drawings, lithographs, etchings and paintings
from and about New Babylon have been brought together in the Rotterdam
'Witte de With'.
Group sectors, 1959
Coll. The Hague's Municipal museum
The possibility to realise New Babylon is based on two assumptions:
the socialisation of the ground and the complete automation of the
production. Constant commented on this in the beginning of the 1960's:
"The question, how the people would live in a society without hunger,
without exploitation, and also without labour. In a society thus
in which every person without exception would be able to fully develop
their creativity. This important and intriguing question calls forward
the image of a material environment that substantially differs from
everything that we can, from everything that ever was established
in the area of architecture and town-planning." In New Babylon one
doesn't have to work, in this new society the inhabitants lead a
nomadic existence and one can - in agreement with his desires -
be shown to full advantage as a creative being; he becomes a homo
Constant presents New Babylon as a network. A series of units that
mainly can be found 15 to 20 metres above the ground. These basic
units, the so-called sectors, are independent from a construction
point of view, and will lay on top of the existing city. After a
period of time the sectors will gradually grow towards each other
making the traditional living areas superfluous. The ground surface
mainly consists of uncultivated space, meant for agriculture, nature
reserves and for forests and parks but also offers space for throughways,
the fully automated production centres and other objects for which
is no place within the sectors. Constant gives as examples of these
objects: transmitter masts, derricks and historical monuments.
Hanging sector, 1960
Coll. The Hague's Municipal museum
Because a nomadic and creative lifestyle demands an as much as
possible independence from material cares, elaborate collective
provisions need to be available in the sectors. In a sector they
should form about 70% of the living space. Even though the base
structure can not easily be changed because of the dimensions and
the place within the network, basically everything is possible within
a sector, precisely because of the dimensions of the base structure.
To allow for the variability, Constant pleads for neutral structures,
regulation in measurements and standardisation of production.
It is not surprising that New Babylon could be created and was
developed in the 1950's and 60's. It was in these years that a movement
grew that turned away from the popular modernistic opinion about
architecture and town planning. Some architects, town planners and
artists, such as Constant, joined these opinions with outspoken
political opinions, which commonly contained a rejection of the
consumption society. An important impulse in this direction was
Constant's temporary joining of the Situationistische Internationale
(Situationistic International) by Guy Debord.
Orient sector, 1959
Coll. The Hague Municipal museum
The above explains (in part) the renewed interest in New Babylon.
The discussions that are being held now are aimed at, just like
in Constant's time, the dissociation against a certain planning
model. The question about the roll of the inhabitant and that of
the architect within the building process is raised again. And again
one talks about the meaning of the concept social area. Next to
that the story of the nomadic homo ludens keeps appealing to ones
imagination. But what makes New Babylon so attractive and inspiring,
is the political component, the involvement of society. This component
seems to be missing often. Only the form language is adopted from
the New Babylon concept to be processed further. The exhibition
confirms this presumption. The overwhelming amount of material is
displayed nicely, but explanation by the material is absent.
This is probably more than made up for in the accompanying book
'New Babylon- the Hyperarchitecture of Desire' that will come out
at the same time as the exhibition, edited by Mark Wigley. The book
was unfortunately not finished yet at the opening.
Marina van den Bergen
The exposition New Babylon can still be seen until
January 11th in Witte de With, Witte
de Withstraat 50 in Rotterdam. Tuesday - Sunday 11:00 a.m. - 6 p.
m., entrance fl 2,50; CJP, Pas 65+ fl 1,50.
There are a few sites, about the Situationism in
general and Constant's New Babylon especially, that are worth a
gives a good summary and publishes a number of Situationistic articles.
is a superb, very extensive summary site about the Situationism
and the Lettrism. It also contains a list
of all members (complete with the moment at which they were
excluded from the SI) including the Dutch members. It also has a
good collection of texts by Constant
about New Babylon.
A publication by Mark Wigley is released at the
same time as the exposition titled New Babylon - the hyperarchitecture
of desire. 010 Publisher, p. 256, fl 95,-= .