In 1956, the Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys started working on a visionary architectural proposal for a future society; he didn’t stop for almost twenty years. Having been a co-founder of the Cobra group of artists in the late forties, he abandoned painting in 1953 to concentrate on the question of “construction.” He became a founding member of the Situationist International in 1957 and played a central role in their experiments until his resignation in 1960. New Babylon, as his project would eventually be called, is a situationist city intended as a polemical provocation.

New Babylon was elaborated in an endless series of models, sketches, etchings, lithographs, collages, architectural drawings, and photocollages, as well as in manifestos, essays, lectures, and films. New Babylon is a form of propaganda that critiques conventional social structures.

New Babylon envisages a society of total automation in which the need to work is replaced with a nomadic life of creative play, in which traditional architecture has disintegrated along with the social institutions that it propped up. A vast network of enormous multilevel interior spaces propagates to eventually cover the planet. These interconnected “sectors” float above the ground on tall columns. While vehicular traffic rushes underneath and air traffic lands on the roof, the inhabitants drift by foot through the huge labyrinthine interiors, endlessly reconstructing the atmospheres of the spaces. Every aspect of the environment can be be controlled and reconfigured spontaneously. Social life becomes architectural play. Architecture becomes a flickering display of interacting desires.

Constant always saw New Babylon as a realizable project, which provoked intense debates at schools of architecture and fine arts about the future role of the architect. Constant insisted that the traditional arts would be displaced by a collective form of creativity. He positioned his project at the threshold of the end of art and architecture. Yet it had a major influence on the work of subsequent generations of architects. It was published widely in the international press in the 1960s and Constant quickly attained a prominent position in the world of experimental architecture. But this influence would eventually be forgotten; the project has not been displayed since Constant stopped working on it in 1974.

This exhibition brings New Babylon back to the surface, presenting the complete project for the first time in almost a quarter of a century with the aim to shed light on contemporary architectural and artistic experiments. Much of Constant’s work resonates with current investigations, from the concern with electronic space down to specific model-making techniques. New Babylon acts as a stimulating reference point for our ongoing conversation about the strategic role of space in social life. In the course of twenty years of research and manifestations, Constant relentlessly explored the extreme implications of his project from ectasy to carnage.

The exhibition is guest-curated by the prominent architectural historian Mark Wigley. It presents the constructions and graphics that anticipate New Babylon and then launches a chronological journey through the multi-media life of the project. The early euphoric images gradually give way to the final series of paintings in which New Babylon, becomes the site of sexual crimes and horrific violence. Along the way, Constant’s own technique of combining huge slide projections with sound and video is reintroduced to create impressions of the spaces of New Babylon. A room with original documents, manuscripts, photographs and ephemera provides further insight into the project.

Mark Wigley is a Professor of Architectural History and Theory at Princeton University. He is the author of Deconstructivist Architecture (1988), The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt (1993) and White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture (1995).

In a lecture on 23 May 1980 at the school of architecture at Delft University, Constant summarized his retrospective thoughts about New Babylon as follows:
‘… it is possible to form a fairly clear idea of an as yet uninhabited world. It is more difficult to populate this world with people who live so very differently from ourselves: we can neither dictate nor design their playful or inventive behavior in advance. We can only invoke our fantasy and switch from science to art. It was this insight that prompted me to stop work on the models and to attempt in paintings and drawings, however approximately, to create some New Babylonian life. This was as far as I could go. The project exists. It is safely stored away in a museum, waiting for more favorable times when it will once again arouse interest among future urban designers.’

Catalogue

In Constant’s New Babylon: The Hyper-Architecture of Desire, a 256- page monograph published by 010 in collaboration with Witte de With, Mark Wigley provides a detailed analysis of New Babylon alongside the first complete visual record of the project. The book includes a selection of texts by Constant and Guy Debord.
See Publications for more information.

Other interesting websites

ArchiNed, with an abstract (in Dutch) of the symposium on New Babylon that took place in the NAI, entitled “New Babylon and the end of the avant-garde”.

Nothingness.org, an I.S. archive with pre-situ articles and essays from the journal Internationale Situationniste.
The exhibition and the monograph are generously supported by the Stimuleringsfonds voor Architectuur.