Random Thoughts on New Babylon, Situationist City of the Future
By Holly Tavel
In 1956, in Alba, Italy, the painter/architect Constant Nieuwenhuis visited an encampment of Gypsies on land given to them by the landowner, painter Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio. Constant’s subsequent project, a scheme for a permanent encampment for the Gypsies of Alba, engendered his initial ideas about New Babylon, a visionary city much more than a city, a radical utopia whose revolutionary conception of architecture, urbanism and space was inseparable from the political and social polemics that informed it.
New Babylon: a camp for nomads on a planetary scale, a city without borders, without boundaries, a mutable, infinitely malleable environment of shifting planes and vistas, a world where human beings, released from the prison of work and consumption, of industrialized leisure, are free to express their deepest desires and fundamental creativity, creating the world anew each day.
In The Activist Drawing: Retracing Situationist Architecture from Constant’s New Babylon to Beyond (copyright 1999, The Drawing Center), Catherine de Zegher writes, “Constant seems to have conceived of an urban model that literally envisaged the world wide web...Constant’s project represents a spatialization of a virtual world, where people can move, meet, and interact anytime, anywhere. As an unlimited communication system, the work is as radical as ever...”
Constant’s vision of a future society where all labor is taken care of by a vast underground automated network, thus freeing man to live a life in which imagination is actualized, today seems impossibly utopian. Within a labyrinthine network of enormous, multileveled interior spaces floating above the ground on support columns, interconnected sectors spreading and branching organically over the whole of the earth, inhabitants move through the city on foot, reconfiguring the movable walls and adding or subtracting elements at whim. In this way daily life becomes a kind of mass architectural game, a collective creative act displacing traditional forms of art altogether. Spontaneity, adventure, creativity, whimsicality, and openness are not this society’s exception but its rule. New Babylon challenges the stasis and fixed dwelling spaces of high-modernist architecture and subverts traditional notions of community, domesticity, and urban space. But perhaps more importantly, it questions the very nature of a society built on a foundation of work, hierarchy, and class.
In an era of increasing homogeneity marked by a decline in, as de Zegher puts it, "the capacity to imagine the world any differently" (p.11), New Babylon reminds us how very important, how necessary it is to hold on to these alternate visions, to question and challenge all assumptions about space, community, art, and architecture, and shows, unequivocally, just how profoundly these things affect all of us.
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