Random Thoughts on New Babylon, Situationist City of the Future

By Holly Tavel
Neuroscape Editor

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.

04:43 PM in architecture :: urban design | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


Random Thoughts on Xanadu, Home of the Future


by Holly Tavel, Neuroscape Editor
Photographs by Matt Ames

Driving down traffic-clogged U.S. 192 in Kissimmee, Florida, hermetically sealed in your air-conditioned car, past t-shirt emporiums, cheap motels, discount stores, gas stations and scraggly palm trees, bludgeoned by an unending vista of frantic advertising (Sunglasses! T-Shirts! Designer Discounts! All Park Tickets Half-Price!), the phrase "so bad it's good" comes to mind. Except that U.S 192 is so bad it's...well, bad. True kitsch isn't funny or delightfully tacky or lovably strange. It's numbing. The reason U.S. 192 feels so desolate is because it has nothing to say, and there is nothing to say about it. Its facade is impenetrable, deflecting any attempt at narrative. The true goal of kitsch is, of course, the elimination of history, an aesthetic which finds its purest expression in Disney World's Magic Kingdom, a mere five miles up the road (when you start seeing the shiny purple signs, you've crossed over).

But wait...what is that thing? What thing? That. That...building. Is that a building? What the hell is that? Universally reviled by the locals, Xanadu: Home of the Future (the weird, ugly kid no onein the neighborhood wants to play with) sits just off the main highway in a moldering grayish heap, looking like a cluster of giant white toadstools or like the bleached husk of a washed-up sea monster. In fact, the metaphors keep coming. A spaceship crash-landed in a mucky swamp. The latest in igloo design for forward-thinking Eskimos. A set piece for a low-budget remake of Logan's Run.

Designed by architect Roy Mason in the early Eighties, this showhome-cum-tourist attraction might as well have been built in the Fifties. Mason's talk of "intelligent houses" and "organic architecture" notwithstanding, the future as envisioned by Xanadu was clearly six parts Jetsons, three parts Buckminster Fuller, and one part Goofy Golf. Crammed with high-tech gadgets even then racing towards obsolescence, Xanadu got it painfully, ridiculously wrong. Imagining itself the bold new shape of things to come, it was in fact firmly rooted in the past, a last stab at the "futuristic" future of the 1939 World's Fair, a future built of undulating domes and painted a uniformly reflective white.

At once truly poignant and unintentionally hilarious, Xanadu is that particular brand of cheese available only in middle America. Despite - or maybe because of - its fervent wish to be something more than it is, it evokes exactly the same prefab banality as the chain hotels and strip malls that surround it. So maybe Xanadu, in its glory days, never was anything more than an ill-conceived pile of cheap plastic, pseudo-tech and bad lighting fixtures. But deserted, empty inside except for boxes and cabinets stacked here and there, scorched by sun and heat, it exudes a peculiar ghostliness, haunting the landscape.

Xanadu was conceived as the ultimate controlled environment, a fortress against which the outside world, with its chaotic, natural messiness, stood nary a chance. Naturally, eliminating mundane chores was the first order of business. Instead of robot servants, though, Xanadu offered us a microcomputer "heart" controlling everything from video-projected art to climate control to care of plants in the attached greenhouse and calculating the nutritional value of meals. But through all this runs a telling streak of wistful nostalgia. "The home of the future will be more like the home of the past than the home of the present," said Mason in 1982. "It used to be that the whole family gathered around the hearth for entertainment activities, meals, and so on. The home of the future will feature what I call an 'electronic hearth,' a home computer that is the center of the family's activities - entertainment, bookkeeping, meal-planning." Like many would-be visionaries, though, Mason vastly overestimated the willingness of the average suburban family to embrace the new and unusual. People were loathe to forego the comforting familiarity of their boxlike dwellings for a bubbling plastic dream, even one that could be assembled in three days.

Ultimately, though, Xanadu is far more interesting, and infinitely weirder, in its current state of ruin than it ever was when its doors (or portals, I'm almost tempted to say) were open to the public. It looks and feels like something excavated from the depths, like it should be underwater. You want to throw it back into the ocean before it dies. You can imagine it as some third-rate Atlantis built by guys with cigarette packs rolled up in their sleeves, a watery dream now inhabited by electric eels and bottom feeders. Decay is, after all, a state of transformation.

The castoffs and throwaways of suburbia - dead malls, empty office buildings, abandoned attractions - even cheap sprayed-polyurethane ones - reveal themselves in new ways. Left to their own devices, they turn savage. These places that once communicated carefully crafted, one-sided messages, places that once talked at you, become conversational, saying things that no one could ever have imagined. They tell the truth.

In death, Xanadu has thrown off the shackles of technotopic optimism and achieved self-actualization, revealing itself as the cranky piece of sculptural outsider art it always secretly longed to be. Transformed into a memento mori for a future that never was, Xanadu goes the usual way of modern ruins, making a brief stopover as poetry on its way to oblivion. The future, once so bright we had to wear shades, hightails it into the shadowy past.

08:27 PM in architecture :: urban design | Permalink | Comments (89) | TrackBack