Constant Nieuwenhuys

Individual – Amsterdam, Netherlands

1920 – 2005

Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005) was a Dutch artist and one of the founding members of the Situationist International formed in 1957. He is also known for his utopian project, New Babylon, started in 1956 and on which he worked for nearly twenty years. Constant was one of the theoretical drivers behind the Situationists alongside Guy Debord (1931-1994) and it was a widening gulf between their two positions that eventually led Nieuwenhuys to leave the group in 1960.

The Situationists were an overtly political group whose critique of the alienation of capitalist society has had a lasting effect on contemporary culture. They saw modern society as a series of spectacles, discrete moments in time, where the possibility of active participation in the production and experience of lived reality were eluded. The rift between Constant and Debord focused on the structuralist tendencies of the former; through his explorations of 'unitary urbanism', Constant focused not only on the atmosphere and social interactions of the Situationist city, but also on the actual production of the city as built space. The project New Babylon, is today considered an exemplary expression of the Situationists' take on the city.

Designed around the abolition of work, New Babylon was a city based on total automation and the collective ownership of land. With no more work, citizens were free to move around, with, New Babylon inspired by a gypsy encampment and designed to facilitate such a nomadic lifestyle. Divided into a series of interconnected sectors, the city operated on a network of collective services and transportation. Through a large number of models, drawings and collages, Constant explored the various sectors, floating above the ground on stilts, interconnected with bridges and pathways; above and below traffic flowed whilst the inhabitants travelled the sectors by foot. Whilst the city's physical reality was explored through drawings and maquettes, architecture itself was conceived as social relations in which Constant elaborated a critique of bourgeois, utilitarian society. The degree to which the details of the city had been worked out and Constant's own discourse showed that he viewed this as a concrete proposal for a future city rather than just a polemical project.

New Babylon focused on the social construction of space with every aspect of the city controllable by its citizens in order that they could construct new atmospheres and situations within the given infrastructure. It was a dynamic environment that could easily be adapted and changed, allowing inhabitants to explore their creativity through play and interaction. That the whole of New Babylon rested on a technological dream that can no longer be fulfilled has been commented on often, but as Francesco Careri of the group Stalker/Osservatorio Nomade has commented, perhaps a change in thinking is required that sees New Babylon as already existing within the voids and fissures of the contemporary consumerist city.

Other Work

Linda Boersma and Constant Nieuwenhuys, 'Constant [interview]', BOMB Magazine, 2005, http://bombsite.com/issues/91/articles/2713 [accessed 8 July 2010].

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. by Ken Knabb (London: Rebel Press, 1983).

Constant Nieuwenhuys, 'New Babylon', Not Bored, 1974, http://www.notbored.org/new-babylon.html [accessed 4 February 2010].

References About

Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age (London: Routledge, 1992).

Simon Sadler, The Situationist City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

Mark Wigley, Constant's New Babylon: The Hyper-architecture of Desire (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers & Witte de With, 1998).

Quotes

"In New Babylon, social space is social spatiality. Space as a psychic dimension (abstract space) cannot be separated from the space of action (concrete space). Their divorce is only justified in a utilitarian society with arrested social relations, where concrete space necessarily has an anti-social character."
- Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon, exhibition catalogue (The Hague: Haags Gemeetenmuseum, 1974), available at: http://www.notbored.org/new-babylon.html

"… I conceived the scheme for a permanent encampment for the gypsies of Alba and that project is the origin of the series of maquettes of New Babylon. Of a New Babylon where, under one roof, with the aid of moveable elements, a shared residence is built; a temporary, constantly remodeled living area; a camp for nomads on a planetary scale."
- Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon, exhibition catalogue (The Hague: Haags Gemeetenmuseum, 1974), available at: http://www.notbored.org/new-babylon.html

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