I am a “utopien”: design and practice for New Babylon

Constant continues his experiments in order to visualize the idea of ‘unitary urbanism’. Productivity is huge between 1960 and 1969, and covers a diversity of fields. He works on scale models, paintings, watercolors, gouaches, collages, drawings, city plans and geographic maps. In order to give New Babylon a theoretic basis he writes numerous articles that could be regarded as texts on cultural philosophy. Due to the great interest in New Babylon he travels throughout Europe: he exhibits his work (23x), delivers countless lectures with slideshows and gives interviews.

Constant makes designs for public spaces, such as De poort van Constant [Constant’s Gate] (1963) in the Nieuw-West district of Amsterdam, and the Fontein van Constant [Constant’s Fountain] (1968) in De Kooi, Leiden. Together with André Volten and Shamaï Haber he works on industrial commissions: from Philips Eindhoven for the landscaping of OBH [Evoluon]. In 1965 they make two designs that are not implemented: an Audio Resonant Model with harp-like constructions and the Kalff-woestijn [Kalff Desert]. In 1968 he is commissioned to design a map, New Babylon on Amsterdam, for the Amsterdam Historical Museum. This map is exhibited in the museum together with a LudiekeTrap [Playful Stairs] designed by Constant. He collaborates on film and TV productions, cooperates with others to produce portfolios about his graphic New Babylon work - the New Babylon (1963) portfolio and Labyrismen (1968). In collboration with others he publishes four editions of the New Babylon Informatief. A number of his lectures are published in 1969 in a collection entitled Opstand van de Homo Ludens [Rise of Homo Ludens]. He has a short-lived exchange with Provo in 1965. In 1966 he works with others on the development of ‘an experimental space for a dynamic labyrinth’ for Experiment Studio Rotterdam, in the Bouwcentrum in Rotterdam.

In 1966 Constant exhibits at the Dutch pavilion at the XXXIIIth Venice Biennale, with a retrospective of works from the Cobra period up to and including New Babylon. An international edition of the “New Babylon Informatief no 4” - is published alongside this exhibition. He is awarded the Cardazzo Prize for his presentation at the XXXIIIth Venice Biennale. In response to this Constant is interviewed in his studio for the Haagse Post, by Rem Koolhaas - at this stage still a journalist and film maker, and Betty van Garrel. Rem Koolhaas went on to study architecture two years later.

It is Guy Debord who gives the name New Babylon to Constant’s designs for a new urban environment early in 1960. Constant considers the name to be apt: for Constant, ‘Babylon’ evokes suggestions of human exuberance, of a non-Christian morality, of an unprecedented prosperity and of fantastic forms of life, which suit his project admirably. And ‘New’ is more applicable than the Dutch word ‘Nieuw’, since it relates to a universal project. Guy Debord had earlier recommended Johan Huizinga’s book “Homo Ludens” to Constant. Homo Ludens is to play a significant role for Constant in his cultural blueprint New Babylon and his New Babylon designs. In 1966 Constant writes: Huizinga correctly pinpoints the figure of homo ludens in the social upper classes, the non-working ruling class, taking no account of the working masses. Automation that frees production from human labor has opened the way for a massification of the homo ludens. The virtue of Huizinga was his acknowledgement that a potential homo ludens lurks in every human. The liberation of this potential for playfulness, however, depends on his social liberation.

In 1964 Constant gets a studio on Wittenburg in Amsterdam: an old school gymnasium. He has the space here to be able to work on larger models and the scale of the models now increases progressively. He designs models with sectors and dynamic labyrinths in various landscapes that are part of an urban plan for the playful, creative man.

When designing his models Constant makes use of countless small nails, screws, cogwheels, dust caps and other small ironmongery items that he finds at the Waterlooplein flea market or Loe Lap, an army surplus store. He uses them to create a fascinating interplay of mazes and lines where the Plexiglas adds an extra dimension to the colors. The effect when viewing the models from above is magical. This shows the patterns of color, space and light to their best advantage. Mark Wigley writes about the models: The most obvious symptom is the models that form the centerpiece of the New Babylon project. They are unmistakably architectural, yet have the quality of refined artworks, employing materials and finishes rarely seen in architectural models of the time. The construction of the model itself was as radical as the space it proposed.

1969 marks the end of the Situationist International. Their last bulletin (number 12) is published in September 1969. The Parisian student revolt they have inspired had taken place in 1968 and had not, as was subsequently apparent, come up to expectations. In response to the Paris revolts Constant painted Ode à l’Odéon [Tribute to Odeon].

This is the year that Constant stops working on the models. Constant explains the reason why in an article in which he states that although he is able to visualize unitary urbanism, the conditions under which we live are crucially different from the social conditions that are essential for realizing a revolutionary program such as this. This means that unitary urbanism remains limited to isolated experiments and degenerates into nothing more than a program. The creative process shifts from reality to a concept thereof. The culture becomes ‘utopian’.

This is the aspect from which the New Babylon plan has to be viewed. Constant wants to work on feasible projects and has no wish to become a ‘utopiste’, one who explores impossibilities. He has always referred to himself as a ‘utopien’,one who releases possibilities.

Between 1969 and 1974 Constant devotes himself mainly to painting, drawing, watercoloring and etching. For a long time the traces of New Babylon are still visible, such as the division of spatial planes, the labyrinthine space with ladders and mobile platforms, the steel palisades and partitions placed crisscrossing in space. He also incorporates different materials into the paint such as various sizes of grid and newspaper cuttings. The way in which he paints, using a spray gun and palette knife, is hugely different from his later, more colorist paintings. The most striking thing about the paintings, however, is the erotic scenes, which do not shy away from aggression and violence. In interviews Constant says that he still believes in New Babylon. Implementing it, however, will take time. Of necessity, a long destructive period will precede this new world and this is what he portrays in his works between 1969 and 1974.

In 1974 New Babylon is finally rounded off with an exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum The Hague. This now clears his studio and Constant leaves the majority of his New Babylon project behind in the Gemeentemuseum The Hague. Over the following ten years the Gemeentemuseum The Hague is to acquire a substantial part of the New Babylon project for its collection.

Mark Wigley describes Constant’s development: Traces of his early paintings remain in New Babylon. ..He was able to take Cobra’s playful concern with psychological excess to a new mass level by rejecting the cult of the individual artist and privileging the machine. New Babylon combines the critique of modern architecture with the deployment of the latest technical developments. High technology is displaced from work to play. Efficiency of structure and movement becomes extravagance. Clarity becomes confusion Precisely defined objects become indeterminable fields. Direct paths become serpentine. Abstract visual order becomes an enveloping sensuous eccentric rhythm of light, smell, and color.

Even though the name New Babylon was not created until 1960, the New Babylon period is placed from 1956 to 1974. His environment-oriented engagement could position Constant in the tradition of the modernist avant-garde, in that of constructivism in particular. In his case however the form is defined not through ideology, it is found through experience and experiment.