New Babylon – A Painter’s Utopia

“Do you think you are alive? You are not. To live is to be creative, and life does not come after death. Thomas More wanted to bring heaven to this earth, but his only ideal was to make a better man. That is why it has remained a utopia. Now a different situation is emerging: the triumph of mankind over nature, the end of the struggle for existence. Recently I read an account of a laboratory test in which one was able, through electrical impulses, to make a cat become friends with a mouse. It reminded me of the story of the lion and the lamb. At this moment we have realised a small part of that. Should we continue to adapt ourselves to the present? Or has the time come for an “imaginary” project that reveals true possibilities?”  Constant, 1961


The period following Constant’s resignation from the SI in 1960, which is often considered and even referred to as the “The Afterlife”, is in fact the central phase in the New Babylon project.

In the years leading up to 1966, the “Year of Constant”, as the press in the NL dubbed it, the artist doggedly continues where he had left off when parting with the Situationists. But the idea of praxis, key phrase in the SI days, is radically altered: now officially operating solo, Constant will focus entirely on the theoretical elaboration and dissemination of his project and thoughts. – CONS Haus Lange 1964 – Prophecy and provocation, rather than experimentation, become the prime tools to engage in reality; propaganda becomes the means. In a continuous series of lectures, exhibitions and publications of articles, Constant tells his audience – architects and planners mainly – about the coming age and the need to prepare for it. The direct and practical aim remained: to convince as many as possible that a better city could and indeed urgently needed to be planned, to generate a momentum amongst practitioners that might actually usher in radical change.

During the five years after the SI debacle Constant make the Situationists’ rather tentative rendering of a golden life-to-be entirely his, by synthesising his ideas from the Cobra days and the subsequent era. Amongst Constant’s many colourful and stunningly beautiful attempts to make the vision tangible to himself and to others – the many models, paintings, drawings, slide shows, lectures and texts – one rather obscured but important effort stands out. It is the manuscript of the book of New Babylon.

The importance of this manuscript, written in German and entitled New-Babylon – Skizze zu einer Kultur (New Babylon – Outline or rather SKETCH of a Culture), might well be overlooked, as it never made it to the printing presses and only one copy of it remains. Still, its significance is not only attested by Constant’s recurring reference to it in interviews at the time, but also in many letters that proclaim it as the crucial, all-revealing work.

– Cons / Caspari – The book was written during a period of well over five years, from 1960 to 1965, in close collaboration with Playwrite and theatre maker Karlheinz Caspari, Constant’s new intellectual sparring partner. Despite the fact that Caspari provided vital conceptual backing, the book and its contents are the work of Constant alone. 160 typed pages in all, it is in effect a collection of 74 short numbered chapters grouped into three distinct parts. The first section consists of three seemingly separate essays – “A sociology of the Artist”, “The song of Labour” and “The Functional Zion” – and is presented as an ‘introduction’ to New Babylon itself, the subject of the second part. A third, final section completes the tome. Referred to as the Atlas, it is an illustrated coda: a presentation of maps and illustrations of the project. Though the text often moves capriciously from argument to argument and from chapter to chapter, the underlying structure of the book is exceptionally clear: Part One is a radical cultural and social critique dealing with the past and the present. Part Two and Part Three are its counterpoint, the ‘outline’ of the culture to come; they describe and tentatively depict the new society and the built form that will foster and sustain it. – Stachanov –

Constant sets the contrast between the old and the coming world at the very beginning of the book, even before the text proper begins. In four “definitions” he introduces the terms he will be using repeatedly: “Utilitarian society”, “Homo Ludens”, “Play”, and “Social space”. The first term describes the world marked by the primordial struggle for survival – the only one, according to Constant, that man has known so far. The three others, which define marginalized and intrinsically exceptional phenomena in the world of want and scarcity, belong to the realm of New Babylon. – Homo Ludens – Moreover, in his description of the ‘utilitarian society’ of ‘Homo Faber’, Constant establishes essential connections that underlie every argument in the book: between the material/economic basis of society, the position of creativity and art within it, the morals of that society and the cities it builds for itself. It is this Marxist stance that will fundamentally motivate Constant’s outline of New Babylonian culture. – Meisje en hond –

To begin with, it is necessary to bear in mind that the making of culture – which according to Constant is produced through the acting out of creativity in play – is indeed the alpha and omega of New Babylon. Constant defines play as the freedom to manifest one’s existence through creation, as a celebration of life by way of the free, transformational act. Constant therefore makes it quite clear in his introductory “definitions” that when talking of play he is not thinking in terms of a game with fixed rules of conduct: to play chess is not a creative act. Invention – a continuous search for the new that is ultimately sui generis – and freedom from all external constraints are absolute prerequisites. – Beestjes – By presenting play as a basic expression of a life force that can accept no rules other than the ones it itself generates, Constant reiterates the egalitarian tenet of Cobra: “en chaque homme il y a un créateur qui sommeille”.

The term Homo Ludens (man at play) that Constant – like the Lettrists – adopted from cultural historian Johan Huizinga must be understood in this connection. In his book, bearing the same title, Huizinga defines play as a universal human impulse that is, essentially, the basis of all culture. But where each person has the natural ability to play, play itself, according to Huizinga, has its restrictions – Brueghel –: he defines it as a temporary suspension of the everyday, a demarcated realm outside of seriousness. The illusion of play is therefore limited in time and in space: play creates a magic circle that can at any time be broken by the intrusion of reality or the end of the game. To illustrate his point, Huizinga refers to parties or country fairs, where, temporarily, Homo Ludens comes to the fore. Constant therefore needs to change the dialectic in a crucial way: the criterion that defines play is not so much its contrast with the earnestness of ‘reality’, but its moral and practical opposition to usefulness or utility. – Jan Steen –

This said, however, the central idea Huizinga and Constant both embrace is that all cultural production is the result of play in freedom. This premise is important, for it is here that the question of creation becomes a political issue. In the course of history, Constant argues in “a sociology of the artist”, to create in liberty has been the privilege of the few, of those fortunate enough to be relieved of the burden of production labour or the need to keep themselves alive. – Velasquez – In a condition of material scarcity, in a battle with nature for survival – which has been near permanent so far – it is only through the exploitation of the majority that a minority has been able to produce culture. Art is a luxury by and for the few, effectively created on the backs of the many. Though it would appear that with this Constant voices the guilty conscience of the artist, he nonetheless defends the position as a sad inevitability: without this functional inequality, there would simply never have been any art. This view also forms the basis of his critique of utopias: they invariably aim for social justice through imposed equality and celebrate man as a frugal production animal – as a Homo Faber: “utopias, constant insists, are in their essence hostile to art”. – Appel –

Constant ends his trip through history in “a sociology of the artist” with a vicious attack on the “pseudo avant-garde” and the neo-Cobra painter: “In this comedy of errors, the painter, especially, plays a comic role. He is the quasi-barbarian in the era of the atom, the caveman in the space age. (…) The artist no longer exists, only his caricature.” – Pinot-Galliz – End quote. It reminds us of his two-year polemic with the SI. If, in Constant’s view, the artist’s fate had been sealed effectively with industrialisation, the prospect of the full automation of production labour – through cybernetics – will deliver the coup de grace. The crisis of the individualist artist, brought to a head by automation, accompanies the dawning of the age of mass creation.

Indeed automation is absolutely crucial: without it, New Babylon and its culture fall like a house of cards. – Wiener – As many sociologists at the time were deeply concerned with the question of how the developed world should deal with the vast increases in leisure time that were predicted by the gurus of cybernetics – Norbert Wiener, most prominently – it has been tempting, time and again to present New Babylon as an artistic answer to the technological and social challenges posed at the end of the 1950s (another of these would be the population explosion). Indeed Constant, for obvious reasons, preferred to talk of his project as a rational planning necessity. – Fourastie – Thus, sadly, historians have far too often refused to look beyond the rhetoric, and in so doing they bypass the obvious underlying social and artistic motivations. Though it claims to offer practical solutions, New Babylon is most pertinently not a form of problem-solving ‘research’, futurology or rational trend extrapolation: the cultural vision of New Babylon precedes all practical concerns. If the historical perspective outlined in the first chapter of Skizze zu einer Kultur harks back to Constant’s 1948 Manifesto, it is indeed automation that rendered Cobra’s dream of a universal people’s art potentially feasible. It was truly a godsend, a deus ex machina. – Readers Digest –

In “Das Lied der Arbeit” (The song of Labour), chapter 2, which deals extensively with the issue of automation, Constant attempts to construct the historic inevitability of New Babylon – sometimes and with hindsight, of course, to unintended comic effect. The ultimate hurdle from Constant’s point of view in the breakthrough to New Babylon, however, is the attitude to work, the ingrained morality of Ora et Labora.The problem does not merely extend, according to Constant, to traditional Christian values: the glorification of work – the aim of equal happiness or displeasure for all members of society – also pervades socialist and Marxist thought. He reminds us – Rode Vuist – that the luxury of true art – play in freedom – tends to be sacrificed on the altar of social equality. Insistently he calls on socialism, in all its incarnations, to review its tactic and embrace automation, despite all short- to medium-term dangers: it will ultimately bring about not only the revolution, but also the unheard-of freedom in cataclysm’s wake. Total automation will drastically tip the scales and completely reset the moral compass: Only the goals of art or play – satisfaction and pleasure – will finally be of true value. – Amsterdam –

The chapter “The Functional Zion”, brings us to Constant’s critique of modernist urbanism. In this final part of the run-up to the description of New Babylon proper, he introduces the reader to what is essentially killed off in the CIAM city and what will be the heart of New Babylon: social space. Constant describes modernist urbanism as the inevitable material manifestation of the utilitarian frame of mind. “The city as we find it today, the functional city, is a gigantic slave reservation”. – Grossstadt –  In this equation the functionalist doctrine is the perverse celebration of humankind’s miserable condition: by defining art in terms of usefulness and functionality (and creating form according to its imaginary dictate) it “raises utility to the level of cultural principle”. Like the ideology it springs from, the functionalist city is a cultural and practical extrapolation of the Taylorist-Fordist principle, an efficient production machine with its functions split up according to the tenets of the Athens charter. – V. spatiale – In the same vein he fiercely attacks the architecture of what he calls “technocratic functionalism”, referring explicitly to Yona Friedman. Instead of a real critique of functionalism and the world as we know it, this ‘visionary’ megastructural architecture – for all its technical daring and formal panache – is nothing but its crowning phase. – Isozaki – It is ultimately more of the very same. – PARIS kaartje –

With the issue of social space, Constant has arrived at a crucial point in his reasoning. By sacrificing the idea of a true social realm to functional emptiness and boredom, not only real urban life, but also art along with it, has nearly all but disappeared. – GUIDE – Dysfunctional play and culture are simply planned into extinction, and the possibility for spontaneous gathering or chance encounters, the thrill and proverbial urban freedom (Stadtluft macht frei) survive in the cracks, at best. – Collage – The description of these “cracks” in the system, which Constant refers to as “acculturation zones”, immediately brings back images of the young Lettrists adrift through the back alleys of Paris.– Ed vd Elsken – It is these social spaces that will be the stuff that New Babylon is made of. Authentic and spectacle-free, their sinful nature tentatively prefigures it.

To seek a mythological contrast with utilitarian society, be it of a biblical or secular kind,
– Babylon – Constant calls on the ancient myth of the city of Babylon: in Judeo-Christian mythology, it is not only the place of captivity and exile from the home land, but also the city of the tower symbolising the human striving to be godly, the town of sin and promiscuity, the ‘whore of Babylon’. Constant thus effectively detourns the story of the Babylonian captivity: humankind finds itself in exile in what he calls the “functional Zion”. – Pantocrator – Against the millennial reign in the New Jerusalem, Constant posits the advent of the New Babylon: he inverts – or rather perverts – the prophecy. Ultimately, however – and this must be stressed – he replaces it. If it appears that he ridicules the idea of a messianic advent, like Marx he merely secularises it: the terrestrial paradise from which man was rejected, is now again within his reach. Only this time round he will build it himself, without a supreme being looking on.
– GR Gele S. – History, the great redeemer, comes full circle: “New Babylon”, proclaims Constant, “is the world that the human race, in its highest stage of development, creates for itself ‘in its image, after its likeness’”.

This world, then, is something better: a new socio-artistic order that needs to be crafted carefully. So immediately after the prophet, Constant the demiurge, the master-planning designer, enters the scene. Now let’s look at his design more closely. BLACK Enter Part 2 of Skizze zu einer Kultur.

– Kaart 1 – This is one of the famous maps Constant made for the book. It shows the web of interconnected sectors – the building blocks of New Babylon – spreading out from an existing city centre, in this case Amsterdam (…many similar maps were produced for various other Western European cities). It is within these macro-infrastructural supports, indicated in red, that the life of Homo Ludens will unfold. Moving up one level of scale, – Kaart 1 –   we can see the chain of sectors snaking its way across the landscape, branching off, intersecting and forming an urban network across the landscape. Very carefully the existing urban cores are encircled and embraced by the new structures and integrated in the larger framework. Meanwhile the sectorchains, – pers – on their march from one original urban core to the next, usually follow existing infrastructures such as railway lines and motorways. Once sufficiently developed, this huge network allows for near-endless mobility, drift, and exploration by Man at Play.

– Wisman – Constant describes the generic building block of New Babylon, the sector, as a construction, roughly the size of an urban quarter with a surface of anywhere between 5 and 20 hectares raised to a height of “about 16 metres” above the ground on stilts or by other means, like natural outcrops. The actual footprint of the sector is reduced to a minimum, keeping the ground plane as free as possible for traffic, and allowing for the landscape fragments, conserved between the arms of the sector web (including whatever remains of older constructions), to spill over into one another. – maquette – Factories and power plants – and clearly Constant is thinking in terms of nuclear energy – are either located underground, beneath the level of ‘nature’ and circulation, or above the surface but at a sizeable distance from the habitat of Homo Ludens. More importantly, however, the elevated ‘social space’ within the sectors remains uninterrupted by non-pedestrian traffic flows: – IS 3 – in this way, the massive constructions form the exclusive domain of play. The practical and the playful are symbolically separated; art, the societal superstructure, is raised above the industrial infrastructure that, safely tucked away, is pretty much taken for granted. As a result, what we see when looking at the sectors of New Babylon is only the cultural tip of the automated iceberg.

– Orient – Looking at the models of New Babylon – this is the Orient Sector, 1959 – we see that the transparent, coloured plexiglas allows us to peer through the various levels – pockmarked by frenetic lines of action – onto the smaller details within. – Gele sector –
This is the Yellow Sector from 1958, in an X-ray view. The material of the model embodies the high-tech character of New Babylon, reminding us that Constant is emphatically not preaching a return to human prehistory. Like the ultimate Plexiglas objects in New Babylon –the exquisite “Spatiovores” spatiovoor – the sector models are decidedly sexy, glamorous and seductive: they reflect the mood – the constructional and atmospheric essence – of New Babylon; their transparency is not only artistically and conceptually expedient but also iconic.

– Gezicht – If we return to the written descriptions of New Babylon, however, we get quite a different impression of its megastructures, one that confirms the suspicion that the airiness of the maquettes should certainly not be taken too literally. The drawing “Gezicht op een sector” (View of a sector) from 1960 gives us a more precise idea: it shows a huge multi-level horizontal construction raised on robust stilts, with parts of another sector, set at an angle, rising above it. – plan – These titanic Corbusian plans libres on pilotis leave little to the imagination: the world of New Babylon is one vast interior. Constant even insists that barely any light is able to penetrate far into the building, and indeed it is not meant to do so. Intentionally, Constant plunges his sectors into darkness, barring the natural cycle of day and night. – trappen en ladders –  All notion of the passing of time is simply lost: Constant’s sectors are megastructures of the night in which life as we know it is simply rendered impossible, and sheer artificiality becomes the norm within the expanse of a total interior. The thrilling obscurity of the sectors invites, even requires Homo Ludens to make it come alive. – Kleurdia – Man at Play switches on the light and creates the mood.

Constant therefore provides his New Babylonians with all the necessary spatial and atmospheric tools they need to shape and re-shape their world, continuously. – ladderlab – Whereas it is disorientating darkness that characterises the macro-structural frame of the sector, dynamic labyrinthine complexity defines its infill. Fully equipped, the huge floor levels of each sector form a gigantic labyrinth which is entirely flexible, allowing Homo Ludens not only to roam through the multitude of environments but to transform them actively, by physically shifting floors, walls, and mobile construction elements. – Litho Simon 1 – Moreover, the atmosphere and climate within this dynamic layrinth – artificial to begin with and carried to its logical extreme – can be drastically modified by the most advanced technical means: light, temperature control, sound, smell, and various forms of telecommunications.     – Litho Simon 2 – The continuous social space of the sectorchains, the endless dynamic labyrinth, is an immense experimental laboratory, a world-spanning studio for playful, nomadic mankind.

– zone rouge – In the description of the life of the New Babylonians in Skizze zu einer Kultur Constant pulls together many strains of thought. Essentially, this life is dedicated to the never-ending art of Unitary Urbanism, and New Babylon is the place in which the Lettrists’ faraway dream of an integrated life-art has become everyday reality. – ladder aqua –  The New Babylonian is footloose, drifting from space to space and sector to sector, carried on by his desires, in search of adventure, creating new experiences and new opportunities for play. If the nomadic life style in New Babylon clearly has its roots in the Parisian dérive and the romance of gipsy life, the playful drifting through the sectors is taken a crucial step forward: the unitary life-art in New Babylon is an active transformational game played in social space with other New Babylonians, collectively. – Fiesta – All action is interaction, and with life becoming play and the morals of utility out of the window, the creation of art is the essential social activity – and vice versa. It is in this essential characteristic of New Babylonian life that we see the promise of Cobra – of a universal art of the masses – finally coming into its own. Similarly, of course, the De Stijl movement’s dream of the fusion between total spatial art and life becomes a reality.

– Cobra – In fact we must return to the 1948 Experimentele Groep manifesto written by Constant to understand where the artist’s ambitions lie. In this manifesto, Constant tries to explain the essence of the universal people’s art he and his fellow Cobra painters were seeking. – Jorn – Clearly, this would be an art built on basic human creativity – on the pure, untrammelled expression of the creative imagination, devoid of any cultural convention, and accessible to every human being. The unconscious is bound to play a vital role in the process as the source to be tapped. – Fete – But though Constant does not explicitly mention it in this text, this is the point on which Cobra decidedly deviates from the ideas underpinning the Surrealist movement from which it sprang. The rift has been described as the ‘materialist’ approach of Cobra versus the ‘idealist’ stance of surrealism. – Yves T – Clearly these Marxist categories were pleasant to the ear and should not be interpreted too philosophically but fairly literally: surrealist art projected its (often libidinous) desires onto canvas, casting them into a stylistically classical form, sacrificing expression and the very rawness of the unconscious in favour of a final, finished image. The resulting art is hermetic and impenetrable, an artistically correct view into a dream world that leaves the spectator standing by in awe.

– Maskertjes – In effect, Cobra counters this spectacular passivity with the principle of material suggestiveness, which operates for the artist during the making and for the observer during the looking. Underlying the idea is the capacity of material reality itself – outside the artist and outside the spectator – to trigger the unconscious and to awaken the imagination. The suggestive quality of matter implies its essential incompleteness. In an interview from the late 1970s Constant illustrated the point: – Jorn –

I can remember when I was a child I used to see different things in the flowered wallpaper in my bedroom every night before falling asleep. I remember the fantasies I had. Leonardo da Vinci in one of his letters also mentions being inspired by weather stains on old walls. Karel Appel and I often talked about those ‘stains’ in the Cobra days. We took such a stain as our starting point, and then we said: we associate it with a particular thing, and then we’d paint that. That ‘s why I was never really an abstract painter. A stain always turned into a figure, an animal or whatever, something that could be traced to the stain. End Quote. – Nyholm –

Like a Rorschach test, the principle of suggestiveness implies imaginative intervention and a process of stimulus and response. For the Cobra artist, the essential pleasure lies in the playfully creative activity itself that is essentially open-ended until a degree of satisfaction has been achieved. The suggestive rawness of the ‘finished’ result leaves room for the spectator’s imagination – the beginning, perhaps, of another creative act, or of a potentially endless cycle of creative stimulus and response. This art knows no rules and is fundamentally accessible to anyone: it calls for improvisation and spontaneity – freedom from inhibition – and is not result-oriented or stylistic. Pleasure is thus derived from the playful, poetic and imaginative process that is not primarily a celebration of the bodily act as such – as in action painting – but rather an experience of the activating power of the responsive imagination. This art is fundamentally communicative. – Paintbox –

From this point it is only a small step to understanding the role of the material world of New Babylon and the people inhabiting and activating it. The ‘materiality’ and poetic flux which the actors generate in the social space are crucial as they provide an endless resource of creative stimulY.  Interaction and dialogue on the canvas are taken to social space. In conceiving New Babylon, Constant worked from experience, extolling the pure satisfaction of a dialectic artistic process and bringing it to mankind at large. – Labyrist –

In Skizze zu einer Kultur Constant describes how this interactive environmental play may work. If at first a space in NB is empty – though it may have a strong, basic ‘ambiance’ or mood – the entry of a single person immediately affects the situation. This one person will, naturally, adapt the space according to his wishes, using the gadgetry available. –Orgy – But it is only with the arrival of other human beings, drifting into orbit, that the game truly begins. Each arrival might provoke a welcome change, an opportunity to respond ludically and to alter the direction of play. This interplay of many fills the essential darkness, painting it brighter than a sunny day, redder than any sunset and bluer than a baby’s eyes: – cons 72 – a dynamic, passionate never-ending game, more intense and inspiring than anything that has gone before. Constant defines it as a “culture of composition”, replacing the “culture of competition” that has reigned so far. In New Babylon “Collective creativity” is the norm. – cons 65 –

But in a condition of pure flux with no limit on the number of players involved, how is genuine satisfaction and fulfilment achieved? Constant perseveres, introducing something of an equivalent to the “finished artwork”, which offers precisely that in the game of New Babylon. Quote: – Domalize –

In New Babylon every creative initiative by an individual is an intervention in the collective life ambiance; it therefore provokes the immediate counteraction of the others. Every single reactive act can in turn be a source of new reaction. In this way a kind of chain reaction of creative acts is set up, a process that can only end when a climax is achieved. Such a process is beyond the control of the individual; – blouse hongroise – it is completely irrelevant who triggers an action or what kind of intervention takes place. The point of climax, then, is an ambiance moment that can be regarded as a collective creation. The rhythm of the creation and disappearance of these ambiance moments constitutes the time-space measure of New Babylon. End Quote

– Draufganger – Constant thus sacrifices the wish for individual ‘success’ and the will for power and control, replacing them with a collective, orgiastic moment of gratification: with the euphoria and endorphin rush that occurs when something good comes together. This moment of climax, which parallels the notion of “situation” as defined by Guy Debord, is a ‘coming together’ of individuals in both meanings of the word. It is a moment of synthesis that is decidedly erotic.

– Ode – New Babylon offers continuous creative pleasure and climactic moments of unity, harmony and indeed happiness in which collective creation fulfils its true promise: the world of homo ludens is a place of a higher Order in which an ever-changing creative mass, fusing and dispersing like the coloured bubbles in psychedelic liquid wheels or lava lamps, achieves ever-new configurations. It is a mass society in which manifold collectives are the actors, whilst the mass as a whole – in permanent flux – is the actual creative subject.

– erotic space – Ultimately it is an article of faith, a matter of hope and conviction, that this grand synthesis might come about and work. If there is something essentially ungraspable and mirage-like about New Babylon it is here, at the heart of the dream. For isn’t conflict, destruction, the clash of egos, still waiting in the wings?

– paris 68 – In reponse, it is important to point out that to Constant crime and destruction – as they are both the drastic rejection of the morality of the status quo – are akin to creation. “Like the artist, Constant says, the criminal refuses to act passively vis-à-vis reality”. – police – Creation and destruction alike are transformational acts, manifestations of the vital fury that keeps man alive and kicking. Both creation and destruction demand and conquer their freedom. – Poster Jorn – But even if they are essentially made of the same stuff, Constant insists that they are far from identical. Instead, they are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps surprisingly, he introduces a qualitative difference when he defines the blind, destructive act of aggression as a “failed creation”: – odeon – “Until the time has come, writes Constant, that this urge can be sublimated into a creative urge, into a “ludic” urge, it will find its outlet in aggression.” End quote. To create positively or to play is therefore a skill: an ability that is a matter of culture.

– Provo – We can say that Constant regards the vital human life-force – that is what he calls it – as the raw material. Inextricably linked to the human need for survival, it is a drive that in the natural world of want is essentially individualistic, keeping man (and the species) alive and his competitors at bay. – Le Viol – In the pursuit of security, this life-force manifests itself as the basic need for power over and control of the environment and fellow man. And then Constant makes his point: “The creative drive”, he writes, “is a sublimation of the need for power”. End quote. Sublimation channels and transforms “more primitive drives” into creative activity and makes it effectively benign and relatively harmless. The making of art, to Constant, has a deeply therapeutic effect. – kaften – The title of the German translation of Constant’s anthology De opstand van de Homo Ludens is conclusive: Spielen oder Töten, To Play or to Kill. And New Babylon will, emphatically, be a world of passionate play, and not a world of murder.

– Rode sector –

This now is where the hardware of New Babylon – the stuff of the dream – comes in and plays its crucial role: The designed world of N B is a social and sociogenetic tool, an environment that transforms raw desire and makes it into collective art. The hardware overkill is a bare necessity in achieving the intended effect. – blauw – The structures are giant sublimators that synthesize the creative mass and keep it in a condition of satisfying fluctuation. The sectors of New Babylon, draped across the globe, do not only symbolize the unity of the new artistic society: their function is to create and sustain a new socio-artistic order, which is as thrilling as it is pacifying. – Gezicht op – But Constant uses his spatial toolbox not only to support the life of the New Babylonian, but to impose it. Because from the outset it is clear that, deep down, he does not fully trust his New Babylonians: they may still be harbouring the festering remains of mankind’s natural inclinations.

For the solution to this dilemma we must return to the labyrinth. – labyrfoto – In Skizze zu einer Kultur, Constant goes to great lengths to explain the difference between the classic labyrinth with a centre (and a fixed route to it) and the dynamic labyrinth that forms the social space of New Babylon. Thanks to to the built-in flexibility of the dynamic labyrinth and the continuous changes made to it, the sectors of New Babylon are an endless source of discovery, full of ever-new adventure, surprise and delight: never does a person, in the same geographic space, return to the same ambiance. – labyr 2 – The ensuing “disorientation” is crucial: it allows for continuous renewal and a never-ending journey into the unknown. Rimbaud’s famous line – “Il s’agit d’arriver à l’inconnu par le dérèglement de tous les sens” – is the motto. Homo Ludens is lost and content to remain so. The theoretical mental attitude Constant referred to as “labyristic” essentially describes the mindset of the New Babylonian: non-orientational, non-teleological, non-hierarchic and a-historical: man is at home in the unknown, at ease without his bearings. This is an essentially fearless, insouciant and playful attitude. – ESR – Constant summed it up with the phrase “a labyrinth is not a labyrinth”: dwelling in insecurity, Constant’s Homo ludens is a creature who has lost interest in past or future beyond the immediate workings of artistic cause and effect. – Yona+cons –

Yona Friedman – the architect Constant had many a discussion with in the early 60s – summed up his objections to N B by pointing out that Constant was all too specific about where he, and his Homo Ludens, wished to go: Constant in his eyes was a metteur en scene, even a dictator. Friedman reminds us that in New Babylon it is not just mediocre mankind mucking about in automated liberty, but that the creation of a great culture and a new man is the raison d’être of this new world. As Friedman put it: “Constant always profoundly disliked the ordinary, the petit bourgeois, people just doing their little thing.” End quote.

– My Lai – The dynamic labyrinth – along with the rest of new babylonain spatial hardware – thus has a vital anthropogenetic function, which is underlined time and again. It is a means for continuous mental and social de-programming. It eliminates the traces of Homo Faber and prevents man from slipping back into his old habits. Like the suspension of the day-night cycle in the depths of the sector, the labyrinth ensures that natural drives, fears and inhibitions are eliminated or overcome. The sector and its labyrinth is a hatching machine for the “labyristic” attitude. As Constant insisted early on, brainwashing is a beneficial strategy. In order to create, one needs first to destroy.

– Terrain 1 – In Skizze zu einer Kultur Constant takes the issue of the new man one final step further. The means, however, are decidedly un-Marxist, and in none of his other texts have these eugenetic arguments surfaced as strongly. Constant takes the detour through human sexuality: whilst attacking the puritan mores of the bourgeoisie and embracing the budding sexual revolution, he confesses that free sexuality has its usefulness as well as the world makes its transition to New Babylon. – Terrain 2 –

Communities and nations, writes Constant, collapse and fuse; with the disappearance of opposition and competition the need to keep up barriers and borders disappears. As the final obstacle, the separation of races will come to an end. The precondition for this is the mechanisation of production in the “coloured” parts of the world, which ends the white race’s rule over the coloured races. (…) The elimination of barriers will inevitably lead to the mingling of all races, and thus a world race can come into existence: the race of the New Babylonian. Perhaps more than the material factors, it will be biological evolutionary history that justifies the hypothesis that the New Babylonian is a human being whose actions are determined by free intuition and not by impulses dragged along. The variety of attributes and characteristics found in the separate races will, through this mingling, start a process that weakens “inborn” patterns of thought and which will ultimately free man from the shackles of his “natural instincts”. Dixit Constant. – Foto mensen –

This reminds us of the quote at the beginning this talk from 1961, in which Constant talks about the induced companionship of cat and mouse – the lion and the lamb. Though clearly Constant prefers to take the Marxist route, which automation now makes possible, it is clear that ultimately any means are welcome to fuse the collective and achieve the botherhood of man. – Mekong river –

The passage above also hints at the idea that New Babylon will not be built in a day, but that the “end of history” in which the “last man” takes his place is the fruit of a period of transition. Constant points out that struggle and apocalyptic upheaval might have to precede the construction of New Babylon. Getting there will not be easy. Separate fragments in Skizze zu einer Kultur confirm that it will take a post-revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat (or rather: of the “masses”) to bring about the socialisation of land and production means, as a prelude to the eventual abolition of private property. – Ontwaakt  – This will naturally be followed by a period in which the masses will first have to construct the hardware of New Babylon – potentially an era of toil before mankind can fully reap the fruits of its labour – and in which, bit by bit, the sectors of New Babylon will spread over the landscape. Only then, Constant’s scenario tells us, will the free, ludic lifestyle of the new world slowly but surely come about and can the new man be born. – sectoren bos – Quote:

The building of New Babylon takes place gradually, sector-by-sector, whilst the old existing structures are demolished according to requirements. In the beginning, therefore, the sectors lie dispersed between historic urban areas. For the inhabitants of these old, functional quarters that die off with the disappearance of work, these sectors serve as cultural centres. They are places of encounter, of pleasure, of social gathering. (…) Once the sectors have begun to form an independent, self-contained pattern, New Babylon begins to provoke its own lifestyle. Gradually, the New Babylonian species that spends its entire life inside, travelling through the world of the sectors, will emerge. This sequence of development will start simultaneously in a large number of places in highly industrialised areas. (…) One will be able to observe similar processes on all continents. The final stage of the development has been reached when the sector net has covered the entire planet. End of Quote.

– Black – Constant’s manuscript was never published. In the summer of 1965 the book is finished, and in the following two years, at least, Constant continues to speak of its imminent publication. But Karlheintz Caspari – now acting as Constant’s agent – does not manage to get it printed. Articles and lectures written in conjunction with the book ultimately find their way into Opstand van de Homo Ludens, an anthology of essays published in 1969, and the New Babylon exhibition catalogue from 1974 (with the article “Outline of a culture” based largely on part 2 of Skizze zu Einer Kultur). But whereas these collections give a good insight into the theoretical underpinnings of Constant’s cultural philosophy they lack the drive and unity of the Skizze manuscript.

– utopia  – And if we want to be academic about it, this unity is distinctly utopian. In the book, Constant’s integral view of man and the world finds its positive outlet in a model for a new culture, an artistic society that at the end of history will span the world and bring together mankind in play. By juxtaposing “Functional Zion” – the past and present – and the “New Babylon”– another place in another time – as its counterpoint, Constant manifestly operates within the polarity that characterises all classic utopias: with the means of contrast and analogy. – fourier – A radical socio-cultural critique informed by an integral Menschbild precedes a depiction of a better world that is not yet there.

Whereas classical utopias – written in the wake of the discoveries of new worlds, cultures and unknown continents – invariably situated their ideal societies in a faraway place, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, at the latest, utopia has habitually been projected into time, even to the extent that an idealized past is projected into the future, as in the post-revolutionary craft arcadia of William Morris’s News from Nowhere. – Morris –  Utopia holds the promise of a better future, and even though it comes very close to the 20th century categories of futurology and science fiction it remains a construct with characteristics of its own. – Morris 2 –

Constant’s project can indeed be seen as a direct answer to William Morris’s work. Both New Babylon and News from Nowhere are Marxist utopias: they offer a perspective of the world after the revolution. But where Morris’s neo-medieval England turns its back on the city and technology, Constant embraces them as the keys to the final stage of history. For both men, history is the driving force – the messiah that will ultimately build heaven on earth – but for Constant, the most consistent of Marxists, this new culture is unthinkable without the solid foundations of a radically new productive infrastructure. – map utopia –

Likewise, Constant’s world of Homo Ludens is the progeny of Thomas More’s original Utopia. Skizze zu einer Kultur may not be a work of literature, but still the direct parallels are more than obvious. Constant’s formal objections to utopias – if we stick to his definition – are known: they are invariably idealized visions of a better life (of moral self restraint) for Homo Faber, and not designed for a new man. Moreover, as a social and spatial construct they are ordered and static. But in fact exactly the same can be said of New Babylon: its seemingly erratic hardware follows the strictest of rules and prescriptions while the condition of permanent flux inside the sectors constitutes a harmonious social order comparable with that of any utopia. In New Babylon, too, history comes to an end: the socio-artistic equilibrium is dynamic but self-perpetuating and stable.

The two seemingly incompatible sides of the project – the precise and the intangible – led historian Mark Wigley to describe New Babylon both as “research” responding to the practical challenges of the times – and as an illusive blur, a material world that cannot, and refuses to, be visualised. Correct. But never does Wigley describe it as such at the same time. Though he refuses to use the term, ultimately the two sides overlap in utopia. – Black –

Had Skizze zu einer Kultur been published, it would probably have changed our current perception of New Babylon considerably. Whereas Constant’s impressive models, drawings, slide shows, etc. were ultimately brilliant in suggesting New Babylon, the book went a long way in providing a programme and a design for its realisation: it is not only speculative or descriptive in its depiction of New Babylonian life and the spaces it flourishes in, but also prescriptive. Whether the book would have achieved its intended effect – getting more planning professionals involved – is, of course, another matter: doubtless it would have met with a great deal of resistance and fierce accusations of chilling technocracy or naïve ‘utopianism’. But though it might have made the project much easier to pigeonhole, the book would have offered the most complete picture not only of New Babylon but also of what motivated it – its utopian inner logic. However blurred the outlines of New Babylon would later be, at its heart it is a utopia that sadly never got its book. – foto Cons –

Skizze zu einer Kultur would have provided a powerful vision of a world that was just over the horizon, a view of “a preferable course of history” kept intact by sheer hope and will power. In the closing lines of Skizze Constant speaks at least as much to himself as to his reader: “In contrast with the thousand year reign of the Chiliasts, New Babylon is realisable: why should we not be optimists?” Certainly, the book would have proved the most optimistic expression of Constant’s deep-rooted convictions: it would have offered the ideological militancy of the manifesto of the Experimentele groep, combined with the boldly constructed outlook onto a better world which Cobra could not yet provide. In projecting the creative privilege of the artist and the nomadic freedom of the gipsies onto the whole world, Constant, the painter, transposes and transcends his own pain, frustrations, hopes and desires. Like the many utopias that preceded it, New Babylon is a psychogeogram of its maker.

What the book meant to the artist is also clear: it was the fruit and synthesis of many years of work – from the 1940s to the 1960s – and it is not surprising that Constant repeatedly insisted that it was absolutely essential. In a phone conversation in 2001, Constant confessed – in fact he did so twice – that the publication of the book was planned as the end of his work on New Babylon. It would have coincided with the first great exhibition of the project in late 1965 in The Hague. This statement to me came as a shock, as –  by most accounts –  the project ends in 1969 or 1974 at the latest. We can only wonder what might have happened if the book had been printed after all. –Provo fotos –

In the end circumstance intervenes: – provo kaft –  by 1966, New Babylon had become the battle-cry of a new generation of rebels in the streets of Amsterdam. It would then still take another few years before Constant waved the world of his sectors good-bye.

– The words in bold and italic are referring to the images shown by the architect and researcher during his lecture. –

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