Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005) co-founded CoBrA, a group of experimental artists, in the late 1940s, but in 1953 he abandoned painting to pursue the question of "construction." This evolved into a visionary architectural proposal for a future society, called New Babylon, which he would continue to develop through drawings, models, and writings over nearly twenty years, including during his time as a core member of the Situationist International from 1957 to 1960.
Constant and New Babylon holdings at the Beinecke
Constant and New Babylon material
Constant: Konstruktionen und Modelle, exhibition catalogue at Galerie van de Loo, 1960, includes essay by Guy Debord.
New Babylon, 1963, lithograph portfolio.
De New Babylon: informatief, 1965-66, four issues.
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).
In the late 1940s into the 1950s, Constant had been focusing on painting and was involved with the CoBrA artists. But by the end of the decade, he was to shift his focus towards a radical, expansive vision of the transformation of society: New Babylon. Initially called Dériville—an abbreviated form of “ville dérive,” which translates to dérive (or drift) city, a concept articulated most famously by the Situationists—Constant later renamed the project New Babylon. Henri Lefebvre has described how even in its name the planned city projected a utopian vision: “a provocative name, since in the Protestant tradition Babylon is a figure of evil. [Constant’s] New Babylon was to be the figure of good that took the name of the cursed city and transformed itself into the city of the future.” Constant would labor over this ideal city for some fifteen years, from 1959 to 1974. He created paintings, sketches, texts, and architectural models that presented this post-revolutionary, post-capitalist society. He conceived of the space as a network of linked, transformable structures, elevated above the ground. Some sections were in and of themselves the size of a small society, which architects have referred to as megastructures. The bourgeois metropolis and all the pragmatic, industrial aspects of production would remain on the ground, regulated by automated technology, whereas the floating nexus of New Babylon would be populated by a society comprised of individuals free to pursue the highest expression of their own creativity. In this society, the constraints of work, family, and civic life would give way to a holistic state of homo ludens, or man at play. Drawing on the Situationist notion of derivé, Constant proposed that people would meander throughout the elevated cityscape, engaging with different environments at their leisure. New Babylon was set up to maximize fulfillment and self-actualization for every individual, which Constant saw as the primary social goals of a liberated society. Moreover, for Constant, architecture as a medium is already imbued with the capacity to provoke and facilitate a radical transformation of everyday life, such as the vision he laid out in New Babylon.
New Babylon in Provo and de New Babylon informatief
To succeed in life is to create and re-create it incessantly…. Far from remaining passive toward
a world in which he is content to adapt himself, for better or worse, to external circumstances,
he would aspire to create another one
in which his liberty is realized.
Constant Nieuwenhuys was born July 21, 1920 in Amsterdam. As a young child, he showed great talent in drawing, and was also incredibly musical, singing, playing guitar, violin, and cimbalon. He attended the school of applied arts and the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, where he gleaned his first formal training in craftsmanship, which he would later draw on to develop the New Babylon models.
In 1946 he moved to Paris, where he met the young Danish artist Asger Jorn. Their friendship formed the basis of CoBrA group, which they founded together in 1948. That same year, Constant and Karel Appel established Reflex, Nederlands Experimentele Groep. In the summer of 1956, Jorn invited Constant to Alba, Italy, for a symposium on the topic of Industry and the Fine Arts, which was organized by the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus. At this congress, Constant presented a lecture ("Demain la poésie logera la vie") in which he proposed a free architecture which could stimulate rather than restrict creativity. Later that year, Constant visited Guy Debord in Alba, and while their conversations were productive, Constant declined to join the Situationist International when it was formed in 1957 under the auspices of Debord and Jorn by bringing together several avantgarde groups, including the Imaginist Bauhaus and Lettrist International. Constant was initially concerned about the equilibrium between art and politics and individuality and collective practice in the group, but after the Situationist International explicitly took up the flag of unitary urbanism, as defined by Constant and Debord, Constant became a member. He wrote several theoretical articles for the group's journal and staged events at museums in Paris and Amsterdam. It was during this time that he began to conceive of his master project, the utopian New Babylon, which combined his skills as a painter and sculptor with a concern for architecture and urban life. While he left the Situationists in 1960 after just two years, he continued to develop New Babylon until 1969, and in 2002, he exhibited the project at documenta 11.
Constant exhibited frequently at Galerie van de Loo, as did others in his circles, including Gruppe SPUR, the German continent of the Situationist International. Constant has also represented the Netherlands at the Venice Biennale, and in 1986 the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn presented a retrospective of his work. During the final months of his life, Thomas Doebele and Maarten Schmidt made a documentary entitled Constant, Avant Le Départ, which features rare footage of the artist working on what would be his last oil painting, Le Piège (The Trap). He died in Utrecht in 2005.
Video of models of New Babylon on view at The Hague Municipal Museum, The Netherlands.
Constant on Spatial Agency website.
Constant on DADA and Radical Art website.
"Constant," by Linda Boersma, BOMB 91 (Spring 2005).
Constant/New Babylon, exhibition at Witte de With, Rotterdam, 1998.
"On Architecture: Extra-Large," article by Sarah Williams Goldhagen in The New Republic (July 2006), which discusses the relation between Constant/New Babylon and the architect Rem Koolhaas (pdf).
New Babylon documents on NOTBORED!, a pro-situationist digital 'zine run by Bill Brown.
"New Babylon: A Nomadic City," essay by Constant written for the exhibition catalog published by Haags Gemeetenmuseum, The Netherlands, 1974 (pdf).
Review of Mark Wigley, The Hyper-Architecture of Desire (1998), on Architect's Journal.
Constant, Avant le départ, a documentary made by Maarten Schmidt and Thomas Doebele in 2005, following Constant during the final months of his life.