Constant's New Babylon

Constant, New Babylon, 1963, DM 1472.9 IN SET – Drawing Matter

Constant (Anton Nieuwenhuys) (1920–2005), New Babylon, 1963. Lithograph, 400 × 760 mm. © Estate of the artist.

I think the story would be something like this: one could try to tell the story of these drawings from the perspective of architects… but already this is to speak as though architects are here and Situationists are over there, when what’s so fascinating is that for a certain moment in time the Situationist project – if we could speak of such a thing – would seem also to be an architecture project, which is almost a contradiction in terms. One point on which this very diverse group of what we might call dissident surrealists (that is, people who are very much in the spirit of surrealism but feel that its official representatives have reduced the revolutionary force of the unconscious to a kind of aesthetic game) agree is that architecture is the very agency of repressive authority. Not only are we ruthlessly exploited but the very figure of this exploitation – the mirage by which we persuade ourselves that everything’s fine when it’s not – is the belief that there is such a thing as architecture. An official city map, then, might be understood as a military document, which has built into it the infrastructure, if you will, of popular suppression; and this suppression includes not only the systems of surveillance and control but also places like cafes, where you believe yourself to be an incubated individual. The official map of the city is not a metaphor or an image or a reflection of power, it is power itself in operation. Subverting the map, then, is a political action. So there was this idea that a true revolution would be an architectural revolution, in the sense that what you had to revolt against was architecture. What was required then was a kind of self-assassinating architecture, an anti-architecture, an architecture that would resolve itself. 

Constant was a classically trained painter who, in the period after the war, was very much a part of the CoBRA group, but when he recognised architecture’s revolutionary potential he decided he had to kill himself as an artist. He turned against art, against exhibitions. Architecture was the important thing now. Subverting architecture was revolutionary and the inevitable effect of any revolution. So he committed himself and for about fifteen years pretended to be an architect.

Constant, New Babylon, 1963, DM 1472 IN SET – Drawing Matter

Constant (Anton Nieuwenhuys) (1920–2005), Frontispiece for New Babylon, 1963. Lithograph, 155 × 200 mm.

Shown here is a 1963 drawing of New Babylon. There is almost nothing there – no walls, floors, doors, taps, faucets, toilets, or anything from the world of architecture. Constant has to simulate the role of architecture by producing drawings that resemble architectural drawings only until you look more closely and realise there's nothing architectural in them. So he assembles a variety of non-architectural effects into a sort of simulacrum of architecture. The one thing he will allow himself to draw is these thin panels. He argues that citizens will rearrange a series of panels in the middle of scaffolding to produce the kind of spaces they want to inhabit. New Babylon is a post-revolutionary society, a society of no work, no labour, no exploitation. Production is automated and happens underground so all you have to do is live. 

The entire planet becomes an architectural studio and the only thing to do, the only game in town, is to be an architect: what it means to be alive – that is, to be really alive, finally, rather than suppressed – is to build spaces for yourself and your friends in this new world.

Notice, however, that there are no figures here. He insists that he cannot draw people, for the same reason he cannot draw the architecture as such. He said to me many times, that to draw the bodies would be an outrage: these people may want different bodies. This whole two arms, two legs idea is related to the previous regime, so it’s thrown out. So there are no humans here, not even the ghosts of humans. 

It is one city at the size of the planet. A city without fixed divisions: a single interior, a room the size of the planet – bigger even, since it floats over the planet. You can descend to the ground to visit the ruins of traditional architecture and traditional repressive social organisation if you want, but you basically live your entire life drifting inside, reconstructing yourself.

Now in 1960 Constant is invited to make an exhibition of the project, and he refuses on the grounds that to do so would be to treat the project as art. Debord tells him he’s right but that strategically he should do it, in order to undermine the institution from inside. So they go ahead with the exhibition, and it is in fact Debord who had first published and named New Babylon, as well as writing the texts explaining what the project means. Debord even insists that the New Babylon project represents the collective ambition of the Situationist International, but soon they are fighting over friends and Constant resigns from the group – yet continues to obsessively work on the project. 

Constant, New Babylon, 1963, DM 1472.10 IN SET – Drawing Matter

Constant (Anton Nieuwenhuys) (1920–2005), New Babylon, 1963. Lithograph, 400 × 760 mm. © Estate of the artist.

By 1968 Constant has become incredibly disillusioned with New Babylon. The Vietnam War and the sexual assault on the child of a friend of his have convinced him that humans are horrible and that if we were to produce a society in which people were liberated and could act out all of their fantasies they would in fact kill each other. So the human figure starts to arrive in the images but it arrives as a kind of stain or bloody splatter, and the images have titles like ‘Massacre’, and for about five years, up until 1972, Constant produces horrific images speculating about what the disaster in this space will be. He always insisted it’s a documentary: this is not utopia or science-fiction, it is the city of the near future, a warning. He is saying that in the end humans are inhuman, and so an architecture of liberation would be full of blood.

Constant, New Babylon, 1963, DM 1472.1 IN SET – Drawing Matter

Constant (Anton Nieuwenhuys) (1920–2005), New Babylon, 1963. Lithograph, 400 × 760 mm. © Estate of the artist.

Indeed it is never clear, looking at the images, whether New Babylon is being built or taken apart. The images of the structures were always very similar to the paintings Constant did of devastated cities just after the war – and the bloody figures that eventually appear are similar to the wounded and suffering humans he had portrayed then. It appears as a kind of scaffolding system, poised between construction and collapse. It is dynamic. What we see here is Constant sabotaging his own project. He didn’t simply give up on it, he decided to turn it against itself, to kill it over a long period of time, devoting all his expertise to killing it and showing that this was a disastrous future.

And in this way, strangely, I think he remains a Situationist. In other words, the split between Constant and Debord is really only superficial, because the project for a revolutionary society was by definition exactly this kind of endless self-critical task – an attack on repressive social norms that were never simply external forces but were lethal precisely because they had internalised themselves into one’s own body and brain.

– Mark Wigley


On the the plates from the entire portfolio, see our New Babylon collection; on another member of the Situantionists Guy Debord; on the surrealist Salvador Dali; for other visions of the French and Italian avant-gardes c. 1968, Jean Aubert, Adolfo Natalini/Superstudio, and Ugo La Pietra.