Constant Nieuwenhuys

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Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005) "was one of the founders of the experimental art group Reflex, which later became part of the international CoBrA movement. Discontented with the limitations of the world of art and the “individualistic nature” of painting, Constant abandoned them in 1953 to focus on a more promising exploration of metal and architectural techniques. In 1957, he became a co-founder of the Situationist International (SI) and wrote the renowned tract on Unitary Urbanism with Guy Debord. Until his resignation in 1961, he would play an essential role in the formulation of a Situationist perspective on the contemporary city and a critique of modernist urbanism.

In 1956, Constant started a visionary architectural project that would stretch out over twenty years. A utopian city that went by the name of New Babylon, it consisted of an almost endless series of scale models, sketches, etchings and collages, further elaborated by manifestos, lectures, essays and films.

“The modern city is dead; it has been sacrificed to the cult of utility. New Babylon is the project for a city in which people will be able to live. For to live means to be creative. New Babylon is the product of the creativity of the masses, based on the activation of the enormous creative potential which at the moment lies dormant and unexploited in the people. New Babylon assumes that as a result of automation non-creative work will disappear, that there will be a metamorphosis in morals and thinking, that a new form of society will emerge.”

Constant envisaged a society where automation had realised the liberation of humanity from the toils of industrial work, replacing labour with a nomadic life of creative play outside of the economic domain and in disregard of any considerations of functionality. “Contrary to what the functionalists think, culture is situated at the point where usefulness ends”, was one of Constant’s more provocative statements. Homo Faber, the worker of industrial society, was to be succeeded by Homo Ludens, the playful man or as Constant stated, the creative man. This was the inhabitant of New Babylon that thanks to modern architectural techniques would be able to spontaneously control and reconfigure every aspect of the urban environment. Constant took the surrealist slogan “poetry should be made by all” and translated it to the urban environment, “tomorrow, life will reside in poetry”. The work of Constant thus combined an aversion for modernist functionalism with an intense appreciation of the emancipatory potentials of new technology. Mechanisation would result in the arrival of a “mass culture of creativity” that would revolt against the superstructure of bourgeois society, destroying it completely and taking the privileged position of the artist down with it. A society would be created where, in accordance with Marx’s vision of art in a communist society, “there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities”. The work of Nieuwenhuys would have a direct and major influence on the rise of youth movement Provo." (from an essay by Merijn Oudenampsen, 2008)

Publications[edit]

Literature[edit]

  • Mark Wigley, Constant's New Babylon: The Hyper-Architecture of Desire, Rotterdam: Witte de With and 010 Publishers, 1998, 256 pp.
  • Another City for Another Life: Constant’s New Babylon, New York: Drawing Center, 1999, 39+34 pp.
  • Catherine de Zegher, Mark Wigley (eds.), The Activist Drawing: Retracing Situationist Architectures from Constant's New Babylon to Beyond, New York: Drawing Center, and MIT Press, 2001.
  • Constant. Nueva Babilonia, Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2015, 310 pp. Catalogue. (Spanish)

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