Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon, created between the late 1950s and early 1970s, is the gloomy, expressive counterpart to the pop appeal of Plug-in City. The ‘sectors’, Constant’s districts, are raised off the ground on struts and piles, slide labyrinthine in and out of each other, and form a dense mesh of levels and passages, tensions and supports. There is no orientation or master plan; New Babylon has neither a centre nor a beginning or end.

Gezicht op New Babylonische sectoren, 1971. Watercolour and pencil on photo- montage, 135 x 223 cm. Collection of the Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, NL

One of the most astonishing volte-faces within twentieth century arthistory must surely be that Constant, a co-founder member of the artists’ group Cobra, and an exponent of expressive, gestural painting, became one of the most important artists to revive geometrical, space-oriented art. Along with the architect Aldo van Eyck he worked on spatial/ colour conceptions, participated in the debates on architecture and urbanism in the architects’ groups ‘De 8’ and ‘Opbouw’, co-operatedwith Gerrit Rietveld, and took part in the 1953 CIAM conference in Aix-en-Provence. Constant the painter became a creator whose visionary projects were orientated towards social practice. He joined the Situationist International and for a few years Guy Debord was his most important partner in intellectual discussions.

Symbolische voorstelling van New Babylon, 1969
Collage, 122 x 133 cm, Collection of the Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, NL

New Babylon is not, as the sculpturally formed models of the sectors created from 1958 onwards might suggest, merely an artistic urban vision; detailed plans, technical drawings, ground plans and precise descriptions of the megastructure followed. Constant was convinced that the first sectors would be built within the foreseeable future. They were to spread like rhizomes, stretching above the traditional cities and the landscape, gradually growing together into a network spanning the world. Inside, the New Babylonians, freed by automated production from the need to work or remain settled, could do as they pleased within the labyrinthine passages, determined only by the power of their imagination and creativity. New Babylon represents the end of all cities, and equally the end of art which, now practiced collectively, flows directly into life.


MR

Groep sectoren, 1959. Metal, ink on plexiglass, oil on wood, 4,5 x 100 x 100 cm
Collection of the Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, NL