A dazzling vision Constant's New Babylon: The Hyper- Architecture of Desire by Mark Wigley. Witte-de-With/010 Publishers, 1998. 256pp. £36. (Distributor Art Data 0181 747 1061)
'New Babylon' was the 20-year project of artist, sometime Situationist, and - as Mark Wigley calls him - 'architectural impersonator' Constant Niewenhuys. It was a singularly determined impersonation. From the mid- 1950s to the early 70s, Constant maintained a continuous production of models, montages, manifestos, films, lectures, drawings and paintings of a consistent architectural vision: a proliferating megastructure, premised on automation and the end of labour, that would simultaneously resolve global mobility with spontaneous creation of intense local ambiences in the Situationist game of 'unitary urbanism'.
A pervasive if elusive influence among vanguard groups such as Archigram, Superstudio and nato, 'New Babylon' is shown in depth in this excellent book. It gives a dazzling presentation of the project, impressing the force and scope of Constant's vision: 'New Babylon' will take its place with Piranesi's Carceri, Sant'Elia's Citta Nuova, and Chernykov's fantasies as a spatial totality. The vivacity of Constant's pictures and constructions exceeded that of purely architectural drawings and models; they exemplified the modus operandi of New Babylonian living, with a derive, or drift, through miles of open-plan labyrinths and galleries, all raised on pilotis above a limitless terrain of rapid transit.
What distinguished Constant from contemporary techno-utopians was his militant grasp of political economy, reinforced through participation in the Situationist International, led by Guy Debord. The SI was the last and most radical of the Modernist avant-gardes, fusing the Bauhaus ideal of the merging of the arts and the Surrealists' call for poetry to be produced by all, within a keen anti-Stalinist socialism. But it was the first vanguard group to address automation and consumerism. It saw the scope for people to recreate themselves, free from alienated work and the false goals of advertisers and planners. Against a 'society of spectacle' it posed the tactic of the 'constructed situation': in part a witty subversion by guerilla detournement of commercial formulae and administrative rule, and in part a transference to the public realm of the 'derangement of all the senses' sought during the Surrealists' erratic flaneurism through nocturnal Paris.
The city of marvellous, irrational density was the si ideal, and it led them as much against ciam as against capitalism. Indeed, it implicitly detourned architecture itself, for how can design intend undesign? Constant's answer was to split the built environment into megastructure and 'situation': rational support for the irrational act. This disruptive turn set 'New Babylon' apart from the urban megastructures of Fuller and Friedman, terminating in paintings in which the Arcadian open-plan turns into a labyrinthine setting for violent outbursts of design's 'other'.
Wigley terms it 'stained architecture', noting that a radical negativity like the Situationists' could not exclude attack on the utopia of design itself, in which 'whatever the future is, it usually looks very good in the hands of architects'. By including passion, bodies and blood, Constant returned 'play' to the reality of conflict.
Brian Hatton is a writer and teacher