Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005) was a member of the Dutch branch of the world-famous COBRA movement, which also included Karel Appel and Corneille. In 1956, however, his work took a completely different direction. Abandoning painting, he threw himself into a vast architectural and town planning project called New Babylon, expressing his ideas for a progressive, modern society via maquettes, drawings, films, graphics and manifestos. Thanks to acquisitions in the 1970s and major donations by the artist, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag now possesses the greatest collection of New Babylon-related works anywhere in the world.
The 1950s were a time of major social change. Automated manufacturing processes were being introduced and the standard of living was rising. The growth in road and air transport was making it easier for people to travel ever further and faster. Moreover, a new balance between work and leisure was offering people greater scope for personal development. Constant felt that these developments called for a new way of organizing the physical environment.
His utopian New Babylon project proposes an ideal worldwide city of the future in which rapid change is a key assumption and life is to be lived ‘vertically’. Designed to be flexible, its buildings will form a network of structures supported on pillars and extending all over Europe. The fabric of the city is to be divided into various multi-storey sectors, within which residents will move around on foot or take lifts between the different floors. Climate, light and air are all artificially controlled. Cars, buses and freight vehicles pass underneath the buildings and the roof provides space for pedestrian areas, landscaped walkways and airport runways.
Constant’s designs for New Babylon are based on the idea of an alternative, fully automated society in which human labour has become unnecessary. This means that people are free to devote themselves entirely to the development of creative ideas. Residents of New Babylon will be a new race of ‘Homo Ludens’ (man at play) with unlimited freedom to decide the ever-changing appearance of their own surroundings. Because of this endless scope for creativity in daily life, there is no longer any need for art as such. The distinct artistic disciplines of the past – painting and sculpture, dance and theatre – will be absorbed into the playful creativity of everyday life.