The Situationist City: New Babylon and Virtual Urbanism
The material world can be a drag on our spirits, as the Police would say. Wu-Tang agrees. Cash rules everything around us, exerting its influence on every step we take and decision we make. Situationist International wanted to subvert this. The world is constructed to sell things, not for living, they maintained, and so they sought a “direct experience” to life, one free from corporate influence and cultural determinism. Though their methods were unconventional and, at times, difficult to grasp, their influence is still felt in society today. This paper will cover the background of Situationist International, the development of the concept of “unitary urbanism,” the production of a proposal called New Babylon, and finally, how their ideas are expressed in the modern day.
Begun as a philosophical movement, Situationist International sprung from the union of members of several European avant-garde groups: Lettrist International, Imaginist Bauhaus, and COBRA (COpenhagen, BRussels, Amsterdam) in the late 1950s. Paris-based Lettrist International, lead by Guy Debord, was known for its conceptual ideas, while Italy-based Imaginist Bauhaus, represented by Asger Jorn, concentrated on a more expressionist production of art. COBRA, meanwhile, lead by Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuis, was a group of European artists and writers concentrated on using the forces of expressive social revolution to combat regulation of art and politics1. The new Situationists felt that the “pioneering spirit” of modernism had been lost, becoming “self-critical to the point of virtual dissolution” and had “abandoned programs of outright revolution in order to procure patronage,” and so they sought to use their complimentary interests to recapture it. Efforts to bring “good design” to the masses, particularly the Bauhaus, had been “merged with the productivist values of capitalism and state communism,” and workers remained controlled by machine instead of the reverse2. From the beginning, Situationist International “sought to transcend the constraints of art,” and so developed the idea of the “constructed situation,” which was defined as a “moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambience and a game of events.“3
Picture 1: Founders of the Situationist International at Cosio d’Arroscia, Italy, April 1957. From left to right: Guiseppe Pinot Gallizio, Piero Simondo, Elena Verrone, Michele Bernstein, Guy Debord, Asger Jorn, and Walter Olmo. Photo by Ralph Rumney.
In seeking a physical expression for their concepts, the group naturally progressed to urbanism. Even before uniting with Situationist International, Debord’s Lettrist International was developing a framework for applying their concepts to the physical world. Modernism was pushing in on Paris, and the group set about fleshing out concepts such as psychogeography, detournement (diversions), derive (drift), situations, and unitary urbanism to combat it.4 Though the Lettrists began development of what would become important Situationist concepts, all were subheadings to Debord’s overarching concept of the “spectacle.” He defined the spectacle as “unity versus separation, a tendency to see the world by means of specialized mediations.“5 “The spectacle is capital accumulated to image,” said Debord, which Barnard described as “the notion that all human relations are mediated by images from advertising, film and other sections of mass media, driven towards controlling people’s activities and consciousness.“6 The thrust of the concept was that people passively spectate on their lives instead of directly experiencing them, leading to a decrease of engagement in self-led activity and an increase of action in the interest of the spectacles they had accumulated.
Picture 2: Psychogeographic Map of Paris by Guy Debord
Detournement and derive were intended as “acts of transcendence.“7 By the “rearrangement of pre-existing elements” (detourement) and the aimless wandering through existing urban environments (derive), the Situationists hoped to remove the influence of the spectacle of urban design from their “true” experience of life in the environment. These acts were linked to psychogeography, defined as “the study of the precise effects of geographical setting, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behavior of the individual.“8 In developing this area of study, the Situationists hoped to determine not what an environment was, but what it felt like. This then progressed into the idea of “unitary urbanism,” defined as “the complex, ongoing activity that consciously recreates man’s environment according to the most advanced conceptions in every domain.“9 Modern urbanism, according to the group, catered to “only two all-pervasive themes: automobile traffic and household comfort,” tearing down only to construct “cemeteries of reinforced concrete…in which the masses of the population are condemned to die of boredom.“10 Unitary urbanism, in contrast, attempted to “end the history of preconditioning” and create “new ways of living and working within urban environments that are guided by human need and the passional qualities of people.“11 12
One of the uniting factors within the Situationists against modernism was the auto-centric urbanism lauded by Le Corbusier and others. Debord railed against the car, placing it “at the center of this general propaganda, both as a supreme good of an alienated life and as an essential product of the capitalist market.“13 Nieuwenhuis lamented the old neighborhood streets “degenerat(ing) into freeways,” making “social relations impossible.“14 They were inspired to bring their concepts into the real world by a young Ivan Chtcheglov (who would later be arrested for plotting to blow up the Eiffel Tower), who, in his essay “Formulary for a New Urbanism” declared “The hacienda must be built.” Chtcheglov imagined an architecture that would “change in accordance with the will of (its) inhabitants” and a city made up of districts that corresponded to feelings and experiences rather than use.15
Though Debord and Nieuwenhuis had worked together developing the tenets of unitary urbanism, their paths diverged in regards to Chtcheglov’s challenge. Debord, staying true to his conceptual roots with the Lettrists, wanted an urbanism that was “independent of all aesthetic considerations” and “the fruit of a new type of collective creativity.“16 He increasingly saw the role of the Situationists as propagandists, a shift in philosophy manifested today in “culture jamming” organizations such as Adbusters.17 18 Nieuwenhuis, however, took the challenge seriously.
Picture 3: New Babylon, Nord, a visualization of unitary urbanism. Painting by Constant Nieuwenhuis.
In his essay “Another City for Another Life,” Nieuwenhuis laid out a specific physical vision for a new “hacienda.” He felt that the future would bring a life of total leisure brought about by increasing automation, which would eliminate the burden of work.19 Recreation, he reasoned, was “the recouping of energy lost during the working process,” and so “as soon as there is a surplus of energy available for activities other than work, recreation becomes pointless and makes way for the possibility of true creativity.“20 In the absence of work, Nieuwenhuis saw the rise of a new species; Homo ludens (taken from anthropologist Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture) would necessitate a new society in which “a man’s way of life (would) be determined not by profit but by play.“21 In this way, New Babylon would be a playhouse for Homo ludens, a hedonistic utopia where individual creativity and freedom reigned supreme.
Picture 4: Schets voor een mobiel labrint (sketch for a mobile labyrinth). Pencil, watercolor and crayon by Constant Nieuwenhuis
Because “so much public space is forbidden ground to the pedestrian…he is forced to seek his social contacts either in private areas (houses) or in commercially exploited ones (cafes or rented halls),” which, according to Nieuwenhuis, robbed the city of “its most important function: that of a meeting place.“22 This aversion to traffic led to the vision of a floating city, providing a continuous space of varied levels and terraces for housing and recreation, free from the cars below. Most of all, this city would be configured in order to provide the means to “create an infinite variety of ambiences (that) facilitate the wanderings of the inhabitants and their frequent chance encounters.“23 “Beholden to no one,” writes Goldhagen about these New Babylonians, “he would sleep, eat recreate, and procreate where and when he wanted; self- fulfillment and self-satisfaction were (the) social goals.“24 Nieuwenhuis ultimately imagined a worldwide network of megastructures, all connected to one another, a network of units tied together by links, offering the material conveniences necessary to encourage a nomadic lifestyle.25
Nieuwenhuis saw the natural world as a hindrance upon man’s creativity, a limiting factor in the pursuit of pure life experience. Thus, the entire structure of New Babylon was enclosed, giving humanity freedom even “from the monotonous alteration of day and night.“26 This would also allow for the greatest variance of ambiences possible, enabling any situation to be constructed anywhere in the structure. Access to the outside world would still be available, but this space was reserved for agriculture, nature reserves, forests, and fully automated production centers, not for living. Nature’s role was as a backdrop, as anything that could not be controlled by man would be banished from New Babylon.
Picture 5: New Babylon. Painting by Constant Nieuwenhuis
Fascinated by labyrinths, Nieuwenhuis aimed to make New Babylon the ultimate arena for what Chtcheglov called “continuous drift;” “the changing of landscapes from one hour to the next,” he said, would “result in complete disorientation.“27 This disorientation was desirable, Nieuwenhuis maintained, because it “facilities contacts between people. Ties are made and unmade without any difficulty, endowing social relations with a perfect openness.“28 This total unburdening of humanity would allow one to find and express their true self; the family structure would be broken and ties to the land would be lost. Sense of place was totally abandoned, replaced by infinite and immediate customization by the individuals inhabiting the space.29
Picture 6: Map of New Bablyon superimposed on The Hague, Netherlands. Illustrated by Constant Nieuwenhuis
Ultimately, New Babylon was destined to fail. While attempting to create a world in which man could realize his truest expression, Nieuwenhuis ended up creating a vision much like those of the man he and his fellow Situationists so despised: Le Corbusier.30 His project “reproduce(d) the same alienating conditions of the urban landscape” and “closely mirrored the modernist large-scale urban re-development so criticized by the S.I.“31 Additionally, the idea that the ambiences inside New Babylon would “be regularly and consciously changed…by teams of specialized creators” or “professional situationists” was too similar to the technocratic state communism of which the Situationists were wary.32 Nieuwenhuis abandoned the project after a 1974 exhibition at the Haags Gemeetenmuseum in The Hague. Ten years later, in a retrospective essay, he maintained that the project was still possible, but acknowledged that it was more thought exercise than actual proposal. It “was conceived more as illustration than as a basis for construction,” he writes, and that because “New Babylon was to be made by the New Babylonians themselves…it is impossible and pointless to design a city for the future because we have no say in that future.“33
Though the New Babylon project has been relegated to a utopian architectural curiosity, this project and other Situationist concepts continue to influence modern society. The concept of disorientation, and the look of much of Nieuwenhuis’ architecture, can be clearly seen in modern deconstructivist designs. The Situationists’ distaste for the automobile and the resulting degradation of the pedestrian, as well as their emphasis on “acculturation zones,” the role of city as meeting place, and the desirability of mixed uses, are all manifested in the tenets of New Urbanism and Smart Growth. Though they were hardly the only group to have these thoughts, they were some of the most vocal, and correctly predicted the downfall of several Parisian urban redevelopment projects.
This paper mainly followed the development of Constant Nieuwenhuis’ project, but only because he was the only one that attempted to create a physical representation of the unitary urbanism concept. Debord’s ideas, while conceptually important, never really lead to a physical representation. They did, however, lead to the practice of “culture jamming,” as was mentioned earlier. Naomi Klein and her No Logo movement carry on his ideas, saying “the demand…is to build a resistance - both high-tech and grassroots, both focused and fragmented - that is as global, and as capable of coordinated action, as the multinationals it seeks to subvert.“34 The worldwide Occupy protests provide a clear example of Debord’s continued relevance.
The true realization of Nieuwenhuis’ vision was in something he could not have fully foreseen: the internet. His visualizations show linear megastructures sprawling across the world, a network of hubs and links functioning as conduits for the aimless wanderings of its inhabitants as they bounce freely from one experience to the next. A place where everything is temporary, where individuals make and end contact easily, where anyone can see anything they want whenever they want. Though the physical limitations of an endlessly reconfigurable world may have been quite obvious, the virtual realm is the perfect environment for the concept. There is no average density or lot size, no ecology or pattern. The internet is New Babylon.
Barnard, A. 2004. The legacy of the situationist international: The production of situations of creative resistance. Capital & Class 28 (3): 103.
Chtcheglov, I. 1981. Formulary for a new urbanism. Situationist International Anthology. 1-4.
Debord, Guy. 1959. Situationist theses on traffic. Trans. Ken Knabb. Internationale Situationniste, no. 3:56-58.
———. 1995. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books.
Editorial. 1958. Definitions. In Situationist International Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Ken Knabb. Berkely, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1989.
Goldhagen, Sarah W. 2006. On Architecture: Extra-Large. The New Republic, July 31.
Kinkle, J. 2010. Correspondence: The foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957-August 1960); All the King’s Horses; 50 years of Recuperation of the Situationist International. Historical Materialism 18 (1): 164-177.
Klein, Naomi. 2000. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Toronto: Knopf.
Kotanyi, Attila and Raoul Vaneigem. 1961. Programme elementaire du bureau d’urbanisme unitaire [Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism]. Trans. Ken Knabb. Internationale Situationniste, no. 6.
Nichols, J C. 2004. Nomadic urbanities: Constant’s new babylon and the contemporary city. Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies 4 (2): 29-52.
Nieuwenhuis, Constant S. 1959. Une autre ville pour une autre vie [Another city for another life]. Trans. Ken Knabb. Internationale Situationniste, no. 3.
———. 1966. Nieuw urbanisme [New Urbanism]. Trans. The Friends of Malatesta. Provo, no. 9.
———. 1974. New Babylon. Exhibition catalog. The Hauge: Haags Gemeetenmuseum.
———. 1980. New babylon - na tien jaren [New Babylon - Ten Years On]. Lecture. Trans. Robyn de Jong Dalziel
Nieuwenhuis, Constant S and Guy Debord. 1958. The amsterdam declaration. Internationale Situationniste, no. 2.
Sadler, S. 1999. The Situationist City. The MIT Press.
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