New Babylon

Prof. Ömür Harmanşah, Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University
Providence, October 7-8, 2011

“Symbolic representation of New Babylon” by Constant Nieuwenhuys (1969)

I am intrigued by the idea of an architectural future formulated as a narrative that links the past and the contemporary to a necessarily distant future. If you favor a political reading of this narrative, you could also conceptualize it as a colonizing and modernist gesture that extends the grand narratives of western technological progress into the untouched spaces of the future. Nathaniel Robert Walker points to us quite insightfully that the future is first and foremost imagined as a place “as the new Promised Land, the Millennial Landscape, as Utopia” (Walker 2011: 4). This place-making practice in the landscapes of the future is fascinating as a representational project that aims to anchor future environments of dwelling as accurately constructed places, often depicted as living and even sometimes eventful spaces. Such realism effect in a way contrasts with a certain prevalence of floating buildings, vehicles and peoples, and an overall feeling of dislocatedness or visions of generic locales, which surely derives its arrogant anti-place attitude from colonial modernity.

Interestingly the projects of the future as utopias draw so much from the ancient past —or antiquity if you prefer— very similar to the nineteenth and early twentieth century modernist discourses. If the creation of a utopian social landscape involves and avant-gardism that cuts its ties with the recent past, the tendency is to turn to the distant past as a repository of ideas, forms, monuments, place-histories. In the scientific endeavors of future design, what is negated and abandoned is collective memory and emotional ties, senses of belonging to place. This is replaced by a rigorous archaeological science of antiquity, which is equally idealized as the future and imagined as utopias. Think of the so-called “democratic” and ideal society of fifth century bce Athens, Mussolini’s idealization of Augustus and his empire, Egyptian or Maya pyramids built by some technologically advanced but now vanished society. Atlantis, the vanished land of ancient prosperity and wisdom, is no less utopic than Robert Owen’s New Harmony.

When teaching archaeology courses on the Ancient Near East here at Brown, I often talk about the city of Babylon and its legacies in medieval Islamic and post-Enlightenment West. I ask my students why Babylon, unlike any other city in ancient Mesopotamia, have been in the forefront of historical imagination, from Pieter Brueghel, the Elder’s 16th century painting Tower of Babel to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 movie Babel? One of the fascinating examples of the intersection of ancient utopias with architectural futures is “New Babylon” by the famous Dutch artist and city-planner Constant Nieuwenhuys. Constant was a founding member of the Situationist International and his “New Babylon” was his long-term project of a utopian city of the future designed as a polemical provocation that critiqued the corruption and alienation in cities of industrial modernity (Wigley 1999; Sander 1999). The experimental idea of “New Babylon” was presented in a series of constructivist designs in the form of city models, experimental architectural drawings, sketches, etchings, lithographs, and photocollages, and elaborated in manifestos, essays, lectures, and films. This city was intended to be “ephemeral and without a future, passageways” an eventful landscape of constructed situations that allowed “a nomadic life of creative play, a modern return to Eden in Constant’s own words (Sander 1999: 105). The urban space in this truly utopic but a collectively constructed world that generated rather than restricted movement, uprisings and social encounters.

The architectural futures that Nathaniel Robert Walker presents us in Building Expectation is a politically charged field of imagination about space and spatiality that appropriates utopias of the past to rethink utopias of the future.

References

Sadler, Simon; 1999. The situationist city. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.

Walker, Nathaniel Robert; 2011. Building expectation: past and present visions of the architectural future. Providence RI: Bell Gallery, Brown University.

Wigley, Mark; 1998. Constant’s New Babylon: the hyper-architecture of desire. 010 Publishers.

http://vimeo.com/14336720

Read more about the exhibition <a href=”Read more about the exhibition “Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of the Architectural Future” here: http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2011/08/future

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