Hongkong: The attendance of the contemporary New Babylon

Constant Nieuwenhuys could be seen as one of the major visionary artists of the 20th century. His New Babylon project constitutes the idea of the other man who inhabits a new type of urban space. The natural landscape has been replaced by modern technology and finally become the new artificial nature that must now be creatively alerted to support a new urban culture. The actors of this new culture have to take over the control of their environment and recover the pleasure of living by creative action. This will become their main object in life, and ‘leisure time will be [their] only time’.¹ According to Constant, the visionary world of New Babylon does not constitute a utopia but an ‘assertion about a plausible reality.’²

Back to the key concern of our exploration; Does Constant’s New Babylon still appear provocative today? From an architectural point of view, the world of New Babylon is no longer a hypothetic image but a concrete phenomenon in the widest sense. If we still might consider it as a provocative concept, this is probably because New Babylon transformed from a plausible reality to a real reality, but characterized by an astounding contradiction. The original architecture of New Babylon represents the image of a new society, driven by creative action without being controlled nor directed by economic forces. However, the synergistic interrelatedness between creative action and spatial complexity – as intended by Constant – has been totally lost. Both became subordinate to the logic of economic reasoning. Consequently, the key phenomena of Homo Ludens, as leisure and desire, became instruments of an extremely smart economic strategy. Why smart? Because the strategy does not eliminate the complexity of the mentioned mental and spatial phenomena but incorporates them smoothly. As a result of this development Constant’s world of free play has been evolved into a permanent ‘accumulation of spectacles’, driven by dominant modes of economic production.3

We intend to provide insight in this complex transition as realistic as possible. Therefore, we select a study location which is qualified by specific spatial conditions considerably matching with Constant’s image of monumental structures; the city of Hong Kong.4 According to the architect Jonathan D. Solomon, is Hong Kong an ‘advanced form of the spatial logic of late capitalism; a shopping mall, theme park or atrium hotel elaborated to the complexity of a city. Characterized by a threedimensional publicly accessible network that facilitates propinquity and integration of diverse sectors, the city’s unique take on a generic urbanism complicates understandings of the postmodern city and suggests exiting futures.’5

  1. Wigley, Mark (1998), The Hyper-Architecture of Desire, p.9
  2. Wigley, Mark (1998), The Hyper-Architecture of Desire, p.6
  3. De Certeau, Michel (1984), The Practice of Every Day. P. xix
  4. See also; Guy Debord (1994), The Society of the Spectacle
  5. Solomon, Jonathan D., ‘Hong Kong – Aformal Urbanism’, in Shaping the City Studies in History, Theory and Urban Design, p.110
New Babylon by Constant Nieuwenhuis
Installation: The vanishing point of desire (2018)