Jérémie McGowanJun 21, 2023
Constant’s “New Babylon"
An Interview with Jérémie McGowan
New Books Network 2023
“New Babylon” is an architectural and urban planning project designed by the Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys between 1959 and 1974 in response to certain economic and social conditions he perceived to exist in the modern city: its emphasis on work and the production of capital, its highly-planned, gridded spaces.
“New Babylon” put forward an ideal city planning model in which people would be able to enter a state of what Constant called homo ludens, “men at play.” “New Babylonians” would be members of a leisure class, in constant movement in and between cities designed to be highly flexible, mobile, and to encourage a state of perpetual adventure and exploration. While “New Babylon” explicitly positioned nomadism as an ideal which should be embraced on a wider scale, the influence of an actual nomadic community on the design and conceptualization of the project has been largely overlooked. Namely, Constant drew heavily on interactions with and influence from Romani culture and heritage.
In this episode, Jérémie McGowan, whose PhD dissertation at the University of Edinburgh analyzed the Romani influence on “New Babylon,” joins me to discuss the ideologies underlying “New Babylon;” how Romani influences manifest in the project; and how and under what circumstances nomads can be either culturally idealized or vilified.
Maggie Freeman is a PhD student in the School of Architecture at MIT. She researches uses of architecture by nomadic peoples and historical interactions of nomads and empires, with a focus on the modern Middle East.