Welcome back to BOMB in the Building, where each week we are featuring a vintage BOMB interview relating to a Season 5 artist. This week, inspired by Cao Fei’s utopian vision as seen through her Second Life creations, we revisit an interview with the Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys (a.k.a. “Constant”), whose New Babylon project from the ‘50s and ‘60s is perhaps more relevant today than ever. Recreated and featured prominently at Documenta in 2002, New Babylon presents itself as a series of questions in the artist’s own words: “Is it a social utopia? An urban architectural design? An artistic vision? A cultural revolution? A technical conquest? A solution of the practical problems of the industrial age?” Linda Boersma, who interviewed Constant for BOMB Issue 91, Spring 2005, suggests simply that “New Babylon is a design for future architectural structures, made for a society of creative people who are freed from stultifying everyday work.” Read the full interview here.
Linda Boersma: When I saw the New Babylon paintings again at Documenta, and when I looked at the photographs that were once taken of the models, then the interiors of New Babylon immediately made me think of the labyrinthine spaces that are now designed by computers and that you can enter virtually. In an interview that Rem Koolhaas conducted with you, you said you were building an enormous model that was intended to give a filmed impression of New Babylon. Has that ever taken place?
Constant: No, not really. There were some films made, by my son and by some other filmmakers. But a real film, such as I had in mind then, where I could show the aim of New Babylon with explanations, that never happened. That’s why I returned to painting: “illustrations” of New Babylon. What do you see when you walk through it? To show that, I had to return to painting. Plans for filming New Babylon always ended as a filmed interview with me. But I wanted someone to actually crawl inside those models with a camera. Because that’s what it’s about. What do you see when, once inside, you look around? The models are worked out in great detail. The whole project is now in the Municipal Museum in The Hague, and a filmmaker could quietly spend weeks or even months working there. I’m still waiting for someone to be able to do that. But of course, it can be done at any time, even after I’m dead, as the models are all available. I wouldn’t sell any of it, as I feel New Babylon should stay together. It was a project that I worked on for a decade and a half. This whole studio was one great workshop. It was full of models, and I had several assistants working with me. Making the models was very labor intensive, and without assistants I could never have managed it. I sold my paintings from the CoBrA period and used the proceeds to finance the New Babylon project. Later, because I had studied architecture, I lived partly on commissions for rebuilding playgrounds and the like.
Linda Boersma: You studied architecture?
Constant: Yes. For the New Babylon plan I naturally needed some architectural knowledge. Aldo van Eyck [a well-known Dutch architect and a friend of Constant’s] showed me a few tips. “I’ll give you my old course books, you can read those,” he said. And that’s what I did.
Linda Boersma: Did you ever get the urge to build a model that you yourself could walk into or to create an actual building or construction?
Constant: No. I’ve never felt a need to do that. New Babylon is an idea. I’ve always called it an illustration. An illustration to my story about another form of urban construction. I made some models for this, here, in this space, but also limited by the space.
Linda Boersma: You were and you still are a painter—you always emphasize this. But how did your interest in architecture come about?
Constant: That happened in Frankfurt at the beginning of the 1950s. I was alone with my son, who was seven at the time. It must have been 1951. Frankfurt was bombed flat during the war. I had been in Essen, Bochum. . . . The Ruhr was not nearly as bad. Frankfurt was indescribable. I’d borrowed a studio from a painter who was himself in Paris. I was working there for an exhibition in the Zimmergalerie Franck, and every morning I took my son to school. The walk to the school was across an enormous bombsite. A great heap of rubble, with here and there some places that had been flattened so you could walk over them like paths. There were some outer walls of houses still standing. A doorway, and some stretches of wall. It was a surreal landscape, and it inspired me enormously. If you walk through a town that lies in ruins, then the first thing you naturally think of is building. And then, as you rebuild such a town, you wonder whether life there will be just the same, or what will be different. Then you think about the influence of the surroundings.
Linda Boersma: New Babylon began in 1958, or was it 1956?
Constant: It began in 1956 with texts and drawings. One of the first projects, which formed the basis of New Babylon, came about in 1956 and was inspired by a gypsy camp in Alba, Italy, where I was living then. Guy Debord, who had founded the International Lettrists in 1952, came to visit me there. He lived in Paris, but his mother lived in Nice, and that isn’t so far from the Italian border. The Lettrists had a mimeographed leaflet called Potlach, and they always sent me a copy. That leaflet interested me. I could sympathize with their criticism of architecture, so I started to write for the magazine I.S. or International Situationist, which was also founded by Debord, sometime later, in 1956 or 1957. It was in this magazine that the first model of New Babylon was shown, in 1958. Situationism was about the creation of situations: le création des situations. We discussed other ways of living, and from there the discussion soon turned to living environments. And then it progressed to urban architecture. But I had already been studying the relationship between urban architecture and living environments. I had also published on the subject, and so I was asked to cooperate on the magazine, the International Situationist.
Linda Boersma: And you still continued to paint. At the beginning of the 1950s you made poignant paintings like Terre Brûlée (1951), which is an assimilation of the war and of such sights as you saw in Frankfurt. But also, and practically at the same time, you made abstract works like Composition with 58 Cubes (1953) and Composition with Orange Triangle (1953). I think these are fascinating compositions, but I find that they differ strongly from your other work.
Constant: Composition with Orange Triangle was first a collage, then a painting. I colored the paper by hand, with watercolors. I made quite a few of these collages over a period of two or three years. And then I turned to spatial objects. After that I didn’t paint anything for a long time, or hardly anything. Adieu la P . . . (Farewell to P . . .) from 1962 would have been the last painting. I did paint now and again. Ode à l’Odéon was my first painting after New Babylon. In 1968 there was the student uprising in Paris, where the Odéon theater was occupied. I was in Paris then, by chance on the Rue de l’Odéon. I saw it all from close by. New Babylon was a very extensive project that took up all my time until 1969. At that time, the whole studio was chock full of models. In 1969 I decided I was finished with New Babylon because I felt I had nothing to add to it. The Municipal Museum in The Hague bought most of the project over the following years. I needed space to paint.
Linda Boersma: And you still paint.
Constant: Every day. I’m here from 12:30 to 7:30.