Ancient Babylon was a metropolis of pleasure, whose hanging gardens ranked among the world’s Seven Wonders. New Babylon (1956-74) sprung from the imagination of Constant, a Dutch artist and architect, who spent the postwar years envisioning a floating city of the future. Underground machines, he conjectured, would handle all labor, leaving people free for endless play in a covered city suspended aboveground, part of a vast network of mobile, interior spaces. Architect and theorist Mark Wigley has curated this exhibition, which originated in Rotterdam and here focuses on Constant’s drawings, though it also includes one of his many fantastic models, and evidence of his interactions with two radical collectives, Cobra and the Situationist International.
Few illusions are as touching, in retrospect, as past visions of the future. In Constant’s magnificent drawings and elegant collages made of maps, New Babylon emerges as a vague and shimmering mixture of Coney Island, Kennedy Airport, and Alphaville. Conceived as an antidote to the modernist ideal of a supremely functional city, its spaces were toys, its buildings and networks meant to be created and dissolved according to their nomadic residents’ desires.
Today, New Babylon’s clearest echo may be found in cyberspace. And like cyberspace, Constant’s ludic city seems curiously blind to the needs of the body. The black squiggles that occasionally appear in his drawings are the people of the future, but they seem naked and dwarfed by the grandeur of his ideals.
These ideals included an imperative to bring art back to the streets, where the surrealists found it. And that’s where this classical exhibition necessarily falters. Across Wooster, in the Drawing Room, a nonstop slide show of the artist’s models offers perhaps a more dizzying sense of utopian possibility. And after hours, from the sidewalk, you can glimpse his visionary concatenations, glowing in our dystopic night.