This was a lecture I gave at the “Architectural Representation” Course instructed by Professors Hulya Ari and Hakan Tong, in ITU Department of Architecture. Peculiar and very much linked to the issue of Representation, or to the problematics of it, I felt that the work of Constant and my revisit of New New Babylon(1) could pose some central questions regarding the very subject of the course. I started the session with couple of quotes by Constant himself and largely by Mark Wigley, critically pointing to the significancy of representation and that of medium at the heart of renowned New Babylon. What I was trying to point out is that the realm of representation was integral to the project itself than as in any other example. In fact, the two were utterly inseparable because of the essential character of Constant’s fifteen-year-long work, where, by his own methods of representation, he was trying to depict a new form of activity, not a conventional architectural product, but a unique lifestyle that has never existed before. The representation was vital for the whole project and is the very substance of the polemic he was trying to invite the visitors in. New Babylon was a living spatial polemic.(2)
The Blur and The Polemic
After referring to the use of special tools and limits of information that were both challenging and again essential to the spirit of the project, which I can label as the ‘effect’ Constant wanted to achieve, I posed my own struggles about the similar yet new type of representational issues of such study. Understanding Constant, as the integral research stage of NNB, set the grounds for the new problematics. After all, Wigley was referring that Constant has worked on a project almost for fifteen years NOT to reveal it.(3) His goal was to provoke a desire for such project, for such lifestyle that is technically possible but only socially restricted according to his words. Here, we are talking about a blur at an extensive scale: A strong sense of vagueness and indeterminate activity taking place in a partially revealed infrastructural landscape. Constant achieved this ‘limited’ visual effect and this strong sense of ‘controlled’ ambiguity through his very own methods of material treatment and model making, using various techniques of photography, superposing different scales and mediums together, and presenting all this in a sensual multi-media environment to the viewers, or to the visitors of New Babylon. He was actually inventing a new media itself while building up New Babylon, which again was a three dimensional paper designed for people to draw and live on, in Wigley’s words.(4)
Arriving at New New Babylon, and occupying the second part of the lecture, I’ve discussed the profound grounds of the problematics of a digital detournement attempt, as one may call it: The first was to create such strong effect of blur in the realm of the digital world, at the virtual space at each scale, and secondly to connect each detached scale and portions of information in one complete model, which were once separated as maps(macro), models(intermediate) and drawings(micro-climates) throughout 15 years of work.(5) Rhyming with Constant’s inventions, I was content about disclosing some of the methodologies, techniques and design stages that we have studied with Ken Wark (Chair of Culture and Media Studies, Lang College, The New School) who was my supervisor and research partner in this project. Aside from these, I have noticed that by inventing my own methods and then building up a New New Babylon, I was adequately able to join the game, becoming a player (a citizen) in the life that was once proposed by Constant inside New Babylon, which then critically, turned out to be possible to realize and reconstruct at different mediums regardless of scale or time. You will be reading more about the latter discussion in upcoming posts and via showcase news of the movie. During the interim, please do refer to the footnotes provided at the end of the page. The lecture ended with the showcase of the trailer for the NNB Movie, which you may find here.
1 New New Babylon (The Movie): Video, 7 minutes and 50 seconds. Recorded live from New New Babylon by Ali Dur. Architecture & Video by Ali Dur. Music by Paul Miller aka Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid. Research by Ali Dur & McKenzie Wark. Produced by Ali Dur & McKenzie Wark. Words by Constant Nieuwenhuys. (cc) 2011, New York.
2 Referring to Constant’s keen attention the role of the architectural models and their value for discussion: “The construction of the model itself was as the space it proposed. In 1956, after carefully constructing and exhibiting a 1.8 meter-tall model in colored metal and wood for his ‘Monument vorr de wederopbouw, Constant was criticized by a city architect for making his models too beautiful (Personally, I had the same experience for a short period of time in my graduation project amidst all the admiration for my models). The architect insisted that models are practical tools made to be used an then disposed of. Constant disagreed, noting that influential designers like Rietveld and Theo van Doesburg had made very elegant models and kept them. He understood that the polemical value of a model far outstrips its practical value in the construction of a particular project.” (In specific reference to the design of the early key models) “The plexiglass clearly embodied some fundamental qualities of the project, but the use of what was then a rare and expensive material also signaled the transformation of the architectural model into a polemical object designed for exhibition and discussion.” In regards to the specific treatment of plexiglass and shifted transparency that Constant invented: “The modern architect’s obsession with a radical transparency that exposes all the details of structure and lifestyle turns into an amorphous sense of interaction between life-styles too complex and transitory to be simply exposed. (…)Transparency put at the service of mystery. The model is designed to be looked into, yet nothing is revelad other than the polemical indeterminacy of the floors.” – See Mark Wigley, Hyper-architecture of Desire: Constant’s New Babylon, (Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art and 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 1998), pp. 49-59.
2+ (Regarding the multi-media lectures Constant staged) “The theoretical polemic, images, and the soundtrack envelop the models so densely that the physical objects become just another ingredient in a polemical atmosphere.” And in relation to the plurality and the ‘calculated’ ephemerality of the material displayed, central to the spirit and the polemic, which was the project itself: “The key moment in each lecture was the transition from the theory to the slides. (…)The polemic created a specific atmosphere for the reception of the forms, a mood that was enhanced with the accompanying soundtrack. If New Babylon was a space defined by atmosphere, its design started with the atmosphere of the lecture itself. A theoretical climate was established in which the images were carefully given an ambivalent status.” – See Mark Wigley, Constant’s New Babylon, pp. 49-59.
3 “Even the most detailed drawings do not represent the sensuous qualities the infrastructure is meant to make possible. All we are allowed to see is that we are not seeing very much. It is precisely the lack of a complete or even partial image that empowers the inhabitants.” Here, Wigley talks about the lacking qualities of a complete image that depicts the whole New Babylon, which was again necessitated by the very spirit of the project: the endless interplay of floating desires of inhabitants that can’t be frozen or given a concrete form and the support that supposed to be (look) immaterial as possible. – See ‘Paper, Scissors, Blur’, in Catherine de Zegher and Mark Wigley (eds.), The Activist Drawing (New York, 2001), p. 31.
4 (Regarding the peculiar character of the drawings) “In the end all the drawings are like the first one. They present the basic principle of the project rather than how it would look. Neither the support nor the play is really shown. Again and again, a lightly ruled immaterial support is marked by the vague freehand outlines of possible future material play. Constant simply designs the three-dimensional paper on which people will draw their lives.(…)The key effect was the flicker between images. Sheer weight of material actually lightened the project. A heavy multi-media barrage produced the magical effect of a little paper.” Please note the presence the ‘sheer weight of material’ and ‘the flicker effect’ which was the multi-media environment where New Babylon is lived and presented throughout. Wigley clearly marks out that the plurality of the representational techniques was essential and that there was no distinction between New Babylon and its representation. – See ‘Paper, Scissors, Blur’, in Catherine de Zegher and Mark Wigley (eds.), The Activist Drawing (New York, 2001), p. 31.
5 Mark Wigley, Constant’s New Babylon, p. 60.