Constant New Babylon

Manual for a stranger world

We’ve become too practical
I’m a big fan of agile, prototyping and lean. I think a hands-on, iterative and getting-things-done process is great. But we’ve lost something. The obsession with making things real limits the scope of the things we can make real. It limits us to what is possible within the constraints of our current understanding. Companies due to their nature, are obsessed with tangible details and their delivery focused operations keep us on the path of incremental innovation. We get what we optimised for, an endless series of extrapolations: faster, lighter, bigger, cheaper. All very useful, but what about a different world? A space far beyond the horizon of the next sprint, the next launch, the next round of funding? A world of dreams, of ideas, a stranger world?

What we need
In architecture there is the curious role for the visionary/artist/architect. Names like Superstudio, Archigram and Lebbeus Woods are better known for what they imagined than for what they build. By questioning the system as a whole, by challenging the structures that govern us, they turned well worn answers into fresh questions. They created a space to imagine, a framework to dream.

One of my favourite artists is Constant, originally a painter in the Cobra movement, later a writer/painter with the Situationist and eventually an architect of supposed realities. He is best known for New Babylon, a fifteen year long project of exploring new ways of being.

New Babylon is based on the premises that through automatisation nobody will have to work, and being freed from work, you are also liberated from living close to work. This leaves humanity finally free to roam the planet, free to unleash unbound creativity and become Homo Ludens – the playing human.

To explore his ideas Constant made models and paintings, gave lectures and wrote articles. He places himself in a grey borderland between art and architecture; giving you enough start thinking but never enough to come to a conclusion.

He writes

“New Babylon, perhaps, is not so much a picture of the future as a leitmotiv.”

Constant- New Babylon: the world of Homo Ludens

He is thereby different from the all too familiar future visions from companies such as Nokia and Microsoft, where even utopias feel created by committees and focus groups. Visions where the future feels strangely familiar, a prescriptive path, instead of a wide open ocean.

“The New Babylon material was conceived more as illustration than as a basis for construction. Rather than stipulating building forms, as other speculative plans do, it suggests possibilities: ‘This is how it might look.'”

Constant – New Babylon: 10 years on

In practice

But what does this mean for us? Similar to Constant we should aim to create building blocks that can be used to make yet more questions. We should take something abstract and make it visible without turning it into a plan. We should make prototypes with ambiguous edges, not because we lack time or budget, but to because enables others to think for themselves. If we look at the work of Brett Victor and Timo Arnall we can start imagining new spaces, new ways of using technology, we can freely use our mind in ways they had not foreseen or intended.

Nearness from Timo on Vimeo.

Bret Victor – Inventing on Principle from CUSEC on Vimeo.

How can we create spaces that allow us to dream and wonder, how can we start building a stranger world? Designers are well positioned to take a leading role, being trained both in theory and practice and capable of articulating ideas by combining visualisation, models and theory and create ideas that can be used by others as a starting point to dream differently.

To be successful there are a three things I think are important:
1. Make it personal
Any interesting change has to come from real people, individuals who personally and passionately feel that things can and should be different. Companies, due to their short term cycles and their focus on return on investment are invested in keeping the status quo, therefore it is up to us, the people, to imagine our own futures.
2. Make it thoughtful and visual
There’s no shortage of opinions, nor is there a shortage of people making pretty pictures. What is needed though is people willing to combine them and present thoughtful ideas in a visual manner.
3. And above all make it open
Since we cannot think outside our current culture, we should create points to start from. We should give the people from the future what turned out to be useful gifts from thinker/makers in the past: building blocks for thought, ready for endless recombining in ever stranger ways.


More on Constant
Constant’s New Babylon: The Hyper-architecture of Desire  By Mark Wigley

At UXCampBrigthon I gave a talk with the same title

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