>In 1959, in a short essay called “The Great Game to Come,” a little-known Dutch visual artist named Constant Nieuwenhuys described a new utopian city—one that he was soon to dub “New Babylon.” “The technical inventions that humanity has at its disposal today,” he presciently stated, “will play a major role in the construction of the ambiance-cities of the future.”

Like nearly every imagined future utopia, New Babylon was never built. It was manifested only in architectural drawings, sketches, maps, collages, and experimental films. Its creator, generally known as Constant, envisioned his city as a complex network where artificial and natural spaces would be linked together by communication infrastructures; “recourse to a computer” would be necessary to resolve such a complex organizational problem. But New Babylon was to be something even more radical: a place where new technologies would replace the drudgery of labor by automatic processes, enabling the city’s inhabitants to experience a “nomadic life of creative play.”

Today, Constant’s pronouncement seems prophetic. No doubt computers would also have been needed to achieve his visionary concept of an environment in which “each person can at any moment, in any place, alter the ambiance by adjusting the sound volume, the brightness of the light, the olfactive ambiance or the temperature.” Above all, electronic technologies would enable complete transformations of sound, light, and the organization of space in New Babylon. These transformations would be accomplished by what Constant called “the most sophisticated behind-the-scenes automation,” while electronics themselves “would be part of the visible scenery.” Spaces in New Babylon would somehow need to be “aware” of the activities taking place in them so that the environment could know when to change its appearance and behavior. 

Constant was soon to achieve international renown as one of founding members of the Situationist International (1957–1972)—a group of artists, writers, and philosophers who aimed to apply Marxism to contemporary urban society. Like many of his SI compatriots, Constant viewed the post-WWII city as a site for both critique and intervention. He and a Situationist collaborator, the cultural critic Guy Debord, declared as much in setting forth a concept they dubbed “Unitary Urbanism,” which considered the city not as an agglomeration of faceless architecture and bureaucratic processes but as a set of creative social practices.

New Babylon took shape during the two-year period that Constant was a member of the SI. It was not so much an architectural planning project as it was “a way of thinking, of imagining, of looking on things and on life.” Although echoing other technology-charged 1960s utopian city visions such as Archigram’s “Walking City” or the performative “Villa Rosa–Pneumatic Living Unit” from the Austrian avant-garde collective Coop Himmelb(l)au, New Babylon began to gel in, of all places, the countryside. In 1959, the artist participated in an experimental-urbanism workshop in the Italian town of Alba at the base of the Piedmont Mountains. Sympathetic to the presence of nomadic Roma camped out by the Tamaro River, he began working on a concept to create a “permanent encampment” for the migrants “where under one roof, with the aid of moveable elements, a shared temporary, constantly remodeled living area is built.”

New Babylon would gestate in Constant’s mind for two decades. In his vision, land would be collectively owned, social systems would be hyper-connected, and automation would create a life of leisure for its citizens. To achieve a new “social organization of the city,” Constant imagined a vast hierarchy of local sites (what he called “sectors”) connected globally (“networks”). Groupings of interlinked platforms were envisioned as being completely transformable so as to create dynamic relations between inhabitants (“New Babylonians”) and their surroundings. With interwoven levels of transport networks and spaces all linked by communications infrastructure, New Babylon defied traditional cartography. Clearly the artist knew, however, that running such a complex, interconnected system would require help from the emerging technologies of computational management and control. Though he had neither the ability to construct New Babylon nor an interest in actually doing so, his concept seemed like an idea whose time would come.

Rise of the smart city

In 1974, the same year that Constant ceased working on New Babylon, a little-known report was published by the Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau (CAB), titled “The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles.” The report offered the typical stuff of urban research—statistical analysis, demographic data, and housing assessments. But what was not apparent was how the CAB had gathered the data. 

While urban theorists somewhat

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By: Chris Salter
Title: The smart city is a perpetually unrealized utopia
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2022/06/24/1053969/smart-city-unrealized-utopia/
Published Date: Fri, 24 Jun 2022 09:00:00 +0000

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