In 1961 Constant Nieuwenhuis gave a lecture on New Babylon at the Technical University, Delft. An excerpt of the lecture text in Dutch can be read in the book Work, Body, Leisure (2018) and the complete text of his lecture in Dutch is published on this page. Also included is Constant's response to this question from the audience. "When we are freed of the 'tyranny of labor', of obligation, will it be possible to play a game?"
"New Babylon wants to be the environment in which we could live, should live, would want to live, if the factors that prevent it are overcome. The design is therefore based on the complete automation of production, on an a-commercial, i.e. on a needs-based distribution of foodstuffs and consumer goods, from the comprehensive exploitation of the earth, a total urbanization. By robotizing labor, the population has free disposal of its time; the interior of New Babylon is focused on a free and creative way of life."
Dear Mr. Constant,
Ever since the time of Adam and Eve and up to the present day, every man has served as a link in the societal system. If we regard that system as an organization for the conservation of the species, then every man derives not only his right to exist from his quality as a link, but also his possibility to exist. This fact will determine his life.
In other words: at birth, every man already has one clear given, which is beyond any reflection or debate: if a man wants to live, he has to work. This is what enables him to live his life fully, by filling it with occupations useful for himself or for society. And it is precisely within this framework that a game can be a game, an amusement.
If I have understood you correctly, it is essential for your conception of the New Man to rid him of such life-determining elements.
Now my question is: when we are freed of the “tyranny of labor,” of obligation, will it be possible to play a game? Can the man of New Babylon be convinced of his right to exist? Or rather, wouldn’t “the game to bring about life,” “the creation of this artificial world, the fulfilment of the New Babylonians,” become an Epicurean trick to flee from the unresolvable question, the reason of our existence? Or will man in New Babylon become so engrossed in play that these problems will completely cease to exist?
With great anticipation of the answer to these questions, by the one who has unveiled the mirage of unitary urbanism to us, yours sincerely,
Jan Willem Jansen
Response Constant Nieuwenhuys
"The question of the meaning of existence, dear Mr. Jansen, could only come up in a world, an environment, which falls short in every regard, or in any case, does not answer our needs. Man is a creative being; it is in our nature to change nature, to intervene in the relationships we encounter. The struggle for naked existence, the conquest of the daily bread, cannot satisfy our essential need. And so man has sought for compensation, a consolation. The most passive form of this is religion, which simply moved the realization of life to an abstract moment, to eternal life, to heaven.
A more active reaction to the dissatisfaction of existence is art, although in the given circumstances, it has only been accessible to few. Art shows us another world, wherein we are creative; art is the greatest conquest of nature.
For art is the freedom to play with nature. You doubt if man shall be able to live without tormenting himself over the question of the meaning of existence. You deem this question to be of interest because you do not understand what unfathomable dissatisfaction, what hopeless desolation, gives rise to this question. In our society, it is only the artist who does not have to ask himself this question. New Babylon seeks to find a form of culture that is for everyone. Using the emerging possibility to win the struggle of existence, with New Babylon, I want to make creativity into the essence of life. And with that, every necessity to search for the meaning of life, to project life elsewhere from where it takes place, becomes obsolete.
The world, and man of the past century, especially since industrialization, has deeply changed: he no longer lets himself be rebuffed by morals which impose the obligation to labor, the obligation to be useful. Socialism has proclaimed the right to labor. The historic phase that we have entered after the war (and here, I am mostly considering the possibility of automating production), gives us the occasion to demand the right to not labor. We cannot solve our current problems with morals from a bygone era. This lack of a sense of reality is evident in how much there is to do about recreation and leisure time.
In New Babylon there is no leisure time, because all time there is active. New Babylon is an impassioned appeal to the creativity which slumbers unused, and often unknowingly. You seem to fear, Mr. Jansen, that the disappearance of obligation to labor uncreatively will make creative labor, the game, decrease in value. Automation is an inescapable fact, and neither your fear, nor your morals, can stop it. For us, the question then is not whether we wish this automation, but only how we can imagine the organization of daily life in an automated world, and what we can do now to prepare for a new culture in these circumstances.
The urbanist and the architect cannot rely on abstractions or on ideals: the only possible starting point is concrete facts. A city is not just built for the present day; future developments, for as far as we can foresee them, have to be involved as much as possible with those facts.
New Babylon however, is more than urban design in the prevailing sense: it is an attempt to elevate urbanism to the domain of art, of a collective art. It is an attempt to outpace individual design and come to the practice of a collective creativity. It is an attempt to bridge the enormous distance between us and the city, our environment, and to arrive at a synthesized unit of a creatively conceived life and the milieu within which this takes place.
New Babylon is not a future city. New Babylon exists now! In every creative deed, in every artwork, in the lives of many free people, in thoughts and imaginations. The degree to which my models and photographs could be called successful in this regard, the degree to which they illustrate my idea is insignificant. It is only important that we envision a perspective that could enable us to keep believing in culture, even if at the moment we inhabit a world which seems further than ever from a culture."
Below the full lecture text by Constant Nieuwenhuys at Delft University of Technology (6 February 1961) in Dutch. The notes in the margins are by J.H. van den Broek, who had organised the lecture.