Situationist Movements On Urbanisation Concepts Cultural Studies Essay

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In July 1957 a group of avant-garde artists met in a remote bar in Alba (Italy) and started the Situationist International movement. This group, brought together activist, artist and writers from all over western Europe during the 1950s and 1960s in an attempt to contest the changing conditions of the post-war world and ultimately to bring about revolution.

This band of people (including personalities as Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Constant Nieuwenhuys, Alexander Trocchi, Ralph Rumney) produce the Internationale Situationniste journal and a range of works, including painting, graphics, films, models and plans as well as interventions in cultural and political arenas through events, political agitations and situations with the purpose of a radical political action based on changing cities and social spaces. For them urbanism was not reducible to planning but incorporated political questions about everyday life and urban culture. The situationists critiqued the alienating and image-saturated conditions of the post-war era, in particular the modernism movement, based on the idea of functionalism, where the design was dominated by the needs of industry and mass production. "The construction of situations" became the central point to develop new forms of art and politics. This was based on breaking down artistic specialism and consciously and collectively creating moments and setting of everyday life.

Situationists saw cities as key sites in the reproduction of social relationship of domination, as spaces of alienation and control, caused by the progressive expansion of mechanic production and capitalism. But at the same time they recognised the possibilities of transforming the cities as potential realms of freedom, places where people could transcend alienation and create spaces defined by their own needs and desire, which could be able to let them realise their true selves as living subjects. This idea might be connect to the purpose of the early modern movement architects and planners to transform capitalist urbanisation and to introduce better urban features. However their commitment to change urbanism as part of a revolutionary political project contrasted drastically with the precious approaches of the modern movement and in particular with Le Corbusier projects and theories. The main concept behind the ideas of modern movements was based on the creation of an urban rational and functional order, focused on maximising the needs of industry and mass production with an emphasis on the concept of permanence. The situationist, instead, disagreed on this, they believed on a "temporal fixation of cities" and focused on a permanent transformation, an accelerated movement of the abandonment and reconstruction of the city in temporal and at time spatial terms. They also affirmed that they were opposed to the fixation of people at specific points of the city and that their main purpose was the attempt of realise a civilization based on the leisure and play. (david Pinder).

Situationist defined the programme with the introduction of the tem "Unitarian Urbanism" (mentioned for the first time by Chtcheglov in 1958), which was not intended as a doctrine of urbanism but, instead as critic of urbanism. Unitarian Urbanism was meant to embody dynamic actions, a process in continuous evolution, concerned with ambiences and situations, representing the outcome of people desire and actions, rejecting the utilitarian logic of the consumer society, where freedom and play would have a central role. Unitarian Urbanism was also defined by Debord and Constant in the "Declaration of Amsterdam" (1958) as "the uninterrupted complex activity through which man's environment is consciously recreated according to progressive plans in all domains". Unitary urbanism needed to be realised by the combined efforts of all creative personalities and not produced by the activities of individual artists in the way to generate a collective creativity of a completely new kind.

The cities of the future were seen by the situationist as an ongoing experiment in new forms of behaviour, where the architectural forms would had been stimulated by symbols and emotions. The inhabitant's main activity was imagined as a constant loitering and drifting in the way to achieve the disruption of the banality and create a possibility for a freedom play.

The practice of this aimless drifting (derive') was introduced by Guy Debord, in response to his critic of the contemporary society as organised on the principle of spectacle. He sustained that people were living in an image-saturate world, where the alienation from labour, surroundings and desire was total. The inhabitants of cities were more like spectators then active agents, occupying roles assigned to them by others in a state of passive contemplation. This theory of the spectacle has a connection with some concepts of the Western Marxism, which has been a theoretical and political framework for the whole situationist international group. Debord also provide instruction to practising a derive' properly, specifying that "it should take a fixed amount of time and involve a small group of people whose path is determined by a combination of system and randomness. The aim is move through the city without purpose, provoking unexpected occurrences and encounters" ( cit. Constant and Debord decalaration of Amsterdam)

The situationists adopted the derive' technique to find a new instrument to investigate the changes in the urban environment, this process led to the introduction of the concept of "psycogeography". Psycogeography was defined as a way of exploration of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, directed to analyse diverse ambient and zones of the cities, and to discover the relationship between social spaces and mental spaces and between urbanism and behaviour. (David Pinder ref). Psycogeography led to the possibility of realise map of the cities indicating the constant currents, fixed points and vortices by which urban environments influence the emotions of passerby and inhabitants through the practice of derive'.

The Situationsist International activities and production attempt to resist to the norms of capitalist society, to struggle against modernist planners and architects and to explore the possibilities that lay hidden within existing cities through the development of alternative geographical practices.

A specific response to the purpose of situationist movement was Constant New Babylon, where the Dutch painter generates a model of how the world would look after the realisation of the Unitarian Urbanism.


The realisation of New Babylon occupied Constant from the late 1950s to the early 1970s; the project was composed of models, plans, paintings, drawings, photographs films and writing. He underlined since the beginning and several times during the course of New Babylon development that it wasn't primarily an urban planning project and an example of architecture work but an attempt to give a material shape to a revolutionary understanding of urban space expressing the application of the unitarian urbanism principles. The early ideas about New Babylon where strictly connected to psycogeographical interventions and the critic of the everyday spaces in the cities.

The beginning of New Babylon can be individuated in Constant project for the realisation of a Gypsy camp in Alba in 1956, which was supposed to be a permanent encampment composed by a system of movable partitions within a common shelter. This was a key inspiration in his work and he continued to study spatial understanding within gypsy communities trough the following years. He sustained that new nomadism was already part of the post-war culture and the social spaces, using as examples the departures and the arrivals in the airports. Therefore the concept of a community in a continuous movement living a nomadic life became since the beginning one of the main element addressing Constant to the particular design of New Babylon.

New Babylon took gradually the form of a massive interconnected urban space spreading all through the surface of the earth. Its main component was meant to be a giant space- frame, raised up from the ground on pillars in the way to leave the land below free for traffic, mechanized agricultural production and public meetings. The space-frame was meant to provide the basis for the main units of the new city, called "sectors". Constant indicated the sectors as around ten to thirty hectares in area, with the high of several storeys and rising up from the ground about fifteen or twenty meters. Services, facilities and technical centres were supposed to be included in every unit as well as social spaces and dwelling areas. The units were designed to be internally interconnected by stairs and lifts, and externally by fast transports. Constant, for each sector, focused his attention on maximising the volume and the flexibility of public spaces through the introduction of mobile walls, partitions, floors, bridges and ladders. The structure of the sector was designed to host a new way of living for the inhabitants, which could give them the possibility of being totally liberated. He attempt to define an environment able to host a society freed from any kind of ties, norms and convention, entirely free of oppression, where every human would be allowed to have full control of their own life. Constant also design every space in the way that the users would be able, just by pressing a button, to adjust the temperature, the degree of humidity, the density of smells, and the intensity of light, a structure where with a few simple operations people could change the shape of a room or decide which particular atmosphere they like to spend time in. In the catalogue for one the New Babylon first exhibition Constant wrote: "The sectors change through all the activities within them, they are constantly evolving in form and atmosphere. Nobody therefore will ever be able to return to a place that he visited previously, nobody will ever recognize an image that exist in his memory. This means that nobody will ever lapse into fixed habits" (Constant, 1969).

New Babylon presents several connections with the practice of psycogeography. The main expression of these influences can be seen in a series of maps in which the sectors are designed as coloured blocks forming long chains across maps of existing cities and region like Amsterdam, Paris and London. In another series of drawings Constant collage fragments from a variety of city maps into sector-like blocks, located on a plain background with red lines flowing between them. The meaning of this particular map can be found in the wish of Constant, and the situationist, in general to not simply sweep away the old urban fabric, like the tabula rasa previously proposed by Le Corbusier and the other modernist in relation to their utopian project, but work with the present possibilities instead of postponing actions to some distant and more favourable future. Moreover with this kind of representation Constant express his proposal could be able to unite all qualities of all the cities, creating a global connected environment spreading across the whole earth.

Constant with New Babylon attempt to establish the principals for a new and different culture, arguing in his writing that creativity must be rooted in a revolution and that only the revolution will enable people to make known their own desires. He never defined the form that this mass creativity would take, as in his thought it was supposed to emerge with the post-revolution freedom, involving the creative potential of the whole population. He argues that culture has always been create in the margin of the system, where were not the masses the artistic producers but isolated creative spirits, he sustained that creativity and desire for play are only able to flourish when a global energy is not destroyed by work and commodity production. This form of culture can be generated only in a free society where nobody as any power over anyone else. A connection can be established between Constant ideas and Marx early understanding of communism, where the philosopher describes the roots to follow to achieve the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities. Constant was deeply influence by Marx early texts and he became committed to Marxism and to revolutionary perspectives.

Johan Huizinga's classical studies of play ( Homo Ludens), expressing the concept of how during the 19th century the activities related to play have been reduced and isolated drastically, have another considerable influence in the ideas behind New Babylon project. Constant criticised the attitude of the modern functionalism towards the play element in the cities, which had been confined to specific times and places. He suggested that because the automation of work could be associated to the unemployment and boredom for the workers, this could lead to the emancipation of creative capacities and the expansion of play. Constant believed that the revolutionary age to come could also abolish categories of work and leisure as well as specialised figures as artists and architects. New Babylon therefore became an attempt to imagine a space for this new ludic era, an environment for homo ludens, able to create his own life, in opposition to the concept of homo faber (the maker), idea related also to Debord's theory of the man as the spectator of his contemporary society.


The importance of New Babylon project therefore has to be investigated not in the effort to design a planned future, but instead in the attempt to explore a way to transform everyday life and space considering other possibilities than the capitalist structure of the society and the importance of a massive industrial production. The situationists, and especially Constant, activities started as a way of political struggle and protests, as a war against capitalist interests, which were bringing the society to be submitted by segregation, surveillance and control. They encouraged a politic which was nomadic, creative, related to the self-realisation and the production of autonomous spaces. In Constant point of view the cities should not be shaped by utilitarianism, but by the inhabitant themselves, in a way to reintroduce concept as play and desire in the human lives, which in the post war era seems to have been completely destroyed by the principles of a consumer society. The protest against the negation of public spaces for socialising and play, raised up by Constant and the situationsits, had also a key role in the movement of 1968, when the public spaces as streets and squares became the focal points of protest actions and the symbol of unity between people. Nowadays many streets around the world are used to stage creative spatial mobilisation and temporary parties in the way to rework these areas of the cities as non utilitarian and ludic spaces.

Other architectural experiments stared from the ideas of New Babylon, even probably Constant contemporaries weren't impressed enough by its revolutionary concepts. Britan's Archigram groups, for instance, had some influences from the "situation" theory and the practice of psycogeography in the realisation of the utopian plug-in city, even they based their works more on the buildability of their structures. In addition to this Constant's ideas of environmentalism and anticapitalism were in completely opposition to the believes of Peter Cook that part of an architect brief is to obtain the maximum profit from a piece of land. Another example of the influence of New Babylon is represented by the Italian Superstudio group project "Endless cities" in late 1960s where the destruction of objects, the elimination of the city and the disappearance of work where the key concepts.

Constant created New Babylon as an expression of the intersection between art and architecture, unifying the cities of the world as something that nowadays would be called a "global village", concept which, if not in an architectural way, these days has been realised by the media thorough the introduction of internet and devices as television and mobile phones. He was also looking at architecture as a mediator between the social body, the artificial sensation and the nature and he attempt to express those thoughts through the introduction of the possibility of changing in the atmosphere, temperature, light in the sectors and rooms composing New Babylon to give the inhabitants the possibility of choosing the condition in which they would prefer to spend their time, concept that with the evolution of the technology in construction seems to have become nowadays from a utopian view to part of our everyday life.