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New Babylon: Radical hospitality in a world beyond labor

, Bookshelf

An excerpt from Mark Wigley’s essay about an architectural paradigm of free space and time afforded by automation.

New Babylon, revisited by Mark Wigley. Dutch Pavilion WORK, BODY, LEISURE. 16th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, FREESPACE. Photo: Daria Scagliola

As part of the exhibition at the Dutch Pavilion at the 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture, Mark Wigley has revisited “New Babylon” (1956-74), the project by influential Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys which envisions models for cities with the playful and creative human being at the center. Attempting to resolve the dichotomy between work and leisure, Constant speculated about a society freed from the need to work by automation and visualized the post-labor world.

In New Babylon, people are liberated from manual labor and can dedicate themselves fully to the development of creative ideas. Constant did not simply consider New Babylon as a design for a futuristic city, but as a “design for a new culture.”

In his project and essay, commissioned by Het Nieuwe Instituut as part of “Work, Body, Leisure” exhibition, Wigley explores the conflictual ethical questions that arise from the idea of a society freed from work. Will technological order eradicate violence? Would New Babylon be possible without the work of the other?

The “Work, Body, Leisure” exhibition at the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, curated by Marina Otero Verzier, runs through November 25. The eponymous book, published by Hatje Cantz and Het Nieuwe Instituut, and edited by Otero Verzier and Nick Axel, explores the spatial configurations, living conditions, and notions of the human body engendered by disruptive changes in labor, its ethos, and its conditions. Selected essays are published in installments on this website.

Below is an excerpt from the essay published in this book and adapted from the lecture Wigley gave in Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall at IIT College of Architecture in Chicago in 2015.



New Babylon is an experiment in extreme hospitality. It’s not an architecture in which the whole world would be housed, but a piece of architecture in which the whole world would be able to house itself according to the way it wishes to, according to the life it would like to live. Hospitality is not easy. Hospitality is openness to the stranger. It is to embrace the risk of the other. It is to welcome somebody else into your house who you don’t know, and without knowing how they’re going to act. Welcoming the stranger into your house is the beginning of love, of companionship, discussion, play, pleasure, affection, friendship, education, sharing, and solidarity. If we wouldn’t welcome the other, there probably wouldn’t be a species. But it’s also to accept the risk, the possibility, even the inevitability of antagonism and violence; that the person who enters your space behaves in a way that you don’t know. To invite the other in, to be hospitable, is to learn and to love but is also to be conflicted and perhaps even to be hurt. Seemingly benign, conventional buildings, very simple buildings that simply offer an interior space, always sustain violence through these systems of exclusions and hierarchies. Every time architects draw a line, there is always on the one hand a promise for making a space for people, and maybe a wider space for more people, but it’s always exclusionary; there are always those who are left out.

Designers always speak in terms of inclusivity. If you listen to designers, they’re wonderful people. They love everybody, their architecture is for everybody. It’s all embracing. Very few architects will say who’s not welcome in their spaces; which kind of behaviors are not acceptable; which language is not appropriate; what it is that cannot be seen; what is actively repressed; what is prohibited; what is not possible. This kind of language is left out of the story of openness and inclusion. The language of inclusivity is a secret language of exclusivity. This may sound unbelievably and naively simplistic, an assault on the way people are, but maybe it’s pretty much like that. Every line has the capacity to give comfort, space, time, to one group, and take it away from another. Can you draw a line that welcomes without also excluding? In Constant’s theory, every line is violent. Every line has to be undone. Every line has to be provisional, dotted, blurred, contested. How, then, do you operate as an architect? That is to say, a person who draws lines, while depowering the lines, by not allowing the line to be violent, to exert its violence? Miesian architecture may inspire hospitality, but it never strays too far away from the idea of authority. The room we are in is in every sense exclusive.

Real hospitality is a radical act. This invitation and embrace of the unknown guest necessarily undermines the designer and the design itself. In other words, a genuinely hospitable architecture that would welcome the other would welcome its own destruction. It would welcome the dissolution and blurring of the figure of the designer. The real generosity of a host is not to invite someone or something to occupy a space, but to invite a transformation of the space. New Babylon is that kind of invitation, like giving you a piece of play equipment to dismantle. New Babylon is the most extreme and invaluable example of extreme hospitality. Here, hospitality is extended to the whole species. It is a genuinely popular architecture for a world in which no one would be considered either ordinary or strange. This would be, to put it crudely, an architecture for the people, and nothing less.


Constant really tries to ask the question: how could we live together? What does it mean to be suspended within a networked world beyond labor? He was seeing that world coming with all its promise and its horror, and we have already entered that world today. New Babylon was realized; we’re already there. But the question Constant could not answer remains, this brutally important question: how will we live together when it would seem that one of the key characteristics of our species is its murderous relationship to itself? Our insensitivity and brutality towards others, our ability to anesthetize ourselves to the suffering of others, even to our own pains and pleasures. The repressive default setting reinforced by the new brains and body that we have become through the technological adjustments to our own organism forces again a new generation of architects to ask, what is it that we could offer? What could hospitality be?

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