These Great Urbanist Games

Games, Governance, Institutions, Politics, Social Theory

[Cross-posted to Terra Nova.]

Constant and New Babylon. Photograph by Bram Wisman, originally posted at

In a recent post I raised the idea that, like religious experience for William James, play may best be thought of as a mode of experience. Less foregrounded in that discussion was a further lesson from James: that we should expect to find this disposition in as many varieties as there are times and places for human life, rather than in some universal form. I’ve recently posted a paper to ssrn that aims to get us thinking about how play may be distinctively configured in different times and places, specifically in Europe directly after WWII and in the United States through the present day. In it I consider “New Babylon,” the fascinating project of Unitary Urbanism by Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka Constant), who through it sought to make a city for Homo ludens. I set Constant’s vision against Linden Lab’s Second Life, a world also deeply informed by ideas about games and play. In both, though in quite different ways, architecting for play held the promise of post-bureaucratic sovereignty.

Here is the abstract:

Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka Constant), 20th-century painter and architect and founding member of the Situationist International, is perhaps best known for his ambitious project of unitary urbanism, New Babylon, on which he worked from 1958 until 1973. This proposed city (which would, theoretically, cover the globe) was intended to prompt all people to express their creativity through their constant reconfiguration of its open and malleable living space.
Explicitly designed for Homo ludens, in it social life was to be constituted by architectural play. But, as Mark Wigley has noted, “play was the whole point of New Babylon but not its mode of production.” As designer of this universalizing and revolutionary play-space, Constant’s role entailed the contrivance of open-endedness, and thus implicitly relied upon the very artistic authority that the Situationists had rejected (Constant left the Situationists in 1960). Today, fifty years after he began his project, we can witness similar ideals and contradictions in the virtual world Second Life, an architected social space which also claims to be an infinitely malleable forum for creative expression. In this article I trace to what extent the ideological foundations of both of these projects can be linked to postwar attitudes toward technology and authority on both sides of the Atlantic, and explore how they each draw upon notions of play in distinctive ways. Arriving at the same ideals and contradictions via separate but related paths, New Babylon and Second Life reflect two responses to the challenges of design and post-bureaucratic hopes for the productivity of play.

Any comments welcome.

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  1. Prokofy Neva  •  Feb 11, 2009 @2:29 pm

    This idea would be more persuasive to me if in fact people behaved in Second Life like Constant — who sounds anything but. And I realize this issue I’m responding to may be a minor one in the scheme of this entire article about technology and authority — but I think if anything, one of the ways actual users of at least this virtual world technology fight the authority of the VW makers themselves is persisting despite their vicissitudes — price rises, instability, etc.

    In fact, most people in SL want absolute stability and versimilitude to Real Life. They make a building *just so* and they leave it literally for years just that way, never changing it. While a handful of high-profile artists are constantly building and destroying architecture-as-art, and doing so casually because they can copy it and put it in inventory to rez out some other day, the person who makes a home doesn’t keep changing it in the normal course of things, and even becomes upset if some exigency like a server crash or Linden patch makes it disappear or return to inventory. Unlike that architect, he may not have a copy.

    It’s funny how for some people, Second Life, which you would think would be endlessly fluid and ephemeral, becomes a place of rooted persistence for people by contrast with their real lives. Let’s say they lost their home in Katrina, or they lost their home to foreclosure, or they lost their job — but their pixelated SL homes are still *exactly* the way they left them, and able to be preserved for, say, a mere US $25 a month in maintenance fees.

    It’s interesting to me to look at the map and the landmarks over the years I’ve been in Second Life and see how persistent they are. For example, the Clocktower of Tan had to be taken down because I think the owner didn’t pay the tier anymore. Galaxy, the ship spanning 3 sims, has to be taken down because it couldn’t get the rentals and events to pay to justify the tier. But the Ivory Tower of Prims, a building tutorial site, remains. I have had Ravenglass Hall standing exactly as originally built for four years.

  2. Thomas  •  Feb 12, 2009 @3:50 pm

    Agreed, Prokofy. These imaginings of the human on the part of both Constant (who was “constant” about this project, for all his earlier jumping about — he worked on New Babylon for twenty years straight) and Linden Lab are all the more notable for the vast chasm which separates them from how people actually seem to live.

  3. MosesW  •  Feb 18, 2009 @11:10 pm

    I have to say on finally getting a full read of this article, Thomas, that more than ever I see the parallels between Second Life (and New Babylon) and Burning Man. While I’ve only been once (all the way back in 1996), I know a few of the folks in the organization, and one thing that has definitely been in evidence as the event has developed over the years is the inherent contradictions that have to be wrestled with in architecting a space for play. Given that play on the playa for many participants involves the consumption of illegal (and often dangerous) substances, you can well imagine how this challenge developed legs as the event grew and acquired less intimacy and more attention from the authorities.

  4. Thomas  •  Feb 24, 2009 @2:14 pm

    Yes, I think that’s a strong parallel, Moses. Philip Rosedale, founder of Linden Lab, is an enormous fan of Burning Man, and has attended most if not all of them, if I recall correctly. That idea of contriving open-ended circumstances for creativity undergirds Burning Man as much as SL and New Babylon.

  5. altug isigan  •  Mar 7, 2009 @8:10 am

    “Play as experience” made me think of some of Victor Turner’s studies in anthropology, as well as his conception of the symbol as an event. New Babylon, on the other hand got me immediately think of one of my favorite novels, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. You probably have heard of the story of Sophronia in it:

    “The city of Sphoronia is made up of two half-cities. In one there is the great roller coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the
    Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-
    city is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, and all the rest. One of the half-cities is
    permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant
    lots of another half-city.

    And so every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry,
    the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them on trailers, to follow from stand to stand their annual itinerary. Here remains the
    half-Sophronia of the shooting-galleries and the carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of the headlong roller coaster, and it begins to count the
    months, the days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin again.”

    A complete life. In the sense of not only a second life?? ;)

  6. altug isigan  •  Mar 7, 2009 @5:27 pm

    This vision of a play-city visited by a “civilized” city leaves the impression that it follows Huizinga’s vision of culture which visited play at some stage in history and did not leave it anymore. It’s striking how both writers believe that one will be “lifeless” without the other. The wane of the play element in culture is not less problematic than the wane of the culture-element in play. It’s not only the serious which defines itself as the opposite of play and thereby declares itself more important; but the commercial game reproduces this divide when it promotes itself as an experience which allows for a temporary escape from the real (and burdensome, less valuable, serious) world.

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