Urbanist Games

[Note: This post originally appeared on both Terra Nova and thomasmalaby.com.]

Feb 8, 2009

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. Ive 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 Constants vision against Linden Labs 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, Constants 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.

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