Geoff Manaugh's Between the Tower and the Parking Lot: A Spatial Appreciation of J.G. Ballard
Geoff Manaugh is the author of BLDGBLOG and the forthcoming BLDGBLOG Book, previewed on Omnivoracious last week. I thought his unique perspective would be of interest to readers curious about J.G. Ballard and his worldview. I hope you enjoy his short essay. It encapsulates a lot of the elements I find fascinating about Ballard. - Jeff VanderMeer
Between the Tower and the Parking Lot: A Spatial Appreciation of J.G. Ballard
by Geoff Manaugh
J.G. Ballard, who died on Sunday at the age of 78, leaves behind far more than his status as a "cult author," science fiction novelist, or agent provocateur. Although most of his novels are still all but impossible to find in the U.S., I would argue that Ballard is one of the most important writers on architecture in the last century. But what do I mean by architecture, and why would that be the source of much of his works' continued relevance?
Ballard is best known for his look at the erotic nature of car accidents (Crash) and his semi-autobiographical account of a childhood spent in a Japanese internship camp during the Second World War (Empire of the Sun), but it's also worth looking at the settings of his less well-known novels: the architectural structures and urban landscapes in which they take place. Among other things, what makes Ballard's fiction so spatially valuable is that he explores the psychological implications of everyday non-places--like parking lots, high-rise apartment towers, highway embankments, shopping malls, well-policed corporate enclaves, and even British suburbia--without resorting to the flippant condemnation one might expect. Instead, Ballard describes these spaces in terms of their effects: how they mutate and rearrange the mental lives of their inhabitants.
It's as if these buildings, malls, empty plazas, and parking lots do, in fact, inspire a new type of humanity--as modernism's high priests once predicted--but Ballard shows that what they are bringing into existence is something altogether darker and unexpected. In other words, our contemporary built landscape has not ushered in the enlightened utopia once promised by Le Corbusier, for instance, with his isolated towers, or by Mies van der Rohe with his unornamented glass boxes. Instead, there is a slow-burning psychopathy here, a dementia inspired by space itself. Architecture becomes a kind of psychological Manhattan Project, so to speak: a vast, poorly supervised experiment in which new species of human personality are incubated.
In Concrete Island, for example, Ballard writes about a man named Robert Maitland. Maitland has been marooned on a west London traffic island following a car accident. Dazed and semi-concussed, he looks around himself at this strange new world: "In his aching head the concrete overpass and the system of motorways in which he was marooned had begun to assume an ever more threatening size," Ballard writes. "The illuminated route indicators rotated above his head, marked with meaningless destinations." This landscape has been there all along, but suddenly, once it is actually used and occupied, not overlooked or denied, its alien contours become all to clear. Ballard goes on to describe the scene as a "labyrinth of motorways," a "forgotten world whose furthest shores were defined only by the roar of automobile engines." Maitland soon comes to think of it as "an alien planet abandoned by its inhabitants."
How much easier would it be for a novelist simply to point out the inhospitable nature of this space, to say what we're all meant to say: that these environments are inhuman, hostile, destructive, bleak. Instead, Ballard is more interested in showing what's on the other side of the inhuman; he describes for us what might happen when you truly settle into "an alien world" all the more uncanny because it was built by humans, and you marinate there, letting its ambiance sink into and alter you. Think of it as a kind of experiential gonzo psychiatry.
In High-Rise--tragically and absurdly out of print in the United States, and which I'd pair with Ballard's much later Super-Cannes as a fantastic example of unfiltered architectural criticism--Ballard drills down into the more sinister thought processes that might occur to people living, for the first time, inside large architectural structures. Early on in the novel, he avoids the marketing speak of architects so keen on selling their designs for new communities in the sky, suggesting instead--and, I'd say, more honestly--that "people in high-rises tend not to care about tenants more than two floors below them." Indeed, the very design of the building, he writes, "played into the hands of the most petty impulses"--impulses such as monopolizing the elevator banks or throwing empty bottles off balconies. Soon, "deep-rooted antagonisms," amplified by middle-class sexual boredom and insomnia, began "breaking through the surface of life with the high-rise at more and more points." One of Ballard's characters eventually thinks of the high-rise "as if it were some kind of huge animate presence, brooding over them and keeping a magisterial eye on the events taking place." As the residents of the titular tower block descend into madness and even cannibalism, inspired--or perhaps pushed--by their inexplicable surroundings, marooned there twenty floors above the surface of the earth, confined with their own neuroses on the edge of the city, it becomes clear that Ballard was one of the very few twentieth-century writers willing to contemplate what psychological effects modern architecture might truly have.
Equally fascinating, of course, are Ballard's abandoned air fields, gated communities, and shopping mall security firms--all part of the elaborate spatial mythology that undergirds his novels--but my point is quite simple: Ballard should be thought of, and welcomed onto U.S. reading lists, as far more than a niche science fiction novelist or adolescent rebel (as many otherwise well-intentioned obituaries published this week seem to claim). At its best, Ballard's work is a devastating and original contribution to architectural thought, articulating the often sinister impacts of our built environment with a sense of humor, and an aphoristic memorability, that is all too lacking in contemporary fiction and architectural criticism alike.