Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Sad to hear of the death of J.G. Ballard recently. The Guardian’s exploration of his influence (as well as Simon Reynolds’ great article on the man here in Salon) includes his obvious influence on music (The Normal’s classic 'Warm Leatherette' (later covered by Grace Jones), with its cyberpunk adaptation of Crash’s central theme of the psycho-eroticism of car crashes, and Joy Division’s 'The Atrocity Exhibition', named after Ballard’s book of short stories, on Closer).

There’s no mention in the film section of the fact that A Clockwork Orange feels very Ballardian, with its scenes in city underpasses and stylised, neurotic imagery of a psychedelic urban dystopia. Ballard’s “psycho-geography”, his vision of the future, is one where, like Philip K. Dick, technology has often gone wrong and we are surrounded by consumerism, designer drugs, and endless concrete highways. And his writings have often featured subconsciously in the collective imagination: his vision of London immersed in the water, an idea that he explored in The Drowned World and which has taken on a disturbing relevance with increasing worries about global warming and rising sea levels, has found expression in this imagery. And it’s even echoed in the scene in The Day After Tomorrow where a city – this time New York rather than London – is engulfed by water.
But it’s the section on his influence in architecture that’s also interesting, particularly after visiting the exhibition on Le Corbusier at the Barbican. With the surroundings echoing a lot of the ‘Modern Architecture’ and utopian urban planning ideals that Le Corbusier clung to, what was really interesting was to see his vision of housing estates back in the 60s, and what inspired him to erect them. Anyone who has lived in the majority of London – or any other big city in Britain, I guess – will know just how grim and colourless council estates can sometimes look when set against a rainy grey day, which seems to be the U.K.’s speciality in weather so much of the year. They’ve become a ubiquitous part of the landscape even for those who don’t live in one.
Yet there’s something about the images of some of them from the 60s, standing brand new, shorn of much of the decay, grime and weather erosion that they’ve suffered over the years. There’s an almost utopian longing in those old pictures, with the Le Corbusier’s view of the estates being a giant self-contained community that would simultaneously solve housing problems and raise the general quality of life – an ideal that seems impossibly idealistic now.
Yet there are occasions when his architecture does still stand up today, particularly with the housing that surrounds the Barbican itself, which perfectly embodies the original ideals that Le Corbusier strived to – modernist and exciting, with all kinds of new ideas about living and functionality at home, with the images of his examples of work displaying all kinds of unique ideas about furniture and art at home. Then again, after having visited the exhibition, it’s amazing in retrospect to think about his projected ideas – with accompanying diagrams - in 1925 to bulldoze much of Paris north of the Seine, and replace what was there with “sixty-story cruciform towers from the Contemporary City, placed in an orthogonal street grid and park-like green space” (according to Wikipedia). His plans were rejected by those in charge, but the mind boggles as to what would have happened had these developments took place. It’s echoed in these plans in London in the 70s that would have led to Brixton being completely unrecognisable, and which were likewise unimplemented.
Ballard’s landscape is often dominated by these Le Corbusier-like huge housing projects (he even did a book called High-Rise), with their concrete walkways. A few took a dysfunctional turn as the 70s and 80s grinded on, wracked with all kinds of problems, reflecting the kind of dystopias that Ballard explored in his works.

(Ballard image from the BBC website)

1 comment:

Tuppence said...

Excellent piece Dom.

The Barbican is truly an interesting place. But can you imagine it being replicated throughout London? What a dystopian nightmare. Corridors which lead to nowhere, heavy, dark concrete everywhere. Trouble is, architects haven't learned the lessons for the 60's and 70's and I feel a resurgence of such places (albeit with less emphasis on the car).



In one way, you have to be in awe of Le Corbusier's plans (although the airports above towerblocks would have been a slightly bad idea). But his ideas were bold, fresh and utopian...almost communist in their purity. Like communism, though, it never took into account human psychology, which is why tower block estates, almost without exception, have failed.

Thamesmead was another interesting failed experiment (where Clockwork Orange was filmed, funnily enough)


....and this guy has lots of cool stuff on flickr, including, I guess, Thamesmead stuff.


Of course we've discussed before what could have happened in Brixton, if not for the protesting of a bunch of squatters (who held out until the political climate changed enough to scrap the idea).

I recommend the 4th part of the excellent BBC series "the secret life of the motorway" which touched on the motorways which were planned around Zone 2 London, cutting through Kensington, Hackney, Camden, Hampstead and Islington...basically destroying London.