Ballard and architecture

Noted science fiction author J.G. Ballard died April 19, 2009. on Omnivoracious Geoff Manaugh, of BLDG BLOG, offers an architectural appreciation – Between the Tower and the Parking Lot: A Spatial Appreciation of J.G. Ballard:

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.

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.

3 thoughts on “Ballard and architecture”

  1. Hi, I think your site is great! I learned some new and different things here. Rhonda

  2. Well, I would have to disagree that Ballard’s books are hard to find in North America. I mean, Amazon has all his books listed, both new and used, and gosh, two of his books were made into films (Crash and Empire of the Sun).
    I wouldn’t say he has been ignored by American public culture. Or I should say, he has been less ignored by American culture than a lot of other fine science-fiction writers.

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