Alexandra Lange | Essays

Higher and Higher

In his back-page New York Times Book Review essay on The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard, Jonathan Lethem makes many good points about Ballard’s visionary writing, “desolate landscapes” and his linkages with other arts.

Every bit as striking as Ballard’s feeling for entropy is his engagement with arts from which literature too often seems quarantined: music, sculpture, painting, architecture.

It is the importance of the last, architecture, that has always struck me in Ballard’s stories. Science fiction (a tag that should not be scoffed at) spends time on architecture than any other branch of fiction, since where we live can be a shorthand for culture. We know we are not in Kansas anymore when the sleeper wakes in royal apartments, or with a leprotic virus that turns nature into glass, or in a gridiron city without an exterior. What he sees, what he walks through (there aren’t very many shes) is the beginning of our mutual exploration of this new place, and we experience the strangeness of the built environment before we encounter the new life forms, language, or climate. Some of Ballard’s architectures are truly fantastic, but I think his best cautionary tale is in the thin novel High Rise. There Ballard takes the fear of modernism to its logical extreme, transforming shelter porn into savagery in a very realistic glassy condominium tower.

The plot of the novel as I recall it (I do not own it, having run across the book by chance on the shelf of an Umbrian farmhouse my father rented from some British people) is life in a Corbusian high rise after systems start breaking down. This new building, once bruised, becomes first an annoyance, then life-threatening. There are walls of glass and many balconies, a pool and a supermarket and the rest of the city on the ground far below. But no one in the building ever goes out (it is as if they are on the moon), and so when the water stops, the air-conditioning stops, they turn on each other, establishing allegiances based on the hierarchies of floors (the higher you are, the richer you are) and fighting for scarce resources. Even lapdogs loose their chains. It is a slim book because it just doesn’t take very long for such a civilization to devolve.

What’s interesting about this to a modern architectural historian is obvious: modernism scared people, and still does. It seems like an advance in civilization, but perhaps it is a retreat from everything but advancement. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. High rises are often occupied by the very rich and the very poor, and no one in between. Ballard takes all those fears to their end, creating a doomsday scenario. What if modern architecture was as alienating and unnatural as its critics told us it was, what would happen to its inhabitants? In exploring the possibility, Ballard performs a kind of criticism-as-exorcism, but I think his conclusions are open to interpretation.

He was no dilettante, either. Ballard was friends with the futurist crowd at the Architectural Association in London in the 1960s and early 1970s, a crowd which included Rem Koolhaas. Koolhaas’s “Manhattanism” in Delirious New York is an exploration of the same extremes of modernity as Ballard’s high rise and his short story Build-Up,” (aka “The Concentration City”) one of my favorites. All you need to start dreaming of some city of the future is the first line.

Noon talk on Millionth Street:

Posted in: Architecture, Media

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