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A Near Future: Nic Clear’s Tribute to JG Ballard

Author: • Dec 28th, 2009 •

Category: academia, airports, alternate worlds, architecture, audio, body horror, dystopia, enviro-disaster, features, Lead Story, R.I.P. JGB, Shanghai, urban ruins, utopia, WWII

Ballardian: Nic Clear

Ballardian: Architectural Design JG BALLARD, 1930–2009

Originally published in Architectures of the Near Future: Architectural Design (ed. Nic Clear), September-October 2009. pp. 5, 6-11. Reproduced with permission.

James Graham Ballard was one of the most original and distinctive authors of the last part of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. His writing encompassed topics as diverse as ecological crisis, technological fetishism, urban ruination and suburban mob culture, and he pursued these topics with a wit and inventiveness that is without equal.

Ballard’s understanding of architecture and architects, and his prophetic visions, made him one of the most important figures in the literary articulation of architectural issues and concerns.

From the description of futuristic houses that empathise with their inhabitants, to the bleak characterisation of gated communities consumed by sex, drugs and violence, Ballard’s world is highly prescient and ruthlessly unsentimental. At a time when architectural discourse has become wholly subsumed by the moneymaking pre-occupations of the architectural profession, the writings of JG Ballard serve as reminder that architecture is about people, the things that they do and the places where they do them. Sometimes architecture will involve terrible people doing terrible things in terrible places, but the enduring nature of the human species is that we will always carry on; there is, after all, always the future.

Nic Clear, 2009.

Introduction: ‘A NEAR FUTURE’, by Nic Clear.

Of all the arts, architecture is the closest constitutively to the economic, with which, in the form of commissions and land values, it has a virtually unmediated relationship.

Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991, p 5.[1]

Later, as he sat on the balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

JG Ballard, High-Rise, 1975, p 7.[2]

Architectural design is always about the future; when architects make a proposition they always assume that it takes place in some imagined future. Architects nearly always assume that this future will be ‘better’ than the present, often as a consequence of what is being proposed. Architecture is, by its very nature, utopian.

Contemporary architecture, unlike earlier models of ‘utopian’ architecture, or perhaps because of the stigma attached to those models, has resisted an explicitly social and political agenda. Instead it has become driven by ‘ideal’ formalist agendas facilitated by the ‘shape-making’ potential of new computer-based design tools and funded by speculative finance.

Indeed, the most important transformations that have occurred in architecture over the last 30 years have not been in the shifts in fashion marking out new typologies, new forms of representation, new materials or new forms of manufacture; the biggest single shift has been in the new economic relations within the building industry and the new forms of contractual relationships that this has brought about. The rise of fast-track construction in the 1980s heralded a major change in the motivations for construction and brought about a homogenisation of building output largely predicated on maximising the economic value of the project, often with little regard for its social value.

And with the introduction of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) the current UK government has turned even health-care and educational building programmes into a speculative enterprise. PFI has always been presented as a cost-effective way of financing large infrastructural projects; however, like the government’s recent bail out of the banks, it works on the principle of the public financing the risk while the private sector skims off the profit.[3]

For a number of years the single model that has shaped the type of future that the architectural profession has based its assumptions on is one of unfettered consumer expansion. The majority of recent architectural debates have not tried to call into question the economic imperatives of late capitalism that drive financial speculation and generate the context within which private development is presented as the only option. Even the avant-garde architectural firms of the 1980s are now operating as large international commercial practices, and the Deconstructivists have proved to be more than enthusiastic capitalists. The critical and intellectual ambitions inspired by Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Guy Debord have been replaced with the monetarist ideologies of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan.

The architectural profession has embraced the late capitalist model enthusiastically and uncritically, while all the time pandering to the concepts of social and environmental responsibility. The fact is that this model has been funded through speculative investment, and now that the money has run out the profession is bereft of alternatives.

The promise of an ‘urban renaissance’ has left buildings empty and negative equity is becoming once again the dominant economic value across the property world.

The architectural world has proved completely incapable of suggesting what the future may hold; can one still believe in the shiny renders of the corporate architectural complex when this world has replaced a vision of the future with an image of the future?

But the profession is resourceful and in the same way that all contemporary architects play the ‘sustainability’ game, whether they are designing sustainable airports, sustainable shopping centres, sustainable luxury hotels, sustainable office blocks, sustainable cities in the middle of deserts or sustainable single private dwellings for the ultrarich, we will, no doubt, see a gritty ‘new realism’ starting to appear in architectural discourse that responds to the new economic conditions.[4]

Exactly how these new imperatives will drive the formal shape- making methodologies that have filled so many glossy pages for so long we shall see; and how will the interactive and responsive landscapes interact with, and respond to, bankruptcy, increasing unemployment and a general sense of despair?

Ballardian: Nic Clear

Nic Clear, ‘Game with Vestiges: After Ballard Triptych, 2009’. The series of drawings here was set up in the same way as any standard CAD drawing in VectorWorks using layers, classes and libraries of objects. The drawings work as a narrative triptych, bringing together a number of elements — cityscapes, high-rise buildings, surrealist curios, fetish and banal objects — all in keeping with the memory of ‘Jim’, to whom the drawings are dedicated.

Contemporary culture has put its faith in the ideology of progress; progress will make things better, as well as making things faster and smaller (or bigger depending on the value system). This faith in progress and betterment fails to ring true in the light of economic downturn, environmental catastrophe, increased levels of crime, the threats of terrorism and global pandemics.[5] If the future cannot be guaranteed, where does that leave architecture?

However, a loss of faith is only a problem if that faith exists in the first place.

Within literature there is a major strand that looks at the future in a completely different way; science fiction can also be seen as a ‘utopian’ genre,[6] and in works by writers ranging from Jules Verne and HG Wells, through to Aldous Huxley and George Orwell and more latterly Philip K Dick, JG Ballard, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, the future is depicted in a variety of different hues, not all of them as rosy as the futures promised by the architectural profession. As a result such speculations are often more believable.

While these writings appear to reflect on the future, more often than not they are actually concerned with issues contemporaneous to their production. To cite two obvious examples, Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Orwell’s 1984 (1949) are political reflections on the societies around them, and in Huxley’s case it is not altogether clear whether he is entirely critical of the world that he describes.

However, the writings of JG Ballard are of particular interest here as they filter through a number of the texts contained in this issue, either directly or lingering in the background.[7] Ballard is of special significance largely due to the fact that in so much of his writing architecture and architects play such a pivotal role.

The prescience of Ballard’s writing is obvious; his early works encompass environmental disaster, both drought and flooding; in the 1970s, novels such as Crash[8] and High-Rise[9] dealt with technological fetishisation, urban anomie and alienation, and, long before such issues hit the mainstream, he looked at the links between consumerism and social collapse. In his recent writings, Millennium People[10] and Kingdom Come,[11] Ballard depicts a Britain bereft of social values other than those of daytime TV and the shopping centre, and while his central characters can lack credibility his general description of the cultural landscape is far more accurate than almost anything that has been published in the pages of any recent architectural publication.

The future as presented by Ballard is often stark, bleak and uncompromising. There are few happy endings in his future. However, his faith in our collective ability to endure almost any hardship, drawn almost certainly from his experiences in Shanghai during the Second World War, leads us to believe that despite whatever is thrown at us we will adapt and we will survive.[12]

Like Ballard, let us not despair; though the future may be uncertain, uncertainty is not without its attractions.

The current economic situation offers great potential for developing a new agenda in architecture. The fact that the discipline of architecture has become synonymous with the architectural profession is something that will no doubt become contested as unemployment rises throughout the building industry[13] — those of us who can remember previous recessions can also remember them as highly creative periods. The fact that architects may have to redefine their operations is potentially a wonderful opportunity to recalibrate and reconsider who and what architecture is actually for.

This will bring to life the obvious gulf between expectation and reality that permeates architectural practice. Architecture is a wonderful discourse and training; however, it can be a very tedious job. Of course it does not have to be like this. Freed from the limitations of the profession, architectural projects can offer fantastic opportunities to develop narratives that can help us understand why we are doing the things we do.[14]

The fact that architects may have to redefine their operations is potentially a wonderful opportunity to recalibrate and reconsider who and what architecture is actually for.

In particular these uncertain times may be a blessing for a younger generation of designers; equipped with a vast array of technical skills and understanding they are almost certain to cope with the vagaries of future practice. As the skills demonstrated in many of the projects collected in this issue suggest, future architects may be just as adept at web design, graphics and film-making as they are at producing information for buildings.

The last few years have witnessed a gradual disenchantment within architectural education with the goals espoused by the architectural profession. Increased levels of student debt coupled with a creeping homogenisation of architectural practice have resulted in there being a darker aspect to student projects. Rather than shrinking away from the potential difficulties, the younger generation of architects may use information technologies to create new sites of architectural endeavour and give a whole new meaning to the term ‘architectural design’.

The essays and projects gathered together here cover a wide variety of positions. Many develop the themes suggested by Ballard and others, while some give the current situation a broader historical perspective, suggesting that certain of the scenarios that we face are not without precedent.

Ballardian: Nic Clear

Nic Clear, ‘Game with Vestiges: After Ballard Triptych, 2009’. The series of drawings here was set up in the same way as any standard CAD drawing in VectorWorks using layers, classes and libraries of objects. The drawings work as a narrative triptych, bringing together a number of elements — cityscapes, high-rise buildings, surrealist curios, fetish and banal objects — all in keeping with the memory of ‘Jim’, to whom the drawings are dedicated.

Matthew Gandy’s ‘Urban Flux’ gives a historical perspective to our current situation and argues that we need to recover the urban imagination in order to enrich 21st-century public culture. Michael Aling returns to his home town of Swindon, statistically the most average town in Britain, to find people sharing identities, stricken with gout and going to a deserted shopping centre for no real reason other than to fulfil a forgotten collective desire. And John Culmer Bell looks at the nature of electromagnetic radiation as a shaper of 19th- and 20th- century urban form, provocatively questioning whether sacrificing the pleasures of ‘noctambulism’ simply on environmental grounds is actually a good thing.

Bastian Glassner of uber-trendy video directors Lynn Fox presents a series of luxurious images, hybridising the body as meat, a clear homage to Francis Bacon (pun intended) with a bit of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse thrown in.

Soki So reimagines Piranesi’s Carceri as a near-future Hong Kong with a series of appropriately spectacular and sumptuous images that also address real concerns over the concept of urban intensity and vertical sprawl. Rubedo send out a provocative declaration concerning the omnipresence of technological systems and the necessity of developing transdisciplinary tactics to negotiate the immersive hybridised spaces of late capitalism.

Richard Bevan constructs a worryingly believable scenario whereby Heathrow airport becomes a carbon casino trading in carbon credits with air-mile-hungry oligarchs gambling to stay aloft, and Geoff Manaugh explores and questions the use of the term ‘feral city’. In ‘London After the Rain’, Ben Marzys presents a beautiful graphic Surrealist landscape, a posthuman picturesque. In ‘L.A.W.u.N Project #21: Cybucolia’ the Invisible University suggest that the near future may carry with it many of the seeds sown with 19th-century Romanticism; and Dan Farmer suggests that the near future may be all in the mind with excerpts from his research on cortical plasticity. Ben Nicholson reflects on his 2004 book The World Who Wants It?, one of the finest pieces of satirical writing of recent years, and presents a series of images that were absent from the original publication.

Simon Sellars and George Thomson explore the most explicitly Ballardian line, with Sellars looking at the aural nature of the urban environment, beautifully illustrated with Michelle Lord’s exquisite assemblages, and Thomson reimagining Ballard’s ‘Sound-Sweep’ as a community occupying a derelict M25.

Finally, Art in Ruins show work from installations that are 20 years old, an important conceptual reminder that none of the ideas in this issue are particularly new.

This issue was first conceived in 2007; the proposal was put forward in early 2008 and most of the text written late 2008/ early 2009. You will be reading this, at the very earliest, in autumn 2009. Like any other architectural project its relevance is shaped by a number of external forces far beyond the control of its authors; the economic events that are taking place as this text is being written (and rewritten) make any allusion to future certainties look foolish. The severity of the current economic situation makes any attempt to try to predict what light, if any, is at the end of this particular tunnel seem absurd. However, what happens if we imagine a number of scenarios, not necessarily the usual convivial scenarios that mainstream architecture usually relies on, but scenarios where the traditional certainties are replaced by something less predictable? Like the heroes of many of Ballard’s stories, the authors of the essays in this issue face the future with a sense of resigned stoicism and the ability to create beauty wherever they find it.

In many ways the near future could be very much like the past, with one obvious exception — it will be completely different.

[1] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1991, p 5.
[2] JG Ballard, High Rise, Jonathan Cape (London), 1975, p 7.
[3] See George Monbiot, ‘The Biggest Weirdest Rip Off Yet’, Guardian, 7 April 2009. In this article, Monbiot references a paper published in 2002 in the British Medical Journal in which five key criticisms were made of the PFI funding of hospitals: 1) that PFI brings no new capital investments; 2) that the assessments of value for money are skewed in favour of private finance; 3) the higher costs of PFI are due to financing costs which would be incurred under public financing; 4) any PFI schemes only show value for money after ‘risk transfer’, for risks that are not justified; 5) PFI more than doubles the cost of capital as a percentage of annual operating income. From Allyson M Pollock, Jean Shaoul and Neil Vickers, ‘Private finance and “value for money” in NHS hospitals: a policy in search of a rationale?’, BMJ, Vol 324, 18 May 2002, pp 1205–09.
[4] One can imagine that such texts have already begun to emanate from Rotterdam and Boston.
[5] For a critique of ‘progress’, see John Gray, Heresies Against Progress and Other Illusions, Granta Books (London), 2004.
[6] See Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Verso (London and New York), 2005.
[7] Ballard has been a central interest of my diploma unit at the Bartlett School of Architecture where I have been running a programme entitled ‘Architecture of the Near Future’ for several years. The work of Michael Aling, Richard Bevan, Dan Farmer, Ben Marzys, Soki So and George Thomson, all contributors to this issue, came out of this programme.
[8] JG Ballard, Crash, Jonathan Cape (London), 1973.
[9] JG Ballard, High Rise, op cit.
[10] JG Ballard, Millennium People, Flamingo (London), 2003.
[11] JG Ballard, Kingdom Come, Fourth Estate (London), 2006.
[12] Beautifully described in his memoir Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, Fourth Estate (London), 2008.
[13] Job losses in architecture between February 2008 and February 2009 were reportedly up by 760%. See Will Hirst, ‘Architect Job Losses up by 760%’, Building Design, 20 March 2009, p 3.
[14] The drawings that accompany this essay come from my sheer enjoyment of producing CAD drawings simply because they are something I like doing.

Text © 2009 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images © Nic Clear.

Ballardian: Nic Clear

Nic Clear, ‘Game with Vestiges: After Ballard Triptych, 2009’. The series of drawings here was set up in the same way as any standard CAD drawing in VectorWorks using layers, classes and libraries of objects. The drawings work as a narrative triptych, bringing together a number of elements — cityscapes, high-rise buildings, surrealist curios, fetish and banal objects — all in keeping with the memory of ‘Jim’, to whom the drawings are dedicated.

…:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ Stereoscopic Urbanism: JG Ballard & the Built Enviroment
+ ‘Architectures of the Near Future’: An Interview with Nic Clear

Information on Architectures of the Near Future: Architectural Design.

Ballardian: Architectural Design

In this highly pertinent issue, guest-editor Nic Clear questions received notions of the future. Are the accepted norms of economic growth and expansion the only means by which society can develop and prosper? Should the current economic crisis be making us call into question a future of unlimited growth? Can this moment of crisis – economic, environmental and technological – enable us to make more informed choices about the type of future that we want and can actually achieve? Architectures of the Near Future offers a series of alternative voices, developing some of the neglected areas of contemporary urban life and original visions of what might be to come. Rather than providing simplistic and seductive images of an intangible shiny future, it rocks the cosy world of architecture with polemical blasts.

* Draws on topics as diverse as synthetic space, psychoanalysis, Postmodern geography, post-economics, cybernetics and developments in neurology.
* Includes an exploration of the work of JG Ballard.
* Features the work of Ben Nicholson.

Editorial (Helen Castle ).
Introduction: A Near Future (Nic Clear).
Urban Flux (Matthew Gandy).
Postindividualism: Fata Morgana and the Swindon Gout Clinic (Michael Aling).
Urban Otaku: Electric Lighting and the Noctambulist (John Culmer Bell).
The Groom’s Gospel (Bastian Glassner).
Hong Kong Labyrinths (Soki So).
Distructuring Utopias (Rubedo: Laurent-Paul Robert and Vesna Petresin Robert).
The Carbon Casino (Richard Bevan).
Cities Gone Wild (Geoff Manaugh).
London After the Rain (Nic Clear).
L.A.W.u.N. Project #21: Cybucolia (Samantha Hardingham and David Greene).
Cortical Plasticity (Dan Farmer).
The Ridiculous and the Sublime (Ben Nicholson).
Stereoscopic Urbanism: JG Ballard and the Built Environment (Simon Sellars).
The Sound Stage (George Thomson).
Recent History – Art In Ruins (Hannah Vowles and Glyn Banks/Art in Ruins and Nic Clear)

Practice Profile.
Snøhetta (Jayne Merkel).
Interior Eye.
Biochemistry Department, University of Oxford (Howard Watson).
Building Profile.
St Benedict’s School, West London (David Littlefield).
Unit Factor.
Migration Pattern Process (Simon Beames and Kenneth Fraser).
Spiller’s Bits.
Mathematics of the Ideal Pavilion (Neil Spiller).
Yeang’s Eco-Files.
Computational Building Performance Modelling and Ecodesign (Khee Poh Lam and Ken Yeang).
McLean’s Nuggets (Will McLean).
Scaleable Technology for Smart Spaces (Valentina Croci).

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2 Responses »

  1. I saw Nic give a lecture at UCL some months ago and wrote:

    “The giant shining face of Jim Ballard stared out at us, like some deity critically surveying his assembled congregation. Below this over-sized icon Nic Clear swayed back and forth on his feet, at times falling into a reverent chant as he picked up on some core Ballardian doctrine: the high priest behind his technological altar.”

    Full post here.

  2. love the art… you can sure see Marcel Duchamp (well, I can)

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