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J.G. Ballard & Architectures of Control

Author: • Jan 3rd, 2008 •

Category: architecture, censorship, dystopia, fascism, features, Lead Story, psychology, speed & violence

by Dan Lockton

Ballardian: Architectures of Control

Ernõ Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, London W10. “I built skyscrapers for people to live in there and now they messed them up — disgusting.” Photo by See Wah, used under Creative Commons licence).


Dan Lockton is a design engineer and doctoral researcher at Brunel University’s School of Engineering & Design, on a brutalist West London campus somewhere between Shepperton and the Westway. He writes the Architectures of Control blog.


One of the many ‘obsessions’ running through Ballard’s work is what we might characterise as the effect of architecture on the individual. This is more than playful psychogeography: Ballard dissects architectural influence on his characters with technical precision, both intricate and dynamic, captured at 24 frames per second through a 35 mm lens but replayed in slow-motion, frozen and magnified, projected on the featureless concrete barrier bounding the mainstream carriageway.

I use ‘architecture’ here in a wide sense, including the whole of the constructed environment – physical, technological and social – because while, for example, High-Rise very clearly explores the way that architectural decisions can directly impact on human behaviour, some of Ballard’s more recent works such as Running Wild, Millennium People and Kingdom Come concentrate more on the effects of constructed social and psychological environments on their inhabitants/users, and Crash of course examines intimately the interface between technology and our bodies, and how the technological landscape shapes our own obsessions. Indeed, the phrase “psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments” in the Collins English Dictionary definition of ‘Ballardian’ is, while necessarily broad, impressively concise.

However, the argument is somewhat more complex: to a large extent, much of Ballard’s work makes it clear that he considers the seeds of behavioural change to be latent within every participant and merely drawn out by the environments and situations in which he or she is placed. Concrete Island, some of the elements of The Atrocity Exhibition, ‘The Terminal Beach’, ‘The Enormous Space’, ‘Motel Architecture’ and others all take this to the characteristically Ballardian level of actually reflecting the participants’ mental state in the environment itself:

…throughout The Atrocity Exhibition, the nervous systems of the characters have been externalised as part of the reversal of the interior and exterior worlds. Highways, office blocks, faces and street signs are perceived as if they were elements in a malfunctioning central nervous system.”

The Atrocity Exhibition, annotated edition (JGB’s notes on ‘Algebra of the Sky’).

More and more, the island was becoming an exact model of his head… Identifying the island with himself, he gazed at the cars in the breaker’s yard, at the wire-mesh fence, and the concrete caisson behind him. These places of pain and ordeal were now confused with pieces of his body.

I am the island.

Concrete Island, chapter 9.

Ballardian: Architectures of Control

Culver St, Salisbury, Wiltshire. Photo by Tom Goskar (used under Creative Commons licence).

In terms of conventional ‘architecture’, it is the landscape of highways, the blockhouse and the multi-storey car park (many of them “very large structures”) which recur throughout Ballard’s work, with aspects of their geometries (canted decks, angles between walls, and so on) both a cipher for the possibilities of human relations and a method of reinforcing the obsessive thought-processes of the characters involved.

The architecture also acts as a structure for the story — few writers incorporate the affordances and disaffordances of their fiction’s settings so tightly into the plot as Ballard does: this is especially obvious in High-Rise (and less so in Kingdom Come) where a single edifice is the focus of both the overall plot and everything that happens within it, but even ‘detective story’ details such as (in Super-Cannes) Sinclair searching for and finding Greenwood’s dried blood inside the drainpipe below the top deck of the (multi-storey) car park are integrated inescapably into the nature of Ballard’s narrative. Would the events of, say, Super-Cannes or Cocaine Nights engage the reader to the same extent if the architecture of the locations, both physical and psychological, were not so obsessively explained and expounded?

My own area of research relates to what might be called ‘design with intent’, or, more dramatically, ‘architectures of control’, a term most notably used by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig to describe the way in which systems (such as the internet) regulate and shape users’ behaviour through the embedded ‘code’ of the system itself, orders of magnitude more powerful than any external legal regulation. Ballard explores consumerism-driving behaviour-shaping most notably in ‘The Subliminal Man’, where, alongside subliminal advertising on giant roadside signs designed to spur ever-faster product replacement cycles, a system of rubber studs embedded in the road surface, the pattern of which is regularly changed, enforce regular tyre replacement by causing damaging resonance — “increasing the safety and efficiency of the expressway… [and also] the revenues of the car and tyre manufacturers.”

Architectures of control in the built environment work on different scales, from the large-scale layouts of cities and campuses to encourage or discourage certain behaviour, to mundane small-scale examples such as benches designed with central armrests to prevent the homeless sleeping on them, anti-skateboarding features on walls and even rough paving to make it uncomfortable to sit down or for barefooted protestors to congregate. Similar ideas have been expressed in different fields, at different times, by different people: for example, for Bruno Latour and Madeleine Akrich, the emphasis is very much on the designer (or architect) ‘inscribing’ intent into a system or environment, prescribing and proscribing what behaviours will be produced, but the architectural effects explored in Ballard’s work are, more often than not, divorced from conscious intent on the part of the architects – part of Ballard’s usual “recognition of unconscious forces” [1] (my emphases):

Take a structure like a multi-storey car park, one of the most mysterious buildings ever built. Is it a model for some strange psychological state, some kind of vision glimpsed within its bizarre geometry? What effect does using these buildings have on us? Are the real myths of this century being written in terms of these huge unnoticed structures?

‘Crash!’ voiceover, 1971.

In most roles the machine assumes a benign or passive posture – telephone exchanges, engineering hardware, etc. The twentieth century has also given birth to a vast range of machines – computers, pilotless planes, thermonuclear weapons – where the latent identity of the machine is ambiguous even to the skilled investigator.

‘Crash!’ in The Atrocity Exhibition.

Ballardian: Architectures of Control

Under the Westway. Photo by Drew Leavy (used under Creative Commons licence).

Ballard in no way tries to imply that the architects and civil engineers who envisaged the Westway, Western Avenue and London’s Motorway Box intended to create or inspire the events of Crash or Concrete Island, but the fact that Maitland (Concrete Island) is, professionally, an architect, is surely significant. Where Ballard does allow us to examine an architect meeting the consequences of his work — Royal in High-Rise — there is an apparent lack of conscious reflection by the architect on the actual architectural effects involved but something of an implication of intent, at least in terms of the whole thing being a perverse experiment on the part of its creator (much like Crawford in Cocaine Nights and Penrose in Super-Cannes, or even Vaughan, the “TV scientist” in Crash).

Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space, a seminal work in modern urban planning, had been published in 1972, three years before High-Rise, and includes studies of real apartment blocks and estates Balkanised and destroyed through escalating architecturally-driven deterioration of the social fabric, although none to quite the level of atavism and collectively self-enforced agoraphobia that Ballard brings us. This distaste for the outside world, the wilful insularity of the residents, is a notable theme in High-Rise, and of course parallels some of the thought processes of the enclave residents of the Residencia Costasol (Cocaine Nights) and Pangbourne Village (Running Wild):

The spectacular view always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for this concrete landscape. Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence.

High-Rise, chapter 2.

It’s interesting to note Ballard’s own recognition of embedded (or ‘inscribed’) code in architectural design in ‘A Handful of Dust’ [2], an article for the Guardian (emphases mine), where the idea of the planned community also rears its head:

But the modernists maintained that ornamentation concealed rather than embellished. Classical columns, pediments and pilasters defined a hierarchical order. Power and authority were separated from the common street by huge flights of steps that we were forced to climb on our way to law courts, parliaments and town halls… So modernism was a breath of fresh air and possibility. Housing schemes, factories and office blocks designed by modernist architects were clear-headed and geometric, suggesting clean and unembellished lives for the people inside them.

‘A Handful of Dust’, The Guardian, 20. iii. 2006.

This idea is further explored in the notes on ‘Locus Solus’ in the annotated version of The Atrocity Exhibition, (and, specifically with the planned/gated community theme, in ‘The Largest Theme Park in the World’, Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Running Wild):

…the peculiar geometry of those identical apartment houses [along the Mediterranean coast] seems to defuse the millenarian spirit. Living there, one is aware of the exact volumes of these generally white apartments and hotel rooms. After the more sombre light of northern Europe, they seem to focus an intense self-consciousness on the occupants.

The Atrocity Exhibition, annotated edition (JGB’s notes on Locus Solus).

Ballardian: Architectures of Control

Tasers and other defence paraphernalia on sale in a Cannes shopping centre, 2005. Photograph by Dan Lockton.

In Super-Cannes, however, there is an explicit link drawn with the totalitarian potential of architectural determinism as a method of social control, which brings Ballard closer to more ‘conventional’ dystopian territory. It’s not comparable with the wartime horrors of Empire of the Sun, but is in keeping with the dark conspiratorial undercurrents of the book (my emphases):

Thousands of people live and work here without making a single decision about right and wrong. The moral order is engineered into their lives along with the speed limits and the security systems.

Super-Cannes, chapter 29.

Surveillance cameras hung like gargoyles from the cornices, following me as I approached the barbican and identified myself to the guard at the reception desk… High above me, fluted columns carried the pitched roofs, an attempt at a vernacular architecture that failed to disguise this executive-class prison. Taking their cue from Eden-Olympia and Antibes-les-Pins, the totalitarian systems of the future would be subservient and ingratiating, but the locks would be just as strong.

Super-Cannes, chapter 15.

This last quote is one of my favourites from all of Ballard’s work, and it’s notable from the ‘architectures of control’ perspective to see the strains of latent suburban fascism being explored in the recent Kingdom Come, entwined with the planned manipulation of populations through mass media and the advertising which Pearson devises; it will be interesting to see if Ballard continues exploring this area of modern totalitarianism, whether he can further develop this perspective, and what direction he takes next.

While this brief article merely scratches the surface of Ballard’s interest in architectural effects on people, I hope it shows that this area, in many forms, is a running theme throughout much of his work — a fascinating thread, evolving yet consistent in its depth, over fifty-plus years of writing.

Dan Lockton, 2008.

[1] Chris Hall, ‘Extreme Metaphor: A Crash Course In The Fiction Of JG Ballard’.
[2] J.G. Ballard. ‘A handful of dust’.

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5 Responses »

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