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'Architectures of the Near Future': An Interview with Nic ClearAuthor: Simon Sellars • Dec 24th, 2008 •
ABOVE: ‘London after the Rain’, by Ben Olszyna-Marzys. A film produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.
In recognition of the sophistication of Ballard’s architectural analysis, a raft of discourse has been produced in recent times from within both academic and pop-cultural realms. This takes the form of tributes, analyses, ‘reimaginings’ and course syllabuses. In the influential architecture blog BLDGBLOG, for example, Geoff Manaugh sounds the note:
We have more to learn from the fiction of J.G. Ballard … than we do from Le Corbusier. The good city form of tomorrow is a refugee camp built by Brown & Root; the world’s largest architectural client is the U.S. Department of Defense. More people now live in overseas military camps than in houses designed by Mies van der Rohe — yet we study Mies van der Rohe.
While Le Corbusier appears to be (mis)remembered by history for supposedly self-important, grandiose plans to realise an architectural utopia that ignored the basic requirements of its inhabitants, Ballard, according to Manaugh, assumes increasing importance for the manner in which his work acutely analyses the ways in which the built environment can impact psychologically on its users and inhabitants. This includes, he elaborates, an identification of a ‘constant dissatisfaction with … architectural surroundings [that] becomes a kind of quiet aggression, an unarticulated suburban angst’. For Manaugh, the ‘psycho spatial’ nature of ‘Ballardian space’ is best articulated by Concrete Island, High-Rise and Super-Cannes, which he has utilised to varying degrees as the cornerstones of several BDLGBLOG posts.
Within the creative arts, the Birmingham-based artist Michelle Lord exhibited a series of images that used imagery from Concrete Island and Ballard’s novella ‘The Ultimate City’ (1976) to examine the legacy of Brutalist architecture in Britain. Lord’s work explicitly critiques the utopian ‘social idealism’ of Brutalism, itself a descendant of the Le Corbusier school of architecture, and the fashion in which it disregarded ‘the communal, historic and surrounding built environment’. Yet Lord also successfully captures the sense of ambivalence that powers ‘The Ultimate City’, with its depiction of a far-future, ‘post technological’ world in which the harshness of the urban environment is rejected in favour of a ‘green’, sterile ecotopia, only to be fatally underscored by a lingering lament for the decline of industrial landscapes.
Academically, Ballardian Studies is an emerging discipline in architectural schools. Here, the website of the London-based firm, Azhar Architecture, is instructive, featuring a list entitled ‘What’s being recommended in Architecture Schools: A Sample’. High-Rise, tracking the breakdown of social order in a Corbusian apartment block, is included alongside works from Rem Koolhaas, Mike Davis, Deleuze & Guattari and Guy Debord. At Columbia University’s Department of English & Comparative Literature, Professor Ursula Heise taught a subject entitled ‘Modern and Postmodern Cities’, in which depictions of ‘the metropolis and urban life’ were considered in 20th-century literature. One session was given over to two Ballard short stories, ‘The Concentration City’ (1957) and ‘Billennium’ (1962), which rank among the author’s most effective portrayals of the sensory overload of big-city life. Conceptually, the stories are at polar opposites, thematically they are of a piece: the absolute alliance of architecture with late capitalism. ‘Billennium’ is concerned with the complete contraction of public and private space by an overbearing architecture, while ‘Concentration City’ is based on the premise that the city is ever-expanding, without limits, its boundaries unable to be located by the central protagonist, who, no matter how far he travels, ends up where he started.
But the most ambitious academic program to date is almost certainly ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’, which was taught by Nic Clear and Simon Kennedy at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London in 2007-08. For Clear and Kennedy, the ‘speculative’ nature of Ballardian architectural space is all-important. The course, which utilised film and animation, video and motion-graphic techniques to devise representations of ‘synthetic space’, challenged students to examine architectural themes across the broad span of Ballard’s writing. The aim was to process the manner by which he deploys ‘actual’ and ‘virtual’ environments to form a coherent analysis of the challenges inherent in a supersaturated technological world. Clear and Kennedy, like Manaugh, also point to the psychological effects of architecture, which leads on to their consideration of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit’s film, London Orbital, as a text not only influenced by Ballard but also by the psychogeographical revival that Sinclair is closely associated with.
I recall in my interview with Manaugh, where I mentioned how I’d love to see Ballard taught in architectural schools. Geoff enthusiastically replied, ‘I would love to do this — it’s actually a conscious fantasy of mine…’ You can understand my excitement upon learning of Unit 15! I decided therefore to contact Nic Clear, and pin him down about Ballard, architecture and the fabulous work created by Unit 15, as well as the new U15 program for 2008-09, ‘The Near Future Part II’, which questions whether the utopianism of the ‘corporate architectural complex’ is viable in a world riven by conflict.
ABOVE: ‘The Sound-Sweep’, by George Thomson, based on the story by J.G. Ballard. A film produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.
J G Ballard is one of the most original and distinctive authors of the last part of the C20th, and beginning of the C21st. His writing has encompassed topics as diverse as ecological crisis to technological fetishism and augmentation, and from urban ruination to suburban mob culture, and he has pursued these topics with a wit and inventiveness that is without comparison.
His understanding of architecture, and architects, and his prophetic visions make Ballard 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. Rather than examining specific texts, Unit 15 will be following themes implicit in Ballard’s writing.
Unit 15 will also be examining filmic interpretations of his writing, particularly David Cronenberg’s Crash and Jonathan Weiss’s The Atrocity Exhibition, and to a lesser extent Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun. We shall also be looking at films inspired by Ballard’s work especially Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital. In short, we shall be examining all aspects of culture that can be considered BALLARDIAN.
Nic Clear & Simon Kennedy, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’, Unit 15, Bartlett School of Architecture, 2007-08.
SIMON SELLARS: Nic, how did the idea for ‘Crash: Architectures Of The Near Future’ come about?
NIC CLEAR: I’ve been interested in Ballard’s writing for many years; I was a big Joy Division fan and read The Atrocity Exhibition simply because they wrote a song with the same name. More recently, it struck me that the themes in Ballard’s work seem to address the issues about the built environment that architectural discourse seems to avoid: namely, how people actually operate within a social context where things are either falling, or have fallen apart. Architecture always seems to present this impossibly rosy view of the future and seems unable to deal with the possibility of failure, even though all architecture in some way fails.
SS: How have your students responded to Ballard’s work?
NC: The projects have been very successful, and the use of a literary point of departure has been quite liberating. The Ballardian theme has allowed students to really speculate on what they are doing, but also, more importantly, why they are doing it.
SS: Besides Unit 15, it seems there are a few architects, architectural critics, architecturally-minded artists and architecture schools that are starting to take notice of Ballard’s work.
NC: I’m not sure how many architects are being influenced by Ballard in their work, especially within ‘commercial’ architecture — maybe the forthcoming recession will make architects aware of the Ballardian possibilities of architecture. Within academia and architectural criticism, if such a thing still exists, there is a general disdain for ‘popular’ fiction — writing on, and about, architecture is still very elitist — and I have met quite a bit of resistance when discussing Ballard as a serious subject. However, I think that there is a desire to face up to a future that deals with a system in crisis, which Ballard articulates so brilliantly. I was recently reading Mike Davis’s breathtaking collection of essays, Dead Cities, and was constantly thinking ‘this is so Ballardian’. Also, writers like Frederic Jameson and Jean Baudrillard, who have been influenced by Ballard, are still incredibly important and influential. Obviously Ballard’s early identification of global environmental issues also makes him incredibly pertinent to many people. However Ballard does not give easy, or even any answers and this puts off many people. Given the current economic and environmental conditions, he seems more prescient than ever, not simply because of the situations he describes, but because he offers a mindset for dealing with these issues.
Many people may think that Ballard’s characters face the scenarios he creates with an unbelievable stoicism, although Ballard has an advantage over us, as most of us have never had to face any kind of catastrophe. I think the experiences of life in Shanghai during WWII made Jim believe that the human race is able to endure — and inflict — almost any horror imaginable.
ABOVE: A film by Michael Aling, produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.
SS: A wider, and resurgent, trend in film and literature, which Ballard seems to have anticipated, is the idea that on some level we secretly desire the apocalypse, that we welcome the chance to explore the farthest limits of alienation. This is something that Chris Nakashima-Brown articulates very well: ‘The persistence of post-apocalyptic scenarios (as well as many disaster movies) expresses a latent yearning for the destruction of the state apparatus and the abolition of private property. At a deeper psychological level … the idea of roaming a depopulated earth rummaging for useful artifacts articulates the extent of our individual alienation in a thoroughly commodified society.’
NC: Many people may fantasise about these scenarios, but when it comes to losing their own luxuries, people will vote for whoever offers the easiest way out — which most often involves blaming someone else. The most depressing part of how current economic and social structures start falling apart is that, instead of embracing the liberating potential of re-structuring and re-organising, politically things could start getting much more conservative. This is obviously another common theme in Ballard. I grew up in the 70s with the three-day week and the winter of discontent, with the parks of London used as rubbish dumps, but for me it was great power cuts and no school, and out of it came punk … yet the down side was Thatcherism. Obviously the next few years will be catastrophic for ‘big business’ (is that so bad?), and the fall out will be difficult for many, but we will adjust to yet another ‘new normal’. We may even in the long run be better off as a society for it.
Personally, this will be my third major recession, and they are always the most productive times: when no one has money, money stops mattering.
SS: High-Rise is the obvious book to cite when discussing Ballard and architecture. Which of his other works is relevant?
NC: It’s easier to say which one’s aren’t relevant, and the answer to that is probably none! Crash is a personal favourite, I like the perversity of it; it takes the whole modernist fetishisation of technology and mixes it with contemporary obsessions like celebrity cults. The problem with the film was that it was soft-core pornography — all those shots of Debra Unger’s stockings — when really the book is quite hardcore: the leaky orifices, the polysexuality and the car as augmented bodily technology. It’s a surrealist masterpiece up there with Bataille’s The Story of the Eye and Duchamp’s ‘The Large Glass’.
SS: When I interviewed Geoff Manaugh, he defined ‘Ballardian space’ as ‘psycho spatial’. I’d be interested in your take.
NC: If you take Jameson’s postmodern hyperspace, remove the post-structuralist jargon, add some dark humour and set it on the periphery of any declining western industrialised city — especially London — then you are pretty close.
SS: Does this relate to Unit 15’s research into ‘synthetic space’?
NC: Synthetic space is the merging of the actual and virtual; writers like Ballard and Burroughs have been describing synthetic space for years. Within architectural terms, I see it as the inability to differentiate between spaces and their representations — where spatial representations are increasingly becoming spatial propositions.
SS: Ballard is famously obsessive about multi-storey car parks. What do they mean to him, do you think?
NC: The defining symbol of the 20th century is the motor car, and car parks are part palace and part mausoleum. They also tend to be quite ugly and boring, though often in a strangely beautiful and interesting way, and that sort of perversity defines Ballard’s aesthetic.
SS: For my PhD, I was researching contemporary attitudes towards modernist architecture and came across the critical reaction to the 2006 exhibition on modernist art at the V&A. I was completely shocked by Simon Jenkins’ response, which verged on demonic possession. He took particular exception to modernist architects, who he said were ‘the worst offenders because they became the most powerful’, and equates them with Hitler. (But as Deyan Sudjic riposted, such a caricature misrepresents ‘the full and often contradictory range of Modernist expression… none of which seemed to be inspiring much actual terror on the day I went’.) Why does Brutalist architecture in Britain continue to provoke such rage?
NC: The British establishment, and the English in particular, still have a real suspicion of architectural modernism, seeing it as ‘elitist’, ‘European’ and ‘socialist’. Brutalism especially has become a scapegoat for the failure of that post-war welfare state optimism. Of course, this is rubbish: the real failure lies in the political and cultural failure to actually bring about a more egalitarian and democratic society.
SS: On the other hand, as the antithesis to Jenkins, Ballard said: ‘I have always admired modernism and wish the whole of London could be rebuilt in the style of Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton’.
NC: I always imagine that Eden-Olympia in Super-Cannes was designed by someone like Manser. But lets face it, we can’t always trust such pronouncements by Jim, especially if it was for the benefit of the Guardian — imagine all that liberal angst and hand wringing.
ABOVE: A film by Peter Kidger, produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.
SS: In his review of Davis’s City of Quartz, Ballard welcomes ‘unrestricted urban sprawl, the decentred metropolis, a transient airport culture, gated communities and an absence of traditional civic pride’. He suggests that architects and urban planners need to ‘make the most of this’, letting the environment guide them almost as if it is sentient, rather than conforming to the reverse, ie, the old ideal of the arrogant architect imposing his grand vision on the environment (in High-Rise, this was the downfall of the architect Royal). Do you agree with Ballard?
NC: ‘Unrestricted’ would be the key term; the brilliance of Davis’s analysis is to show how clearly urban planning follows such a narrow set of vested interests. Less planning, less controls, less regulation would only work if it also meant less greed, and what are the chances of that? It reminds me of that Noam Chomsky quote on the free market: ‘it sounds like a great idea, maybe we should try it sometime’.
SS: Rem Koolhaas seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to some of the architects in Ballard’s stories: the ego, the vainglory, the architect as self-styled eccentric…
NC: He probably likes to think he does. I like Ballard’s architects: they seem genuinely optimistic and have a faith, albeit misguided, in the power of architecture to change society for the good. They are of a much older generation — Ballard’s. I bet Robert Maitland would send angry letters into Building Design, the weekly British architectural newspaper, complaining about these new-fangled projects.
Rem’s recent work, especially in China, strikes me as cynical. His obsession with celebrity, especially his own, seems to be his main driving force, and like many ‘good’ Marxists of his generation, he has become a consummate capitalist. He is much more like Wilder Penrose from Super-Cannes — without the humour.
SS: Does architecture still have an image problem, then, in terms of this archetype of the arrogant, narcissistic architect imposing his vision on the people?
NC: Yes, because most of us are arrogant and narcissistic.
SS: In books such as Concrete Island and stories like ‘The Ultimate City’, Ballard depicts architecture as an instrument of oppressive capitalism, and architects as contributing to that oppression. For Ballard, it seems to me, no architect can be truly radical, or can truly think of architecture as ‘art’ when they are either carrying out the wishes of the State, mobilising state funds to realise their designs, or carrying out the desires of big business. Is this an accurate summation of architectural practice today? How would you reconcile that frustration with a pure creative spirit?
NC: I started my postgraduate dissertation in 1989 with a quote from Frederic Jameson: ‘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.’
Little has changed since; in fact, things have got worse. Architecture is now synonymous with the architectural profession (or Corporate Architectural Complex), speculation is financial rather than intellectual, and architects have been complicit with the kind of greedy thinking and acting that has got us into the current global financial crisis. We have to stop thinking about architecture simply in terms of building buildings — that’s why I am so interested in looking at other models and disciplines to draw inspiration from.
SS: Ballard says that ‘Novelty architecture dominates throughout the world, pitched like the movies at the bored teenager inside all of us.’ Any thoughts on that?
NC: For novelty architecture, see my answer on Rem. A couple of years ago I used the phrase ‘Shapist Architecture’, taken from Tony Hancock’s 1961 film The Rebel, a satire on the art world. At one point he says, ‘I don’t paint the object, I paint the shape around the object’. Developments in the use of computer software have allowed architects to come up with a variety of three-dimensional forms, which has led to a whole raft of ‘blobby’ buildings, a lot of which appear to be self-indulgent and that confuse ‘looking interesting’ with ‘being interesting’ and ‘looking complex’ with ‘complexity’. We have an architecture of the image.
SS: In Ballard, architecture is often used as a form of social control. Did you perceive any similarities between the nature and cause of the banlieue riots in France in 2005, and the breakdown of society depicted in High-Rise?
NC: Not really. High Rise is about a rejection of convivial social structures and returning to a more ‘primitive’ social model. There is a brilliant French film from 1973 called Themroc
directed by Claude Faraldo, which seems to have a greater affinity with High-Rise, published two years later. In it, a blue-collar worker rejects his mundane life, knocks the front wall out of his apartment and starts living like a caveman. However, Kingdom Come, in many ways, does describes the type of anomie and alienation that dominates the urban periphery. Boredom and disenfranchisement brought about by simply being defined by what we consume are the most incendiary factors in the contemporary city.
ABOVE: A film by Dan Farmer, produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.
SS: Do you think Ballard has much at all to do with psychogeographical conceptions of urban space? He appears to have been co-opted into the ‘movement’, such as it is.
NC: It seems everyone’s a psychogeographer nowadays. Psychogeography was originally articulated by the Situationists as an experimental form of urbanism that attempted a critique of the hegemonic values of urban planning and zoning by emphasising the ‘transience’ of the urban experience. The political aspect of psychogeography has been diminished in favour of a ‘poetics’ of the city. I think Ballard in some of his writing retains a lot more of that political conception of psychogeography than many who have fashionably co-opted that term.
SS: What role does film, video, animation and motion graphics play in your course? How can film methodology help to illuminate architectural design?
NC: My main interest in time-based techniques is the ability to tell stories. However, at a pedagogic level, working with film, video and animation does teach a whole number of organisational and aesthetic skills, so despite my anti-profession rhetoric, I seem to be doing a very good job in equipping students to operate very successfully within the profession.
SS: In The Atrocity Exhibition, there are many scenarios in which mental patients are encouraged to make their own films as therapy. Without wishing to casting aspersions on the mental health of your students(!), were the many references to DIY film aesthetics in the book an inspiration for your decision to use Ballard and film as a way into thinking about architecture? (Recall that in Atrocity, these amateur films recast the media landscape and the built environment in ‘ways that make sense’.)
NC: The way I teach is very much geared toward helping students find a voice, whether that is therapeutic is unimportant (to me) — besides, I hate that psychoanalytic model of teaching, just as much as I hate the paternalistic model.
SS: Sure, but I wasn’t really referring to the thereaputic aspects, though, more the DIY angle and the mediation of the built environment.
NC: The main decision to start using film in the way I teach architecture, which I have been doing since 1999, was simply because it was what I was doing myself. The rise of CGI, animation and the availability of digital video made it a much more accessible and viable way of generating, developing and communicating architectural and spatial ideas and narratives. The influence of lo-fi (as opposed to DIY) artists and filmmakers such as Bruce Nauman or Burroughs was an attraction, but it was the availability of the technology that got me going.
SS: Do you think Ballard is an especially ‘filmic’ or ‘cinematic’ writer?
NC: Yes, which is why the English literary establishment still treats him with suspicion since he is not a ‘literary’ writer. Ballard wants to create images and tell stories rather than impress with literary form.
SS: I think the films your students have turned out are simply stunning, especially considering they don’t have a ‘studio budget’ to work with — the filmmakers, as well as you and everyone involved, should be applauded. But besides making films, you also looked at feature-film versions of Ballard’s work. How can an analysis of these adaptations help in understanding ‘speculative, narrative architectures’ in Ballard’s writing?
NC: I have taken this particular position for two reasons: to engage with a critique of contemporary architecture, and because it’ s fun. The filmic analysis was just a starting point; out of all the films we watched, Jonathan Weiss’s Atrocity Exhibition and Sinclair and Petit’s London Orbital were the most influential.
Architecture should not be left to architects — the whole discourse needs opening up. The reason why I earlier questioned whether architectural criticism exists is simply because architecture is an incredibly insular and hermetic discipline — no one dares criticise the Rems, the Dannys or the Zahas for fear of being locked out. Magazines need content and they publish pretty much anything and everything without questioning it; if they did question it, then the content would dry up.
SS: It’s good to see Jonathan Weiss’s film gaining recognition. What do you appreciate about it?
NC: The fact that he had the guts to take it on with virtually no budget. The Atrocity Exhibition is the most ‘Burroughsian’ of all Ballard’s writing and I think Weiss has captured that. The use of found footage and the dislocated time line have echoes in the literary character of the book, and bits of the film are extremely beautiful to look at. I can’t stand the criticism that it doesn’t make sense or is difficult: these criticisms seem to ignore the difficulties of the original text.
ABOVE: ‘The Knife’ by Mario Balducci, produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.
SS: Who else do you think would make a good fist of adapting Ballard?
NC: Taakishi Miike to direct High Rise as a total gore-fest, Michael Mann to direct Super-Cannes — and I’m working on an adaptation of ‘Motel Architecture’.
SS: Taakishi Miike? Good call! But tell me about your own adaptation.
NC: I’m going through the shower scene from Pyscho frame by frame to develop the analysis that JG alludes to in ‘Motel Architecture’. I’ve mapped out a rough script and hope to shoot something in the new year. Part of what I am doing for ‘The Near Future’, the issue of Architectural Design I’m guest editing, will be based on this project (some sort of ‘House Of The Future’) — the other part is an essay/rant against the architectural profession.
At the time he had been sitting in his chair in the centre of the solarium, bathing in the warm artificial light that flowed through the ceiling vents and watching the shower sequence from Psycho on the master screen. The brilliance of this tour de force never ceased to astonish Pangborn. He had played the sequence to himself hundreds of times, frozen every frame and explored it in close-up, separately recorded sections of the action and displayed them on the dozen smaller screens around the master display. The extraordinary relationship between the geometry of the shower stall and the anatomy of the murdered woman’s body seemed to hold the clue to the real meaning of everything in Pangborn’s world, to the unstated connections between his own musculature and the immaculate glass and chromium universe of the solarium. In his headier moments Pangborn was convinced that the secret formulas of his tenancy of time and space were contained somewhere within this endlessly repeated clip of film.
J.G. Ballard, ‘Motel Architecture’ (1978).
SS: The guest issue of AD was originally going to be explicitly ‘Ballardian, wasn’t it?
NC: The publication, in its current form, has changed from being explicitly about Ballard and Ballard’s writings to something more general: an antidote to the shiny ‘bigness’, ‘everything’s great’ vision of contemporary architecture presented by the mainstream architectural press. The guiding principles are still thoroughly ‘Ballardian’, even though I have opened the discussion up. I would still like to do a purely Ballardian book and will use The Near Future as a first step.
This is the blurb for the issue, which I think neatly sums up my aims for the whole Near Future project:
For the last 20 years, the architectural profession has been complicit with the laissez-faire ideology of late capitalism, assuming that the economic forces of growth and expansion are the only means by which society can develop and prosper.
The current economic crisis makes us question whether a future of unlimited growth is not only possible, but taking into account environmental factors, actually advisable. We have reached a moment of crisis — economic, environmental and technological — where we have to make choices about the type of future that we want, but also the type of future we can actually achieve.
It would appear that the Architectural Profession has nothing to say except ‘business as usual’, as it continues to produce bright, shiny renders of schemes that will sit empty for years. This proposed issue of Architectural Design offers a series of alternate voices, developing some of the neglected areas of contemporary urban life and trying to find visions of the future, not simply images of the future.
The proposed issue offers a diverse set of ideas that explore a number of possible ‘Near Futures’ — futures that may be influenced the resurgence of gout in Swindon, or take precedent from an analysis of the political landscape of Southern Italy where in some areas a state of effective lawlessness exists.
The issue combines critical analysis with gorgeous graphics, and features work produced at the margins of contemporary architectural practice. Drawing on topics as diverse as synthetic space, psychoanalysis, post-modern geography, post-economics, cybernetics, developments in neurology as well as the fictional writings of authors such as J G Ballard and William Gibson, ‘The Near Future’ will present a series of polemical blasts that are intended to rock the cosy world of architectural discourse.
Thank you, Nic Clear and Unit 15. ‘The Near Future’, the issue of Architectural Design guest-edited by Nic, will be published in September 2009.
ABOVE: ‘Nic’s right-hand talking to Evis, starring Nic Clear’. Video via archimaxx.
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