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The Politics of Enthusiasm: An Interview with Geoff Manaugh

Author: • Nov 7th, 2006 •

Category: America, architecture, boredom, David Cronenberg, dystopia, Iain Sinclair, interviews, psychology, Steven Spielberg, utopia

by Simon Sellars

Ballardian: Geoff Manaugh
Photo by Emiliano Granado. Used with permission.

Geoff Manaugh is a writer and essayist whose work has appeared in Contemporary, Space & Culture, Blend, Lumpen, Inhabitat, WorldChanging, the Oyster Boy Review, the Urban Design Review, Subtopia, Vector, things magazine, and The Allen Ginsberg Audio Collection (a short essay in the CD liner notes). He’s also a contributing editor at Archinect, and Senior Editor for David Haskell’s Urban Design Review. And he’s the main man behind BLDGBLOG, a blog devoted to ‘architectural conjecture, urban speculation and landscape futures’. BLDGBLOG is very popular — it’s namechecked in the current Blackberry Pearl ad campaign featuring Douglas Coupland. It’s also wildly divergent, eclectic and challenging, and it never fails to command the attention, as Geoff examines the built world from all angles, and even from the upper atmosphere (via Google Earth), leaping around from posts on London’s subterranean system of drains, sewers and bunkers to whole suburbs thrown into space; from Indian superhighways to acoustic landscapes; from cathedrals made of magma to ‘psychovideography’; from military urbanism to sustainable urbanism; from derelict utopias to 3D models of plate tectonics.

Geoff’s a futurist, probably in many senses of the word: he’s interested in the future of the planet as seen through the lens — the social function — of technology itself. But he’s no Marinetti; Manaugh instead takes a Ballardian approach, using the distancing device of J.G. Ballard’s mid-period novels to bring a psychological attitude fully formed from the future, depositing it in the present day as if it was commonplace. At times, BLDGBLOG reads like it’s the log book of some far-future space explorer who has landed on an uninhabited Earth and is attempting to form an archaeology of the planet’s past by examining its technological tracks and traces — the architectural, built space we are currently weaving around us.

That Ballard reference is not casual. Manaugh acknowledges our favourite writer as an influence, and more than one BLDGBLOG post expands on models or scenarios outlined in a JGB novel — typically The Drowned World, Concrete Island or Super-Cannes, the cornerstones of the BLDGBLOG world view.

I spoke to Geoff Manaugh about BLDGBLOG, and Ballard, and Geoff’s as-yet-unpublished novel, and a lot more.

Simon Sellars

Ballardian: Geoff Manaugh

SIMON: What motivated you to start a blog devoted to “architectural conjecture, urban speculation, and landscape futures”?

GEOFF: I was reading Super-Cannes, writing my own first novel, recovering from abdominal surgery, and auditing a university course about Archigram, the 1960s British pop-utopian architecture group; those things just came together somehow – and, one morning, on a whim, I started BLDGBLOG. Now I work on it almost constantly. It’s been two years.

BLDGBLOG became pretty well-defined, with a small but growing readership, and it had a voice, a tempo, an energy, a feel. It was no longer just an ‘architecture’ blog; it had its own direction and orientation, and it was even verging on science fiction in some ways. Short stories in the disguise of architectural theory. Ideas for screenplays. In that regard, BLDGBLOG became more literary – by which I don’t mean to compliment my writing abilities, but to say that the site became its own kind of genre: architectural criticism as a kind of literary form. Somewhere between science fiction, a short story collection, a Don Delillo novel, and a kind of technical catalogue for a world that didn’t exist. Which, incidentally, is how I view a lot of Ballard’s work. So if BLDGBLOG could ever equal Ballard in that regard, I’d be a very happy man!

It’s worth adding that a lot of the architects I admire also use architecture as a form of social critique, or political allegory: Archigram, Rem Koolhass, even Piranesi or Will Alsop. The Agents of Change. Speculative architectural treatises are an extremely exciting, if totally unacknowledged, branch of the literary arts. Look at Thomas More’s Utopia. Or China Miéville. Or, for that matter, J.G. Ballard.

Testing, testing… Is this on… Corporate, automobile test-landscapes. Deserted beach resorts. Ruined stripmalls.

‘Highways, office blocks, faces and street signs are perceived as if they were elements in a malfunctioning central nervous system’. J.G. Ballard

More soon.

BLDGBLOG’s first post. Wednesday, 7 July, 2004

BLDGBLOG has covered diverse territory, but your basic obsessions were clearly set out in your very first post. Can you elaborate on the Ballardian elements in your work?

One of the things I like about Ballard is how he treats architectural space: highway flyovers, corporate campuses, flooded hotels, suburban home-development projects, abandoned swimming pools, army camps in the desert. He presents the modern, built environment as this kind of psychological field lab for testing new ways of being human. He encodes all this, or hardwires it, into the actual landscapes of his novels. You get humans trying to understand and psychologically accommodate themselves to the presence of vast, empty car parks, derelict hospitals, redundant freeways, under-subscribed exurban high-rises and so on. It’s a ‘malfunctioning central nervous system’ in spatial form, on the scale of a whole civilisation.

Ballardian space is psycho-spatial. His books are full of artificial lakes, highway medians, multi-storey car parks, strangely over-air-conditioned corporate boardrooms – and these all take on a kind of menacing, even confrontational, gleam, as if you’ve just stepped into some kind of unspoken mental challenge. The buildings and cities and landscapes in Ballard’s novels are more like psychological traps built by management consultants – not architects – who then fly overhead in private jets, looking down, checking whether their complicated theories of human cognition have survived the test. Where ‘the test’ is the world you and I now live in.

Each day, the towers of central London seemed slightly more distant, the landscape of an abandoned planet receding slowly from his mind. By contrast with the calm and unencumbered geometry of the concert-hall and television studios below him, the ragged skyline of the city resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis”.

J.G. Ballard. High-Rise.

Of course, any built environment has a psychological impact on the people who live there. In Super-Cannes, for instance, the book’s setting – an office park – is haunted by a kind of ‘controlled and supervised madness,’ Ballard writes. One of the characters explains, at great length, how the too-perfect and over-manicured landscapes of this new corporate enclave inspire sexual violence and anti-immigrant raids – a rebellion against the boredom of tennis courts and well-mowed lawns. Every artificial landscape is the diagram of a certain psychological state – even if that just means reflecting the dominant aesthetic of the day. But the idea that the built landscape can be read as an ‘encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis,’ as Ballard writes, crossing generations and countries, just fascinates me.

Space in Ballard’s novels is never deeply textured or deeply described. Instead, you get these abstract non-places – a corporate campus, a media center, a fitness complex. You drive down feeder roads and airport roundabouts and cross-city motorways. You never enter a world of rich, Dickensian details. He’s like the anti-Dickens. You don’t walk past churches and bookshops and local bars and farmers’ markets and whatever else makes a believable urban setting; you’re always out in this weird edge-world of import warehouses and corporate development projects. Sports-car dealerships. The very lack of detail is what makes a setting Ballardian.

That’s Ballard’s fabled inner space, isn’t it — a neurological world unable to be verified beyond the shifting data of sensory input?

Yes and no. I think there’s a shift in Ballard’s work, from the earlier, almost psychedelic concerns of something like The Drowned World — where all the characters verge on an evolutionary regression to this kind of quasi-reptilian psychological state — compared to the more socioeconomic concerns of Ballard’s later novels, like Millennium People.

In other words, I’d agree with you that there’s a mental/cognitive/neurological world at play in Ballard’s work — but I think the larger significance of that world has shifted over the course of his career. For instance, Ballard’s early stories might suggest that one of the characters has an inability to perceive anything outside his own nervous system, for neuro-anatomical reasons; but now Ballard would emphasise something else. He wouldn’t blame anatomy — the human nervous system — but would use instead his own peculiar version of psychoanalysis to say that the reason you can’t understand or fully interact with the outside world is because of sexual repression or cultural hang-ups — or sheer corporate sociopathology — not because of your reptilian cortex, or because of certain hormones.

So I think Ballard’s gone from blaming the body, or neuro-chemical imbalances, on behalf of his narrators to blaming culture and the economy and sexual mores for his characters’ often hilariously bizarre activities.

Ballardian: Geoff Manaugh
Photo by Emiliano Granado. Used with permission.

Too many car parks – always a sign of a troubled mind”.

J.G. Ballard. Super-Cannes.

On BLDGBLOG, you once wrote, “Super-Cannes is a novel – but it’s also a work of architectural criticism”.

Yes — it’s about architecture and corporate real estate as much as it is about the central murder mystery we’re meant to solve. I think it’s a great book. Ballard managed to write a bona fide page-turner, with a genuinely gripping plot and loads of hilarious throwaway lines, and to do so even as he took the same kind of socio-architectural analysis from High-Rise – even Concrete Island – to a new level, critiquing global capitalism itself and not just suburban condo politics. Too often Ballard just comes up with a setting, or an image, while all the rest stalls, like in The Day of Creation, which I think is a failure. There’s nothing there — it’s a military camp in the desert, near a polluted river, with a derelict cinema and an unused airfield and … who cares? The book goes nowhere. Just write a poem, or take a photograph, or use that as one image in a much larger project — because there’s not enough there for a novel.

Crash, Concrete Island and High-Rise are often spoken of in the same breath, given that they’re the most airtight, hermetically sealed Ballard novels of all, but I’ve never seen BLDGBLOG quote, or refine, or retool Crash in any way…

I found Crash almost unreadable – not because it offended me, but because I found it badly written and just incredibly obvious. More to the point, it didn’t read like Ballard was having a good time when he wrote it. It reads like he’d rather have been doing something else – and so the book feels dry. It feels sterile. His other books just zip along – and that feeling of effortlessness carries you with it.

I think Ballard said somewhere that if he ever got an erection while writing Crash — because of its weird, auto-centric eroticism — then he would have failed. But I think that’s exactly why the book itself fails: if Ballard actually had created a world of sexualised car crashes and literal auto-eroticism that had succeeded in turning him on, then that enthusiasm would have found its way into the writing. You would have felt it. As it is, the book was empty for me. Even the humour doesn’t ring true. It should have been a short story — because then, of course, I’d be saying it’s brilliant!

I think Crash is maybe too close to The Atrocity Exhibition. To some extent, Crash doesn’t even read like it’s meant to be published in novel form. The Atrocity Exhibition is very upfront with its nonlinear structure and its somewhat improvised – if also completely nonexistent – narrative, and so it works for me; but Crash neither rid itself of that Atrocity Exhibition-like fragmentation nor fit itself fully into the structure of a novel. Maybe it shouldn’t be called a novel: it’s just a text…

What do you think of Cronenberg’s Crash?

It’s alright — but I’m not a big fan. It takes itself way too seriously, for instance, and ends up just boring the shit out of everyone. I think it was miscast, badly paced, and not explicit enough about its themes. As it is, the movie appears to be about a bunch of dull and uninteresting Canadians who get into a car accident one day and end up wife-swapping. Yet, having said that, the movie isn’t funny at all.

Ballardian: Geoff Manaugh
Photo by Emiliano Granado. Used with permission.

A film of High-Rise is in development, with Vincent Natali attached to direct. But does the symbolism of the high rise really apply to America? It’s not really a ‘high rise’ culture, is it?

I think only in low income, public housing projects — like Chicago’s Cabrini-Green — does high-rise architecture have any sort of psycho-sociological place in the United States. Obviously, you have high-rise living in Manhattan and Chicago and Boston and even L.A. — and Miami, Atlanta, and so on — but I don’t think the buildings themselves have been marketed to their future residents as ‘an experiment in modern living’, or some such, where the narrative of the building itself implies that something will be different there, something will happen there that has never happened before… Which I think was the explicit promise of London high-rises in the 1970s — especially Canary Wharf, later, during the Thatcher years — thus setting up the Ballardian twist: an architectural experiment gone awry. Of course, an American version of High-Rise would undoubtedly be set in a gated Orange County suburb. And I think it’d be brilliant. If I was a publisher I’d commission it, in fact,

Much of the discourse on Ballard springs from English critics. As an American, do you see him as an especially British writer?

Actually, no. I think, aside from vocabulary and punctuation and spelling — and Ballard’s settings, of course — it’s not at all obvious that Ballard is English. You can make points about sense of humour and so on, but Ballard doesn’t strike me as a British writer in the same way that Ian McEwan does, or Iain Sinclair. Or even Iain Banks. Ballard’s book don’t sell well in the U.S., but that’s entirely a top-down problem. I think the American publishing industry is in a state of free-fall, marketing all the wrong books in all the wrong ways. Trying to market Ballard would never occur to them. They want to sell people John Updike novels in hardcover — despite the fact that no one wants John Updike novels, and hardcover books are completely obsolete as a format. So they ‘experiment’ by publishing 900-page hardcover epics about farm life in 1920s Nebraska — and then still seem surprised that no one’s reading fiction in this country.

Short, good, fairly priced, intellectually progressive paperback books — that’s all you need.

Which Ballard book would you like to see filmed?

You’re going to think I’m out of my mind, but I’d like to see Steven Spielberg direct The Drowned World — as long as he didn’t add any kids to the screenplay. Or Danny Boyle film Concrete Island. Or, for that matter, Wong Kar-wai could film Concrete Island, in Chinese, set in Hong Kong. Or Shanghai — a nice bit of Ballardian symmetry there.

Spielberg? Interesting answer.

When I say ‘Steven Spielberg’ I really just mean the budgets, and the production values, and the technical abilities — the sets, the matte painting, the look — that went into something like Minority Report, or even the first forty-five minutes of War of the Worlds. I wasn’t thinking of Empire of the Sun at all, in fact. I think The Drowned World starring maybe Daniel Craig and Christian Bale, directed by Steven Spielberg — although I’m just thinking out loud here — might be good. But who knows. It could also be horrific.

Reversing the question, I’d love to see J.G. Ballard write a novelisation of Panic Room — or something else like that. I wonder if he could novelize Die Hard…?

Do you feel that Blade Runner’s an overrated text as far as architectural criticism is concerned? It always gets name checked, but one thing I feel it missed was the ‘invisibility’ of new technology. It’s probably the last of the old-school dystopian sci fi films, where the city itself was a major character, imposing and present…

As an architectural film, yes: I do think Blade Runner is over-rated. Even as a film about urban design or the urban future. But as a film about the overwhelming sadness of being alone in the world – in that regard I think it’s unbelievable, and deserves its reputation. The self-distrusting madness of thought, doubting your own reality, your own solidity, whether or not what you did yesterday was real: all obvious questions, of course, and all themes already done by the Existentialists, the Romantics, even The Matrix – but what I mean is that, in a world where it’s possible to work and grow old and be completely alone for the whole thing, self-disappearance is an interestingly under-explored phenomenon. And I think Blade Runner really tackles that. It’s a sad movie. It can sometimes be almost unbearable to watch.

Ballardian: Geoff Manaugh
Photo by Emiliano Granado. Used with permission.

Ballard once said that the “future will be boring”. From your enthusiastic mapping out of the future on BLDGBLOG, you clearly don’t agree.

Arguably, nothing’s boring — it comes down to whether you’re alert enough to find something of interest. If you’re willing to embarrass yourself expressing unexpected enthusiasms, for instance, then nothing’s ever boring. Weird things happen everywhere if you look for them. The international departure lounge at the Chicago airport, for instance, may sound like the most boring place on earth, but the whole point of the Ballardian project — the whole point of Ballard’s novels — seems to be to reveal the secret currents that exist in such a space: Freudian/sexual interest, Marxist/revolutionary interest, rightwing/Monarchist interest. Whatever interest. So there’s no real way of predicting whether or not the future will be boring. Arguably, the world will be at its most boring once everyone recycles their tins and eats vegetarian. Perhaps manufacturing AK-47s is the only way to liven things up.

I mean, if bird flu and nuclear terrorism and 9.0 earthquakes in the heart of Los Angeles — or even global currency deflation — all come to pass, then the future will be insanely fucking interesting, even exciting. It will be terrifying, obviously — but then the future won’t be boring at all. And, if you believe Ballard, even after the whole world gets turned into an endless highway system there will still be a million things to look forward to. Mega-crashes being only one of them.

It’s through enthusiasm — not anger — that Ballard’s major characters all discover their strange perversions. Crash, for instance, whether I liked the novel or not, is the ultimate example of this: being willing to admit that you’re sexually fascinated by car crashes. It’s not nihilism, after all; it’s falling in love with totally weird shit.

Can you elaborate on this BLDGBLOG statement of yours: “We have more to learn from the fiction of J.G. Ballard than we do from Le Corbusier?”

Sure. First, that statement should be contextualised a bit. The ‘we’, for instance, was referring to architects and architectural critics, not to mankind, or the human species. Or primates. That said, it was a comment more about genre than it was about Ballard’s, or Le Corbusier’s, own intentions. Whilst Ballard, to my knowledge, would never dream of designing some new urban development in which thousands of people will live — or a new shopping mall — Le Corbusier had a very naive and vaguely imperialistic earnestness, wherein taking his own ideas too seriously, as architecturally realisable plans, was part of the package. That kind of over-self-seriousness, in my opinion, offers very little to learn from. But Ballard also realised — and articulated, in brilliant ways — what constructing huge high-rise apartment blocks, surrounded by empty parkland, would actually accomplish: domestic violence, race-based social segregation, and utterly pointless rivalries between makeshift gangs over everyday services. Le Corbusier either didn’t care and so he designed those buildings anyway, or he assumed that everyone in the world goes home at night — quiet, well-disciplined, educated and middle-class, listening to Schoenberg … which is quite obviously not how everyone lives.

That’s why I think architects should read Ballard. At the very least, his sarcastic reaction to over-earnest housing plans and suburban mega-malls is quite sobering. Along these lines, I’ve often thought that if the evening news included a daily primer about how to live inside modern architecture — what the actual point of modern architecture was; that it had a point, for instance — then more people would be excited by Le Corbusier. Or by Richard Meier. Or even by Norman Foster. If you don’t understand how a certain blank, white wall, with no windows, is supposed to challenge your ideas of domesticity, then you just think it’s a shite design and you want your money back. Constant dissatisfaction with your architectural surroundings becomes a kind of quiet aggression, an unarticulated suburban angst, that Ballard is so good at capturing.

The problem with architecture is that it’s still there in the morning; you can’t turn it off. Unless you’ve been stockpiling bombs.

Of course, this is also why I found the youth riots outside Paris last year so interesting — because almost every journalist covering the story began by all but channelling Ballard. You had major international newspapers implying, or even explicitly stating, that the high-rises themselves were to blame. At least one op-ed even specifically cited Le Corbusier, as if he should be tried in court! It goes without saying that many architects found this deeply offensive, and they instead blamed class tension, French racism, etc. And they had a point, obviously — in fact, a very good point — but the idea that buildings are these innocent shells that can do no harm to anyone is a total intellectual failure. Frankly, it insults the power of architecture! Look at supermax prisons, or Guantanamo Bay. Architecture has psychological effects.

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”.

J.G. Ballard. High-Rise.

I’ve long thought Ballard should be taught in architectural schools. How would you design an architectural syllabus based around JGB?

I would love to do this — it’s actually a conscious fantasy of mine, so who knows. I think it’d be relatively easy, and exciting, to use Concrete Island, for instance, in a course about the history of urban infrastructure. And it’d be hilarious and great to assign chapters from High-Rise to students in a class about public housing, or about Manhattan condo development, or even about the career of Le Corbusier. I would jump at the chance to lead a class like that! Getting urban hydrology designers — engineers of canals and levees — to read The Drowned World. It’d be so much fun — and so incredibly interesting — and the ensuing conversations, I think, would be phenomenal.

Ballardian: Geoff Manaugh
Photo by Emiliano Granado. Used with permission.

Not only do I think more architects should read Ballard but I also think that more Ballard fans should read architectural treatises: Archigram, Superstudio, Rem Koolhaas, Victor Gruen. I think fans of The Drowned World would be totally blown away by Guy Maunsell’s anti-aircraft towers now rotting away in the Thames estuary; fans of The Day of Creation would be awed by, say, the Great Man-Made River of Libya. Look up Drift Station Bravo. Look up architectural Brutalism. Look up the stock prices of firms in the private security industry. Even Halliburton, or the U.S. Department of Transportation: that’s Ballard’s strange race of highway builders right there. The world is already Ballardian.

Take that whole affair with Mark Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher’s son — a few years ago he tried to lead a private coup in Equatorial Guinea. He’s the perfect Ballardian protagonist: right wing, wealthy, elite schooled, a descendent of what amounts to secular royalty, former owner of a race car firm for god’s sake, and then president of an international business consultancy — but he takes all his money and buys helicopter gunships. It’s like he’d been reading Super-Cannes!

The whole city was now asleep, part of an immense unconscious Europe, while he himself crawled about on a forgotten traffic island like the nightmare of this slumbering continent”.

J.G. Ballard. Concrete Island.

The architect is a reoccurring figure in Ballard’s fiction. There’s Anthony Royal in High-Rise who hovers over the inhabitants “like some kind of fallen angel”. Concrete Island’s Robert Maitland is also an architect.

I think a lot of this comes out of an era when the architect was a much more influential figure — a kind of Ayn Rand–like utopian world-engineer. In post-war England, in particular — in a country full of bombed cities and destroyed docklands — the importance of the architect was almost hyperbolically exaggerated. There was a war to recover from, and thus a country to rebuild. I think there was a sense that architects could start the whole world over from scratch. They could literally build the future. Architects had power beyond mere aesthetics or land development strategies.

So everyday people — the people in Ballard’s novels — have the air of being mere spectators and unwilling participants in someone else’s social planning scheme, someone else’s utopia. It wasn’t their fantasy, in other words, but someone else’s, and they had to wake up within it everyday. You see that especially in High-Rise, as you say, with its dandyish architect living on the top floor, training his Alsatians, whilst everyone else, on the floors below, have to put up with the inadequacies of the man’s design.

I think the importance of architects in Ballard’s fiction — or, later, psychiatrists and doctors — is a factor of the time period, to some extent. Who would Ballard write about today? Who’s built our world? I suppose that’s the new obsession with multinational CEOs and their ilk. For what it’s worth, by the way, I think Max Barry’s novels supply an interesting next step, in that regard, after Ballard. Not in every way, of course — but it will be interesting to see where Barry goes.

You once wrote, “just about everything in the fucking universe has something to do with architecture”…

What I really mean is that, in any discussion of architecture, there are these inevitable holes through which you might glimpse something else, something supposedly outside the bounds of architecture entirely: gravity, say, because you’re calculating stress-loads, or plate tectonics as you design a building in an earthquake zone – Tokyo, Los Angeles, Istanbul. For that matter, you have to decide where to put the windows, and so the movement of the sun comes into play – and, thus, you’re talking about astronomy, and terrestrial rotation, solstices, the equinox, constellations. Soon you’ve got the climate, and topography, and even forestry and botany and global trade and labour law – etc. etc. Global economics. The list expands and expands until ‘everything in the fucking universe has something to do with architecture’. Good moods, bad moods; enclosure, frustration, claustrophobia, imprisonment. Freedom. The price of steel. Natural history. Military bases, oil derricks, mining camps. It’s all architectural.

Ballardian: Geoff Manaugh
Photo by Emiliano Granado. Used with permission.

Over the swimming pools and manicured lawns seemed to hover a dream of violence”.

J.G. Ballard. Super-Cannes.

Ballard once said, “I’m frightened that the possibilities of a genuine dystopia may be much more appealing than any utopian project that people can come up with”. Any thoughts on that?

Well, I agree. People love to see all hell break loose — look at Hurricane Katrina, for instance, which no one wanted to admit they actually wished was much worse. I think there’s a real curiosity now to see an Orwellian world take shape. What would it look like? How would you feel living there? It’s like taking a holiday into another political system — only dystopia is something you may not ever come back from. Perhaps that’s the appeal: the irreversibility of dystopia.

He also waxed lyrical about Michael Manser’s Heathrow Hilton, saying he waits for the day “when the whole of London resembles this future design classic”. Which architects would you commission for the job of rebuilding London, and what would you build (and demolish) first?

I don’t think my answer will sound very appealing to hardcore Ballardians — especially not to Ballard himself — but if I had to rebuild London, I’d probably use some weird combination of Christopher Wren, G.B. Piranesi, Michael Sorkin, Richard Rogers, Nicholas Hawksmoor, Palladio, John Soane, Norman Foster, Ed Mazria, Peter Zumthor – and, I don’t know, a million others. Whoever designed Angkor Wat. Angkor-Wat-on-Thames. Even some more buildings by A.W. Pugin. I’d build more tunnels, and more pedestrian bridges, and lots of artificial ruins, and I’d throw up hundreds of industrial-gothic warehouses near the Thames foreshore and add stone statuary everywhere. Meanwhile, I’d open a new private space-port in the southeast, near Eltham Palace; you’d watch international space stations take flight over experimental greenhouses and well-designed, leafy suburbs full of affordable housing.

Everyone would hate it.

I think I’m something of a classicist when it comes to London architecture. Or maybe that’s inaccurate — but it’s a beautiful city, and I wouldn’t want Archigram, for instance, or some group of neo-Brutalists, to redesign the place — despite my incredible enthusiasm for both Archigram and Brutalism. Genuinely liking something — an idea, a design — doesn’t mean you have to build it.

Ballardian: Geoff Manaugh
Photo by Emiliano Granado. Used with permission.

Who else? Single Speed Design, from Boston, do amazing, amazing work — and they deserve much more coverage and many more clients. And they’re very modern, not classicists in any way. I like Andrew Maynard, as well, an Aussie, and think he could do some great new flats. Really great, even. I could go on and on. I just like architecture, so it’s probably easier to say who I wouldn’t hire. And Daniel Libeskind would be at the very top of that list. Followed closely by Frank Gehry. Peter Eisenman would also make my blacklist.

I like density, detail, pedestrianised streets and stonework — quite frankly, the exact opposite of a Ballardian world. But I also like tropical gardens — and perhaps a flooded city themepark, in the very center of the city… And who can resist a purpose-built Ballardian labyrinth of concrete motorways?

When all’s said and done, has Ballard made a difference?

It’s hard to say whether Ballard has actually contributed anything — perhaps a deranged enthusiasm for all things suburban? Maybe it’s more accurate to say that he’s taken something away: the naive belief that modernity leads to anything other than sexual deviance and violent nationalism or corporate sociopathology. Though I feel like a member of the Taliban, saying something like that.

After all, it’s not a rigorous science we’re talking about here — which is why I think Ballard is so good as a novelist. If he was writing social theory — if he was Malcolm Gladwell — he’d be laughed out of the fucking bookstore. Or is the difference really that the Taliban see modernity and they accuse it of sexual deviance and violent pathology — and so they hate it — while Ballard sees modernity, and he also accuses it of sexual violence and so on, but that’s exactly why he loves it so much? Ballard, we can’t forget, is perhaps suburbia’s biggest fan — not because he likes father-son bonding and family picnics and a good barbecue but because everyone comes out of there completely insane.

The Taliban would nuke the suburbs; Ballard would build more of them. Is that the difference? Perhaps the dichotomy’s false, and I don’t know what I’m talking about — but the politics of Ballard’s enthusiasm are definitely worth discussing at greater length.

Ballardian: Geoff Manaugh
Photo by Emiliano Granado. Used with permission.

Can you tell me more about the novel about technology and surveillance you’ve just finished?

Sure. The book follows surveillance camera installation teams around greater London, dropping in on these events they’ve organised, called ‘film nights’ – which is also the name of the book: Film Night.

The two main characters are architects; they went to design school together, and the book begins as they bump into each other more than a decade later at the Barbican. Things have changed. One of them now works as a consultant in private security: he helps London architects make their designs more secure (which means easier to film, basically, using CCTV – designing better lines of sight and so on). Surveillance, in other words, becomes an architectural concern: how easily can this building be filmed? In any case, the guy’s been making short films on the sly, using footage taken from his company’s surveillance cameras, and these are then shown — along with pornos, and car wrecks, and building demolitions, and so on — at the film nights I mentioned. Which almost always take place in abandoned buildings, or in office buildings after they’ve closed down for the day — but always in places patrolled by this guy’s firm. He’s got a key, an access code, a friend on-duty — and so they come back in at night and watch films.

To make a very long story short, then, a larger film project comes along involving the narrator’s newfound acquaintances, and he’s soon helping them make a feature film — without any obvious storyline, using nothing but surveillance cameras, and only cameras that they themselves have installed. Etc. etc. The book is actually quite funny, believe it or not — it probably sounds boring as shit — and it’s short. Full of dialogue. Terrorism, art, surveillance, even some Andy Warhol. Bits of it — little details — are very consciously Ballardian, as you can probably tell. On the other hand, I still have to get the thing published.

Finally, a question that all architecturally minded Ballard fans want answered: does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?

The angle is just the beginning.

Many thanks to Tim Chapman, Matt Smith and Joanne Murray for help with the questions.

..:: LINKS
+ Single Speed Design
+ Archigram
+ Superstudio
+ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (Rem Koolhaas)
+ Victor Gruen
+ Andrew Maynard
+ Emiliano Granado

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22 Responses »

  1. Um, Mark Thatcher is a long way from a classic Ballardian hero. They are usually painfully over-intelligent and technocratic. Mark is painfully stupid, and stupidity is not a Ballardian trait – one of his most important themes is the huge errors only the intelligent can make.

    Mark was a dupe, a palooka, in the Equatorial Guinea coup. Now, Tim Spicer, on the other hand…a mercenary ex-SAS man educated at Eton and Oxford (where he got a first, not a gent’s third) and oilfield investor, who had been so bored in civil life he appeared in a TV dramatisation of the Bloody Sunday massacre, before going back to war. Now that’s what I call Ballardian.

  2. Outstanding questions, Simon… and how great to hear an architect discuss Da Man from a professional POV… altho I still have a sneaking suspicion all architects are tailors with hammers…

  3. Ballardian topics meet BLDGBlog…

    BLDGBlog’s GM sez, “Ballardian.com just posted a conversation I recorded with them this past summer, about J.G. Ballard, corporate office parks, science fiction, sexual repression, the Taliban, David Cronenberg, the Paris riots, shopping malls, Briti…

  4. Ballardian topics meet BLDGBlog…

    Cory Doctorow : BLDGBlog’s GM sez, “Ballardian.com just posted a conversation I recorded with them this…

  5. i dont think this guy is an architect.

  6. victor… you’re right! geoff’s a writer/blogger, not a pro architect… but he’s a man who knows the lingo… doncha love cross-marketing? funny he doesn’t like Crash… too polymorphous? but I’m happy to read that canadians are still sucessfully positioning themselves as dull and uninteresting — the perfect disguise, no? like the sloping interior of a rectilinear car park… and I’m happy to read that Geoff knows about as much about “the angles between two walls” as we do…

  7. Great interview, gorgeous photos, and especially inspired title.

    I really enjoy all the speculation about the consequences of living in a world designed by other people – but it’s not just architects who over-determine the spaces we inhabit – there’s got to be an Ikea novel out there somewhere… or a study of Oxo Good Grips’ evolutionary impact… even Swiffers seem very resonant, in a way I can’t quite formulate.

  8. “I’ve long thought Ballard should be taught in architectural schools. How would you design an architectural syllabus based around JGB?”

    architecture students should be thought ballard if they are already not. and i agree geoff should do it with special guest bryan finoki of subtopia (smiley or a wink here if i may. sorry i couldn’t resist after the pitch).
    actually 06 sci arc thesis projects i recently saw, had some connections to this, let’s say, a ballardian tone. but a lot of them failed at working the realities it exposed. most students sucked the people out of buildings they designed, and the cities were done as if they inhaled density and exhaled virgin surfaces in one easy step. they were in denial.they lacked end users. solutions for whom and what. there are billions of people out there.
    but if you say billions died from deseases except some road warriors, i’d say fuck everybody including ballard and the architecture etc., and let’s mass suicide to finish this earthly misery.

    they are now pumping petrolium from central asia to eastern mediterrannian sea in pipes, some of that eventualy ending up in our cars, chances are. all this in fascinating speeds. and, because of those pipelines and other circuits, there are new cities, foods, clothing, newer exchange values and vicious circles being developed as well.
    avarage person plus professional architects and planners have a lot of catching up to do, mainly mentaly, as mid-future approaches.
    i suggest the ballardians start to visit with architects and vice versa. or resign to eat routing machine dust and die, never negatively charging the situation that would eventually matter.

  9. Thank you for this excellent interview. It definitely adds depth to my reading of Ballard. And the observation that boring is in the eye of the non-beholder — that’s spot on.

  10. Hauntology in Dublin…

    To Dublin, then, where last week the National College of Art and Design held a one-day symposium on hauntology. Highlights for me included Susan MacWilliam, who talked about a series of films and installations devoted to seances, telepathy and……

  11. Internet Marketing Courses…

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