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The Ballardian Primer: Car Parks

Author: • Mar 6th, 2008 •

Category: alternate worlds, architecture, consumerism, features, Iain Sinclair, psychogeography, Shepperton, suburbia

Ballardian: Car Park Primer

Braun Headquarters, Melsungen 1986-92 by Stirling Wilford & Associates with Walter Nageli. Photo courtesy BD Online.

I’m supposed to be participating in a documentary on car parks, alongside Iain Sinclair and other luminaries. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll present at this stage, but I will follow Sinclair’s Guide to Modern Living, with its single rule: “When in doubt, quote Ballard.”

In preparation, I’ve compiled this Ballardian Primer to Car Parks, with photos lifted from Simon Henley’s The Architecture of Parking, a book Ballard said he wanted for Christmas. I’ve only looked at the novels, which was exhausting enough. I might get to the short stories at a later date.

Note how Atrocity and Crash feature the most examples (and even at that, I haven’t listed them all), almost an unhealthy obsession for JGB at the time, and how 20 years later in Super-Cannes he actively ridicules his obsessed former self, with not one put two choice put-downs directed at Super-Cannes’ narrator:

“‘We’ve all noticed. You’re the Ben Gunn of our treasure island. I thought you were writing a social history of the car park.'”

and:

“‘He thinks you need a lobotomy. He told me you’re obsessed by car parks.'”

Of course Ballard was to do the same thing in Kingdom Come, in which a character describes that book’s narrator as ‘beyond psychiatric help’, a little in-joke directed at his former self and the novel Crash, which was famously rejected by a publisher’s reader with the words: “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.”


“Thousands of inverted buildings hung from street level — car parks, underground cinemas, sub-basements and sub-sub-basements — which now provided tolerable shelter, sealed off from the ravaging wind by the collapsing structures above.”

JGB, The Wind from Nowhere (1961).

“Talbot looked up at his own face mediated from the billboard beside the car park. Overhead the glass curtain-walls of the apartment block presided over this first interval of neural calm.”

JGB, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

“From the window of his office, Dr Nathan watched Talbert standing on the roof of the multi-storey car park. The deserted deck was a favourite perch. The inclined floors seemed a model of Talbert’s oblique personality, forever meeting the events of time and space at an invisible angle.”

JGB, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

“Already, without touching her, he knew intimately the repertory of her body, its anthology of junctions. His eyes turned to the multi-storey car park beside the apartment blocks above the beach. Its inclined floors contained an operating formula for their passage through consciousness.”

JGB, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

“He remembered these pleasures: the conjunction of her exposed pubis with the polished contours of the bidet; the white cube of the bathroom quantifying her left breast as she bent over the handbasin; the mysterious eroticism of the multi-storey car park, a Krafft-Ebing of geometry and posture…”

JGB, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

“As they left the cubicle beside the kiosk he followed them towards the car park. The angular floors rose through the fading light, the concrete flanks lit by the neon signs of the bars across the street.”

JGB, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

“Deliberately he had allowed Vaughan to take command, curious to see where they would go, what junction points they would cross on the spinal causeways. Together they set off on a grotesque itinerary: a radio-observatory, stock car races, war graves, multi-storey car parks.”

JGB, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

Ballardian: Car Park Primer

Parking Facility No 1, Chicago 1955 by Shaw, Metz & Dolio. Photo courtesy BD Online.

“Travers had become more and more withdrawn, driving her along the motorway to pointless destinations, setting up private experiments whose purpose was totally abstract: making love to soundless images of war newsreels, swerving at speed through multi-storey car parks (their canted floors appeared to be a model of her own anatomy), leading on the mysterious film crew who followed them everywhere.”

JGB, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

“As she sauntered along the verge he became aware of a sudden erotic conjunction, the module formed by Vaughan, the inclined concrete decks and Karen’s body. Above all, the multi-storey car park was a model for her rape.;

JGB, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

“Vaughan followed them everywhere with his camera, zoom lens watching from the observation platform of the Oceanic Terminal at the airport, from hotel mezzanine balconies and studio car-parks.”

JGB, Crash (1973).

“I remember my first minor collision in a deserted hotel car-park. Disturbed by a police patrol, we had forced ourselves through a hurried sex-act. Reversing out of the park, I struck an unmarked tree. Catherine vomited over my seat. This pool of vomit with its clots of blood like liquid rubies, as viscous and discreet as everything produced by Catherine, still contains for me the essence of the erotic delirium of the car-crash, more exciting than her own rectal and vaginal mucus, as refined as the excrement of a fairy queen, or the minuscule globes of liquid that formed beside the bubbles of her contact lenses.”

JGB, Crash (1973).

Ballardian: Car Park Primer

Marine Parade, Worthing. Photograph: Sue Barr/Thames & Hudson.

“An immense peace seemed to preside over the shabby concrete and untended grass. The glass curtain-walling of the terminal buildings and the multi-storey car-parks behind them belonged to an enchanted domain.”

JGB, Crash (1973).

“All the hopes and fancies of this placid suburban enclave, drenched in a thousand infidelities, faltered before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and unswerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons.”

JGB, Crash (1973).

“Vaughan was staring at the terraced cliff of the car-park, his eyes following the canted floors, as if trying to recognize everything that had passed between himself and the dark-haired girl.”

JGB, Crash (1973).

“At the time he had found himself wishing that Catherine were with him — she would have liked the ziggurat hotels and apartment houses, and the vast, empty parking lots laid down by the planners years before any tourist would arrive to park their cars, like a city abandoned In advance of itself.”

JGB, Concrete Island (1974).

“Wilder pressed on. “I know Charlotte has reservations about life here — the trouble with these places is that they’re not designed for children. The only open space turns out to be someone else’s car-park.”

JGB, High-Rise (1975).

“The town centre consisted of little more than a supermarket and shopping mall, a multi-storey car-park and filling station. Shepperton, known to me only for its film studios, seemed to be the everywhere of suburbia, the paradigm of nowhere.”

JGB, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979).

“The street lamps shone down on the empty car parks, yet there were no cars or people about, no one was playing the countless slot-machines in the stores and arcades.”

JGB, Hello America (1981).

Ballardian: Car Park Primer

Parkhaus am Bollwerksturm, Heilbronn 1997-98 by Mahler, Gunster, Fuchs. Photo courtesy BD Online.

“Two vehicles occupied opposite corners of the car-park, breaking that companionable rule by which drivers arriving at an empty car-park place themselves alongside each other.”

JGB, The Kindness of Women (1991).

“I circled the artificial lakes, with their eerily calm surfaces, or roamed around the vast car parks. The lines of silent vehicles might have belonged to a race who had migrated to the stars.”

JGB, Super-Cannes (2000).

“‘I’m on holiday. It’s lasted a little longer than I planned.’

‘We’ve all noticed. You’re the Ben Gunn of our treasure island. I thought you were writing a social history of the car park.'”

JGB, Super-Cannes (2000).

“‘He thinks you need a lobotomy. He told me you’re obsessed by car parks.'”

JGB, Super-Cannes (2000).

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

JGB, Super-Cannes (2000).

“‘They like that. They like the alienation.’ Gould took my arm, a teacher relieved to find an intelligent pupil. ‘There’s no past and no future. If they can, they opt for zones without meaning — airports, shopping malls, motorways, car parks. They’re in flight from the real.”

JGB, Millennium People (2003).

“Acres of car parks stretched around me, areas for airline crews, security personnel, business travellers, an almost planetary expanse of waiting vehicles. They sat patiently in the caged pens as their drivers circled the world. Days lost for ever would expire until they dismounted from the courtesy buses and reclaimed their cars.”

JGB, Millennium People (2003).

“This was his real terrain, a zone without past or future, civic duties or responsibilities, its empty car parks roamed by off-duty air hostesses and betting—shop managers, a realm that never remembered itself.”

JGB, Millennium People (2003).

Ballardian: Car Park Primer

Pydar Street, Truro. Photograph: Sue Barr/Thames & Hudson.

“There was a forest of signs helpfully guiding the visiting motorist to the car parks, though it was unclear why the town should have so many visitors or why they would want to park there.”

JGB, Millennium People (2003).

“‘His job was to wait here.’

‘Job? What exactly? Taking communion in a car park?’”

JGB, Millennium People (2003).

“He stopped when he reached my Range Rover and glanced at his reflection in the black doors, the pale nimbus of a head floating behind the cellulose as it had haunted the trees in Bishop’s Park, Munch’s Scream resited to some long-term car park of the soul.”

JGB, Millennium People (2003).

“I had left the Jensen in the multi-storey car park that dominated the town, a massive concrete edifice of ten canted floors more mysterious in its way than the Minotaur’s labyrinth at Knossos — where, a little perversely, my wife suggested we should spend our honeymoon.”

JGB, Kingdom Come (2006).

“‘A bad actor howls from the roof of a multi-storey car park and we think he’s a seer.’”

JGB, Kingdom Come (2006).

“‘David Cruise was your tailor’s dummy, a shrink-proof shaman of the multi-storey car parks, Kafka in a tired trenchcoat, a psychopath with genuine moral integrity.’”

JGB, Kingdom Come (2006).

Ballardian: Car Park Primer

Calderwood Street, Woolwich. Photograph: Sue Barr/Thames & Hudson.

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5 Responses »

  1. The town I live in had its two 1960s concrete multi-storey car parks torn down recently to make way for a new shopping mall. A sad day. The mall has its car park, but red brick walls and tarmac floors seem to be in vogue these days … which isn’t quite mock-tudor and thatched roofs, but neither is it the futurist brutalism of prefabricated concrete.

  2. we have very boring car parks in australia. they don’t even have the retro-fascist quality of brutalism, and have less imagination than a caravan site.

  3. The ‘less imagination the better’ seems to be the motto for town planners in this country, too. Talking of boring, a quote I like from Ballard goes something like: ‘Milton Keynes is the most dangerous place in Britain. You won’t be mugged or robbed, but you might have your soul stolen while you’re walking down the street …’ I kind of imagine Australia being a sunny Milton Keynes with beautiful beaches.

  4. That was a compliment, by the way Simon. I’d love to live either in Milton Keynes or some nameless Australian suburb built along a thousand miles of beach.

  5. Unfortunately Australia is more Mad Max than Vermilion Sands…

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