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The Office Park

Author: • Jan 18th, 2010 •

Category: alternate worlds, architecture, CCTV, death of affect, dystopia, features, gated communities, Jean Baudrillard, Lead Story, leisure, non-place, photography, psychopathology, surveillance, technology, theme parks

by Nicholas Cobb

The inspiration behind this body of work came from a growing curiosity about recent corporate developments of private space in London that apparently encourage the public to access them. Typically these environments have beautiful landscaping around a canal or lake. An amphitheatre seems to be a further prerequisite as is CCTV which monitors everything including security guards who amble around these empty places. The hustle and bustle of neighboring streets feels a world away.

In the summer of 2008 I went for a series of walks along arterial routes heading out of London. That summer I had read several of J.G. Ballard’s novels including Super Cannes, which is about disturbing behaviour amongst the inhabitants of a gated community isolated from the world. On one of these ambles I chanced upon a recently completed building development. I felt compelled to enter this beautifully landscaped glass and steel environment. It appeared as if no expense had been spared. What I encountered there helped to crystallize some vague ideas that became the photographs that are presented in this collection. The idyllic setting combined with the ever-present ’security’ got under my skin and left me wondering about a dystopian outcome for this kind of world.

I remember sitting down by the artificial lake. The sun was beating down and people casually wandered about. I gazed up at the office blocks. I thought it must be an idyllic place to work. London felt far away. I imagined that you could lift these acres up and deposit them in any city in the world and they would feel at home. This was an anti-Dickensian space, more an abstract one. It was a statement of how the world of work could be. The management ethos, proclaimed on various signs, was ‘enjoy.work’.

Enjoy.work. Arbeit macht frei. Freedom through work. I rose to the bait. Unease crept into my thoughts.

I found myself searching for the cracks. A variety of methods had been used to try to block the sun reaching the interior spaces. It appeared as if, as each building had been erected, ever more elaborate ways had been devised to keep nature out. What was it really like to work in there?

I noticed that an algae bloom threatened the lake’s plant and animal life. Peering into one building’s reception area, I saw how the appearance of leisure had been carefully arranged. Bicycles, guitars and deckchairs in neat rows. An abandoned chess game and open magazines on the coffee table. A half-finished painting-by-numbers canvas on an easel. No one about. Why had everyone had to leave so suddenly? Or, were they trying to hide something? Soon after, I was asked to leave for taking photographs without permission.

After some months I built an architectural model inspired by this corporate campus, and began photographing. I wanted a dystopian world, centred on a dark lake, that seemed to have the opposite effect on those that gazed into it than that intended by the landscape architect. So, some of the ant-like figures turn up to work, use the facilities and leave. Others seem to be employed in extracurricular activities of a more malevolent nature.


Nicholas Cobb, 2009.


The Office Park book, featuring many more images, is available at blurb as well as a number of other books by Nicholas Cobb.

Lured by tax concessions and a climate like northern California’s, dozens of multinational companies had moved into the business park that now employed over ten thousand people. The senior managements were the most highly paid professional caste in Europe, a new elite of administrators, énarques and scientific entrepreneurs. The lavish brochure enthused over a vision of glass and titanium straight from the drawing boards of Richard Neutra and Frank Gehry, but softened by landscaped parks and artificial lakes, a humane version of Corbusier’s radiant city. Even my sceptical eye was prepared to blink.

J.G. Ballard, Super-Cannes (2000).


The advertising displays in the estate office overlooking the roundabout on the RN7 had the look of museum tableaux, and the artist’s impression of a concourse as crowded as the Champs-Elysées, lined with boutiques and thronged by high-spending customers, seemed to describe a forgotten twentieth-century world. Only the cyber-cafe next door was serving any customers. The computer terminals facing the bar were out of use, but three bikers in metallized boots and Mad Max leathers sat at the outdoor tables. They formed a feral presence in the hyper-modern complex, like carrion-birds on a skyscraper cornice, filling an unplanned niche in the ecology of the future.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


An almost drugged air floated across the lake, a rogue cloud that had drifted down the hillside, carrying the scent of office-freshener from a factory in Grasse. I walked along the water’s edge, attracting the attention of two security men in a Range Rover parked among the pines. One watched me through his binoculars, no doubt puzzled that anyone in Eden-Olympia should have the leisure to stroll through the midday sun.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


As if to encourage the fantasies of the stranger sitting nearby, she kicked off her high-heeled shoes and hitched up her skirt to scratch her stockinged insteps, exposing a satisfying glimpse of white thigh. Despite the smart suit, her blonde hair was a little too blown, giving her the look of a nervy and intellectual tart. Was she a call-girl, computerized like everyone else at Eden-Olympia?

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


A black Range Rover clumsily straddled a flowerbed, its tyres flattening the rose bushes. Isolated figures patrolled the lawns, like shadows free to play among themselves for a few hours each night. Behind the shrubbery sounded the low-pitched murmur of radio traffic, a soft anatomy of the night.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


Halder stood with his back to me, searching the upstairs windows, and I could see his reflection in the glass doors of the sun lounge. He was smiling to himself, a strain of deviousness that was almost likeable. Behind the brave and paranoid new world of surveillance cameras and bulletproof Range Rovers there probably existed an old-fashioned realm of pecking orders and racist abuse.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


Crowds strolled under the palms, enjoying the warm autumn day, like citizens of another world who had come ashore for a few hours. Wilder Penrose had been right to say that there was something unreal about them.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


Were assassins aware of the contingent world? I tried to imagine Lee Harvey Oswald on his way to the book depository in Dealey Plaza on the morning he shot Kennedy. Did he notice a line of overnight washing in his neighbour’s yard, a fresh dent in the nextdoor Buick, a newspaper boy with a bandaged knee? The contingent world must have pressed against his temples, clamouring to be let in. But Oswald had kept the shutters bolted against the storm, opening them for a few seconds as the President’s Lincoln moved across the lens of the Zapruder camera and on into history.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


Prostitutes came out at dusk, usherettes in the theatre of the night, shining their miniature torches at any kerb that threatened their high-heels. Two of them entered the Rialto and sat at the next table, muscular brunettes with the hips and thighs of professional athletes. They ordered drinks they never touched, killing time before they set off to trawl the hotels.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


‘There’s a remarkable need for punitive violence hidden away in the senior executive mind.’
‘And sex tends to release it?’
‘It’s meant to, for sound biological reasons. Sex is such a quick route to the psychopathic, the shortest of short cuts to the perverse. We aren’t running an adventure playground, but a forcing house designed to expand the psychopathic possibilities of the executive imagination. It needs to be carefully monitored. Sadomasochism, excretory sex-play, body-piercing and wife-pandering can easily veer off into something nasty.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


The glass and gun-metal office blocks were set well apart from each other, separated by artificial lakes and forested traffic islands where a latter-day Crusoe could have found comfortable refuge. The faint mist over the lakes and the warm sun reflected from the glass curtain-walling seemed to generate an opal haze, as if the entire business park were a mirage, a virtual city conjured into the pine-scented air like a son-et-lumière vision of a new Versailles.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


‘Homo sapiens is a reformed hunter-killer of depraved appetites, which once helped him to survive. He was partly rehabilitated in an open prison called the first agricultural societies, and now finds himself on parole in the polite suburbs of the city state. The deviant impulses coded into his central nervous system have been switched off. He can no longer harm himself or anyone else. But nature sensibly endowed him with a taste for cruelty and an intense curiosity about pain and death. Without them, he’s trapped in the afternoon shopping malls of a limitless mediocrity. We need to revive him, give him back the killing eye and the dreams of death. Together they helped him to dominate this planet.’

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


I needed to escape from Eden-Olympia, with its ceaseless work and its ethic of corporate responsibility. The business park was the outpost of an advanced kind of puritanism, and a virtually sex-free zone. Jane and I rarely made love. The flair she had shown during my days as a virtual cripple had been smothered by a sleep of eye-masks and sedatives, followed by cold showers and snatched breakfasts.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


‘Places like Eden-Olympia are fertile ground for any messiah with a grudge. The Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won’t walk out of the desert. They’ll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks.’

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


‘Who are the tenants? Big international companies?’
‘The biggest. Mitsui, Siemens, Unilever, Sumitomo, plus all the French giants – Elf Aquitaine, Carrefour, Rhone-Poulenc. Along with a host of smaller firms: investment brokers, bioengineering outfits, design consultancies. I sound like a salesman, but when you get to know it you’ll see what a remarkable place Eden-Olympia really is. In its way this is a huge experiment in how to hothouse the future.’

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


Between the security building and the Elf-Maritime research labs was an open-air cafeteria, a facility intended to soften the public face of the business park and give it a passing resemblance to an Alpine resort. Tired after my meeting with Zander, I sat down and ordered a vin blanc from the young French waitress, who wore jeans and a white vest printed with a quotation from Baudrillard.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


The future was a second Eden-Olympia, almost twice the size of the original, the same mix of multinational companies, research laboratories and financial consultancies. Hyundai, BP Amoco, Motorola and Unilever had secured their plots, investing in long-term leases that virtually financed the whole project. The site-contractors were already at work, clearing the holm oaks and umbrella pines that had endured since Roman times, surviving forest fires and military invasions. Nature, as the new millennium dictated, was giving way for the last time to the tax shelter and the corporate car park.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


Work and the realities of corporate life anchored Eden-Olympia to the ground. The buildings wore their ventilation shafts and cable conduits on their external walls, an open reminder of Eden-Olympia’s dedication to company profits and the approval of its shareholders. The satellite dishes on the roofs resembled the wimples of an order of computer-literate nuns, committed to the sanctity of the workstation and the pieties of the spreadsheet.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


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.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


I stepped from the car-park lift onto the overheated roof, a cockpit of sun and death. In the mirror curtain-walling of the office building I could see myself reflected like an unwary tourist who had strayed through the wrong door into the danger-filled silences of a bullring.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


This was the first office building to be constructed at the business park, but after a bombastic overture the architecture that followed was late modernist in the most minimal and self-effacing way, a machine above all for thinking in.

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


‘We ought to move on. Ghosts are walking around Eden-Olympia…’

Ballard, Super-Cannes.


The Office Park book, featuring many more images, is available at blurb as well as a number of other books by Nicholas Cobb.


..:: MORE INFORMATION:
+ Interview with Nicholas Cobb about The Office Park.
+ Nicholas Cobb’s website.

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7 Responses »

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by simon sellars, Will Wiles. Will Wiles said: A+ RT: @ballardian Nick Cobb's brilliant model of a corporate campus, shot w/ dystopian flair; w/ quotes from Ballard http://bit.ly/7Wp2NU [...]

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ballardian: New post: Nick Cobb’s brilliant model of a corporate campus, shot w/ dystopian flair; punctuated w/ quotes from Ballard http://bit.ly/7Wp2NU

  3. This is an amazing set of work. I may have to look into that Ballard book.

  4. [...] (thank you, Jon!) sent me this link to Nicholas Cobb‘s architecture/photograph project, The Office Park, that takes part of its [...]

  5. [...] Photographs [and model!] are by Nicolas Cobb and were found here. [...]

  6. Amazing piece of work. I particularly enjoy the portion touching on the sexual aspect the evolution of the project — a reminder that our sexual behaviour is deeply rooted in biology and can sometimes be released by a quick and a dirty deed with a prostitute. Small aspect of a huge project that feels so elementary human.

  7. […] Office Park’ Nicks seminal Ballardian work is still available to see click here with writing from Dr Simon […]

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