An interview with J.G. Ballard and Hans Ulbrich Obrist

A Daily Dose of Architecture: Literary Dose #37.

Hans Ulbrich Obrist: You wrote in the Observer in 1997 a piece on airports and London where you said that, “By comparison with London Airport, London itself seems hopelessly antiquated. London may well be the only world capital—with the possible exception of Moscow—that has gone from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first without experiencing all the possibilities and excitements of the twentieth in any meaningful way.” And you carry on mentioning your admiration for the Hilton Hotel in Heathrow. Can you tell me why that building, and what relationship or dialogue you have in general with architecture or architects?

J.G. Ballard: The Heathrow Hilton designed by Michael Manser is my favourite building in London. It’s part space-age hangar and part high-tech medical centre. It’s clearly a machine, and the spirit of Le Corbusier lives on in its minimal functionalism. It’s a white cathedral, almost a place of worship, the closest to a religious building that you can find in an airport. Inside, it’s a highly theatrical space, dominated by its immense atrium. The building, in effect, is an atrium with a few rooms attached. Most hotels are residential structures, but rightly, the Heathrow Hilton plays down this role, accepting the total transience that is its essence, and instead turns itself into a huge departure lounge, as befits an airport annex. Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building, one feels no emotions and could never fall in love, or need to. The National Gallery or the Louvre are the complete opposite, and people there are always falling in love.

Hans Ulbrich Obrist: And what is your favourite museum and why? What do you think of the evolutions undertaken by museums in the last few decades? In your view, what role do museums play today? And ideally what do you think their role should be?

J.G. Ballard: I like traditional museums, the less frequented the better. All the changes in the past fifty years have been for the worst. I remember the Louvre in 1949 when it was completely deserted, whereas today it is a theme park where you can enjoy “the Mona Lisa experience.” This isn’t only a matter of funding. Museum directors enjoy being impresarios, guru-figures manipulating the imaginations of the public. Museums shouldn’t be too popular. The experience within the Louvre or the National Gallery should be challenging and unsettling, and take years to absorb. The Italians had the right idea. Most of their paintings were in dimly lit churches, un-clean and difficult to see. As a result, the renaissance endured for centuries.