Tag Archives: airports

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.

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Welcome to the Virtual City – J.G. Ballard

A city built for speed is a city built for success | science fictional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ed Ruscha, Gasoline Stations, 1989.

Shepperton, for what it’s worth, is not suburbia. If it is a suburb of anywhere, it is of London Airport, not London. And that is the clue to my dislike of cities and my admiration for what most people think of as a faceless dead-land of inter-urban sprawl. Hurrying back from Heathrow or a West Country weekend to their ludicrously priced homes in Fulham or Muswell Hill, they carefully avert their gaze from this nightmare terrain of dual carriageways, police cameras, science parks and executive housing, an uncentred realm bereft of civic identity, tradition or human values, a zone fit only for the alienated and footloose, those without past or future.

And that, of course, is exactly what we like about it. We like the fast dual carriageways, the easy access motorways, the limitless parking lots. We like the control-tower architecture, the absence of civic authority, the rapid turnover of friendships and the prosperity filtered through car and appliance purchases. We like roads that lead past airports, we like air-freight offices and rent-acar forecourts, we like impulse-buy holidays to anywhere that takes our fancy. The triangle formed by the M3 and the M4, enclosing Heathrow and the River Thames, is our zone of possibility, far from the suffocating city politics and self-obsessions of the metropolis (transport, ugh, fares, rents, kerb-side vomit). We are the unenfranchised citizens of the shopping mall and the marina, the internet and cable TV. And we’re in no hurry for you to join us.

J.G. Ballard, “Welcome to the Virtual City”, Tate, Spring 2001. p 33.

Airports: The True Cities of the 21st Century – J.G. Ballard

Airports: The True Cities of the 21st Century – J.G. Ballard.

Ballardian: The World of JG Ballard

Airports, designed around the needs of their collaborating technologies, seem to be the only form of public architecture free from the pressures of kitsch and nostalgia. As far as I know, there are no half-timbered terminal buildings or pebble-dashed control towers.

[…]

For the past 35 years I have lived in Shepperton, a suburb not of London but of London’s Heathrow Airport. The Heathrow-tinged land extends for at least 10 miles south and west, a zone of motorways, science parks, and industrial estates, a landscape that most people affect to loathe but that I regard as the most advanced and admirable in the British Isles, and a paradigm of the best that the future offers us.

[…]

I value the benevolent social and architectural influence that a huge transit facility like Heathrow casts on the urban landscape around it. I have learned to like the intricate network of car rental offices, air freight depots, and travel clinics, the light industrial and motel architecture that unvaryingly surrounds every major airport in the world. Together they constitute the reality of our lives, rather than a mythical domain of village greens, cathedrals, and manorial vistas. I welcome the landscape’s transience, alienation, and discontinuities, and its unashamed response to the pressures of speed, disposability, and the instant impulse. Here, under the flight paths, everything is designed for the next five minutes.

By comparison, London itself seems hopelessly antiquated. Its hundreds of miles of gentrified stucco are a hangover from the 19th century that should have been bulldozed decades ago. I have the sense of a city devised as an instrument of political control, like the class system that preserves England from revolution. The labyrinth of districts and boroughs, the endless porticos that once guarded the modest terraced cottages of Victorian clerks, make it clear that London is a place where people know their place.

At an airport like Heathrow the individual is defined not by the tangible ground mortgaged into his soul for the next 40 years, but by the indeterminate flicker of flight numbers trembling on a screen. We are no longer citizens with civic obligations, but passengers for whom all destinations are theoretically open, our lightness of baggage mandated by the system. Airports have become a new kind of discontinuous city whose vast populations are entirely transient, purposeful, and, for the most part, happy. An easy camaraderie rules the departure lounges, along with the virtual abolition of nationality—whether we are Scots or Japanese is far less important than where we are going. I’ve long suspected that people are truly happy and aware of a real purpose to their lives only when they hand over their tickets at the check-in.

I suspect that the airport will be the true city of the 21st century. The great airports are already the suburbs of an invisible world capital, a virtual metropolis whose border towns are named Heathrow, Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, Nagoya, a centripetal city whose population forever circles its notional center and will never need to gain access to its dark heart. Mastery of the discontinuities of metropolitan life has always been essential to successful urban dwellers—we know none of our neighbors, and our close friends live equally isolated lives within 50 square miles around us. We work in a district five miles away, shop in another, and see films and plays in a third. Failure to master these discontinuities leaves some ethnic groups at a disadvantage, forced into enclaves that seem to reconstitute mental maps of ancestral villages.

But the modern airport defuses these tensions and offers its passengers the social reassurance of the boarding lounge, an instantly summoned village whose life span is long enough to calm us and short enough not to be a burden. The terminal concourses are the ramblas and agoras of the future city, time-free zones where all the clocks of the world are displayed, an atlas of arrivals and destinations forever updating itself, where briefly we become true world citizens. Air travel may well be the most important civic duty that we discharge today, erasing class and national distinctions and subsuming them within the unitary global culture of the departure lounge.

What I believe, J.G. Ballard

What I believe, J.G. Ballard

Photos from the Freeway series by Catherine Opie

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.

I believe in the forgotten runways of Wake Island, pointing towards the Pacifics of our imaginations.

I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel; in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.

I believe in the beauty of all women, in the treachery of their imaginations, so close to my heart; in the junction of their disenchanted bodies with the enchanted chromium rails of supermarket counters; in their warm tolerance of my perversions.

I believe in the death of tomorrow, in the exhaustion of time, in our search for a new time within the smiles of auto-route waitresses and the tired eyes of air-traffic controllers at out-of-season airports.

I believe in the genital organs of great men and women, in the body postures of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Princess Di, in the sweet odours emanating from their lips as they regard the cameras of the entire world.

I believe in madness, in the truth of the inexplicable, in the common sense of stones, in the lunacy of flowers, in the disease stored up for the human race by the Apollo astronauts.

I believe in nothing.

I believe in Max Ernst, Delvaux, Dali, Titian, Goya, Leonardo, Vermeer, Chirico, Magritte, Redon, Duerer, Tanguy, the Facteur Cheval, the Watts Towers, Boecklin, Francis Bacon, and all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet.

I believe in the impossibility of existence, in the humour of mountains, in the absurdity of electromagnetism, in the farce of geometry, in the cruelty of arithmetic, in the murderous intent of logic.

I believe in adolescent women, in their corruption by their own leg stances, in the purity of their dishevelled bodies, in the traces of their pudenda left in the bathrooms of shabby motels.

I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown, in the stone thrown by a small child that carries with it the wisdom of statesmen and midwives.

I believe in the gentleness of the surgeon’s knife, in the limitless geometry of the cinema screen, in the hidden universe within supermarkets, in the loneliness of the sun, in the garrulousness of planets, in the repetitiveness or ourselves, in the inexistence of the universe and the boredom of the atom.

I believe in the light cast by video-recorders in department store windows, in the messianic insights of the radiator grilles of showroom automobiles, in the elegance of the oil stains on the engine nacelles of 747s parked on airport tarmacs.

I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.

I believe in the derangement of the senses: in Rimbaud, William Burroughs, Huysmans, Genet, Celine, Swift, Defoe, Carroll, Coleridge, Kafka.

I believe in the designers of the Pyramids, the Empire State Building, the Berlin Fuehrerbunker, the Wake Island runways.

I believe in the body odours of Princess Di.

I believe in the next five minutes.

I believe in the history of my feet.

I believe in migraines, the boredom of afternoons, the fear of calendars, the treachery of clocks.

I believe in anxiety, psychosis and despair.

I believe in the perversions, in the infatuations with trees, princesses, prime ministers, derelict filling stations (more beautiful than the Taj Mahal), clouds and birds.

I believe in the death of the emotions and the triumph of the imagination.

I believe in Tokyo, Benidorm, La Grande Motte, Wake Island, Eniwetok, Dealey Plaza.

I believe in alcoholism, venereal disease, fever and exhaustion.

I believe in pain.

I believe in despair.

I believe in all children.

I believe in maps, diagrams, codes, chess-games, puzzles, airline timetables, airport indicator signs.

I believe all excuses.

I believe all reasons.

I believe all hallucinations.

I believe all anger.

I believe all mythologies, memories, lies, fantasies, evasions.

I believe in the mystery and melancholy of a hand, in the kindness of trees, in the wisdom of light.