Sunday, July 12, 2009

ANGST/itecture [1]: The Endless City

"... the ragged skyline of the city resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis."
--J.G. Ballard from High Rise

"... his thighs and lumbar muscles felt like slabs of inflamed rubber."
-- J.G. Ballard from 'Concentration City'

by Agraphia

In one sentence, Ballard maps the burning, suffocating metropolis of 'Concentration City' within the very flesh and bone of the protagonist M., the body itself being just another outgrowth of cancerous urban architecture. Oppressed by an endless, ever-expanding city without limits, where everyone is an engineer and 'free space outside the city' is considered an unthinkable abstraction, M. dreams of a flying machine to escape. Unable to "think outside the box", the city inhabitants reduce M.'s dreams to mental illness, and he is held as a lunatic. For Ballard, like Blake, the artist is the hero, the imagination a panacea with the ability to create new connections: "I believe in ... all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet." But after riding the unending trains in one direction for days, witnessing blocks of city terrorized by pyros and sealed off by authorities, M. just ends up where he began. "You're back where you started from. $HELL x 10n."

"Architecture is the expression of the very being of societies, in the same way that physiognomy is the expression of the being of individuals."
-- Rethinking Architecture

Tsutomu Nihei, an architect before becoming a comic artist, creates a similar space in his manga series "Blame!", wherein the power to control the expansion of The City has been lost due to the chaotic and insecure manner of its growth:

"The City is an endless vertical space of artificially-constructed walls, stairways and caverns, separated into massive 'floors' by nearly-impenetrable barriers known as 'Megastructure' ... The mechanical beings known as 'Builders', which move around reforming and creating new landscapes, appear to have begun building without end, creating an enormous structure with little internal logic or coherence. There exists some kind of major isolation system between the gargantuan floors of The City. Between them, there are entire layers of an unknown, nearly-indestructible material called 'the megastructure'. Attempts to approach the megastructure result in a massive safeguard response so as to prevent trespassing. Bypassing the safeguard is pointless, as it is nearly impossible to even scratch the megastructure ..."
-- Wiki: Blame!

"In regards to the scale of the structure, NOiSE, the prequel to Blame!, states in its final chapter that "At one point even the Moon, which used to be up in the sky above, was integrated into The City's structure". It has been suggested by Tsutomu Nihei himself in his artbook Blame! and So On that the scale of The City is beyond that of a Dyson sphere, reaching Jupiter's planetary orbit (32.675 AU, or roughly 4,901,250,000 km); this is also suggested in scenarios such as Blame! vol. 9, where Killy finds himself having to travel through a room roughly the size of Jupiter (roughly 143,000 km.)"
-- Wiki: Blame!


"A Dyson sphere (or shell as it appeared in the original paper) is a hypothetical megastructure originally described by Freeman Dyson. Such a "sphere" would be a system of orbiting solar power satellites meant to completely encompass a star and capture most or all of its energy output. Dyson speculated that such structures would be the logical consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization, and proposed that searching for evidence of the existence of such structures might lead to the detection of advanced intelligent extraterrestrial life ... Since then, other variant designs involving building an artificial structure — or a series of structures — to encompass a star have been proposed in exploratory engineering or described in science fiction under the name "Dyson sphere". These later proposals have not been limited to solar power stations — many involve habitation or industrial elements. Most fictional depictions describe a solid shell of matter enclosing a star."
-- Wikipedia: Dyson Sphere


"Arcology, a portmanteau of the words "architecture" and "ecology," is a set of architectural design principles aimed toward the design of enormous habitats (hyperstructures) of extremely high human population density. These largely hypothetical structures, called "arcologies," would contain a variety of residential and commercial facilities and minimize individual human environmental impact. They are often portrayed as self-contained or economically self-sufficient."
-- Wikipedia: Arcology

"The Shimizu TRY 2004 Mega-City Pyramid is a proposed project for construction of a massive pyramid over Tokyo Bay in Japan. The structure would be 12 times higher than the Great Pyramid at Giza, and would house 750,000 people. If built, it would be the largest man-made structure in Earth's history..."
-- Wikipedia : Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid

In Ballard's short story, the limitless city defines the physical and psycho-social limits of the society within it -- it being the physical dimension, not only shaped by, but shaping, the individual's inner world and the desires and fears of the community as a whole. The endless city, as metaphor, can be read in many different ways; as the solipsistic depths of one's inner psyche, the explosion of urban sprawl, the vertigo of accelerated technological innovation, the unmanageable expansion of a capitalist machine. A dystopian vision, inverting the idealism of a modernist Zion, exposing the fact that, ultimately, no perfect "city" can contain the boundless variety of the human experience, with all its messy, transgressive convulsions. If the city is endless, those within it are rendered inhuman.


"And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."
-- Genesis 11:4
"Abandon all hopes of utopia - there are people involved."
-- Clayton Cramer
"All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in."
-- Toni Morrison
"Ontologies of the present demand archeologies of the future, not forecasts of the past"
-- Fredric Jameson


"[Le Corbusier] was also a city planner. "Modern town planning comes to birth with a new architecture," he wrote in a book titled simply Urbanisme. "By this immense step in evolution, so brutal and so overwhelming, we burn our bridges and break with the past." He meant it. There were to be no more congested streets and sidewalks, no more bustling public squares, no more untidy neighborhoods. People would live in hygienic, regimented high-rise towers, set far apart in a parklike landscape. This rational city would be separated into discrete zones for working, living and leisure. Above all, everything should be done on a big scale — big buildings, big open spaces, big urban highways.

He called it La Ville Radieuse, the Radiant City. Despite the poetic title, his urban vision was authoritarian, inflexible and simplistic. Wherever it was tried — in Chandigarh by Le Corbusier himself or in Brasilia by his followers — it failed. Standardization proved inhuman and disorienting. The open spaces were inhospitable; the bureaucratically imposed plan, socially destructive. In the U.S., the Radiant City took the form of vast urban-renewal schemes and regimented public housing projects that damaged the urban fabric beyond repair. Today these megaprojects are being dismantled, as superblocks give way to rows of houses fronting streets and sidewalks. Downtowns have discovered that combining, not separating, different activities is the key to success. So is the presence of lively residential neighborhoods, old as well as new. Cities have learned that preserving history makes a lot more sense than starting from zero. It has been an expensive lesson, and not one that Le Corbusier intended, but it too is part of his legacy."

"...the car would abolish the human street, and possibly the human foot. Some people would have airplanes too. The one thing no one would have is a place to bump into each other, walk the dog, strut, one of the hundred random things that people do ... being random was loathed by Le Corbusier ... its inhabitants surrender their freedom of movement to the omnipresent architect."
-- Robert Hughes

"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."
-- Geoff Manaugh


"Brutalism as an architectural style also was associated with a social utopian ideology, which tended to be supported by its designers, especially Alison and Peter Smithson, near the height of the style. Critics argue that this abstract nature of Brutalism makes the style unfriendly and uncommunicative, instead of being integrating and protective, as its proponents intended. Brutalism also is criticised as disregarding the social, historic, and architectural environment of its surroundings, making the introduction of such structures in existing developed areas appear starkly out of place and alien. The failure of positive communities to form early on in some Brutalist structures, possibly due to the larger processes of urban decay that set in after World War II (especially in the United Kingdom), led to the combined unpopularity of both the ideology and the architectural style."
-- Wikipedia: Brutalist Architecture

The Post-War British Tower Block

"Post-war Britain was the stage for a tower block building ‘boom’; from the 1950s to the late 1970s there was a dramatic increase in tower block construction. During this time, local authorities desired to impress their voters by building futuristic and imposing tower blocks, which would signify post-war progress ... influenced by Le Corbusier’s promotion of high-rise architecture, the modern tower blocks were to include features that would foster desired forms of resident interaction, an example being the inclusion of Le Corbusier’s ‘streets in the sky’ in some estates ...
As well as inspiring residents, local authority planners believed that the way tower blocks were constructed would save money ... Another key aspect of the tower block vision was the ‘Brutalist’ architectural method, popular with architects and planners at the time. The Brutalist emphasis led to the construction of stark and striking tower blocks with large sections of exposed concrete. Concrete was to be an integral part of the tower block designs; it could be poured on site, offering boundless flexibility to the building designers. To the planners, concrete was a silver bullet for the construction process – it was economical, and ‘was vaunted as being long-lasting, if not indestructible’.


Coleman’s 1985 work argues that in trying to emulate Le Corbusier’s ideas, the tower block planners only succeeded in encouraging social problems. Although architects and local authorities intended the opposite, tower blocks quickly became, as Hanley sharply stated, ‘slums in the sky’. Due to demanding deadlines, complicated construction practices were rushed and many tower blocks experienced structural decay as a result – roofs leaked, concrete suffered ‘spalling’, steel corroded, and damp penetrated the buildings. Unfortunately, by replicating tower blocks across the nation, planners ‘disastrously’ replicated design faults. In many tower blocks, concrete quickly exhibited signs of decay; cracks soon formed and destabilised the buildings. The partial collapse of the Ronan Point tower block is an infamous example of the hasty and substandard construction that occurred in a number of the towers. The tower blocks quickly lost their ‘futuristic’ look; concrete turned from the crisp white the designers had imagined to a dull grey, stained by pollution.

Poor design decisions ruined the anticipated benefits of the buildings. Open spaces, which were supposed to benefit the residents, were instead unattractive, unused and inadequately supervised. Residents felt it was difficult to maintain the large open spaces around the blocks because they realistically belonged to no one. Social problems increased as the tower blocks quickly degraded through poor maintenance and an insecure communal environment. Apart from frequent break-downs, communal lifts were a source of fear for people travelling alone. It was a rarity to ‘enter a clean-smelling, undefaced lift’. The tower blocks, many of which were located on the periphery of the city, made residents feel isolated and cut off from society. Outsiders and newcomers were also affected; they felt the overbearing design of the tower blocks made them fearsome and unsociable.

Power argues that as a direct consequence of their design and construction, security problems were prevalent in many of the tower blocks. Break-ins, vandalism and muggings were common, which were aided by the buildings’ concealed areas, the mazes of internal corridors, and dark corners. Police were often required in the tower blocks, but their infrequent presence did little to pacify towers rife with delinquency. In order to contain disruptive behaviour, local authorities began to place ‘problem families’ in the same blocks; Hanley argues that this policy only led to ‘further alienation … nihilism and a creeping sense of lawlessness’. Dunleavy seconds this, suggesting that the mental health of long term tower block residents may have been detrimentally affected.

While local authorities and their architects intended to create tower blocks that encouraged harmonious and vibrant communities, often the results were far from ideal. Post-war tower blocks were compromised from the outset by a combination of faults: local authorities advocated impractical architectural methods; design and construction faults were frequently reproduced; and there appeared to be a lack of understanding about the social consequences of certain design features. Collectively, these oversights transformed many tower blocks into undesirable places to live."
-- Wikipedia: Tower Block

Ken Oyama is a photographer and the director-general of a housing complex lovers’ website! Interview here


"How [do] people actually operate within a social context where things are either falling, or have fallen apart[?] Architecture always seems to present this impossibly rosy view of the future and seems unable to deal with the possibility of failure, even though all architecture in some way fails ... I think that there is a desire to face up to a future that deals with a system in crisis, which Ballard articulates so brilliantly." -- Nic Clear

"Ballard describes these spaces in terms of their effects: how they mutate and rearrange the mental lives of their inhabitants. It's as if these buildings, malls, empty plazas, and parking lots do, in fact, inspire a new type of humanity--as modernism's high priests once predicted--but Ballard shows that what they are bringing into existence is something altogether darker and unexpected. In other words, our contemporary built landscape has not ushered in the enlightened utopia once promised by Le Corbusier, for instance, with his isolated towers, or by Mies van der Rohe with his unornamented glass boxes. Instead, there is a slow-burning psychopathy here, a dementia inspired by space itself. Architecture becomes a kind of psychological Manhattan Project, so to speak: a vast, poorly supervised experiment in which new species of human personality are incubated."
-- Geoff Manaugh

"The contemporary city simulates or hallucinates itself in at least two decisive senses. First, in the age of electronic culture and economy, the city redoubles itself through the complex architecture of its information and media networks. Perhaps, as William Gibson suggests, 3-dimensional computer interfaces will soon allow post-modern flaneurs (or "console cowboys") to stroll through the luminous geometry of this mnemonic city where data-bases have become "blue pyramids" and "cold spiral arms." If so, urban cyberspace -- as the simulation of the city's information order -- will be experienced as even more segregated, and devoid of true public space, than the traditional built city ...

Secondly, social fantasy is increasingly embodied in simulacral landscapes -- theme parks, "historic" districts and malls -- that are partitioned off from the rest of the metropolis. All the post-modern philosopher kings (Baudrillard, Eco, etc), of course, agree that Los Angeles is the world capital of "hyper-reality." ... MCA and Disney believe the solution is to recreate vital bits of the city within the secure confines of fortress hotels and walled theme parks. As a result, artificial Los Angeles is gradually coming into being. In essence, it is an archipelago of well-guarded corporate cashpoints where affluent tourists can relax, spend lots of money, and have "fun" again. A largely invisible army of low-wage service workers, who themselves live in virtual bantustans like the Santa Ana barrio (Disneyland) or Lennox (LAX) barrios, keep the machinery of simulation running smoothly.

Because these simulated landscapes compete with one another over "authenticity," some strange dialectics ensue. Simulations tend to copy not their "original" (where that even exists), but one another."
-- Mike Davis from "Beyond Blade Runner"

"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 ...

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."
-- Geoff Manaugh

"Constant dissatisfaction with your architectural surroundings becomes a kind of quiet aggression, an unarticulated suburban angst." -- Geoff Manaugh


  1. Hi,

    Just came across this page by accident, but I'm glad I did. What a great collection of quotes and thoughts on architecture, urban planning, psychology and sociology. Real and speculative.

    I'm curious your thoughts on Louis I. Kahn and Walter Netsch. I imagine you'd place Netsch with Corbusier, but Kahn ... maybe different. His work had weight, but also a measure of grace.

    Anyway - terrific page. I will return to this often, to think and wonder.


  2. all of this is beautiful
    giacomo c