Thursday, March 16, 2017

Intermundia Airport (Chapter 2).

Chapter 1 here

Back inside the terminal, he knew his next move would have to be to find a bathroom and take a proper look at his features. He lacked a mental image of his face, and this blank space where his thoughts were lodged unnerved him so much that he was reluctant even to touch it. But he had to look – if anything at all could jog his memory, it was surely his face.

Nothing, it turned out, was easily found in the peculiar geometry of the terminal. The persistent curvature of its design made him feel like an infant orbiting a new kind of womb which had been designed by mathematicians and sculptors. All its lines were curvilinear, and all its structures nestled neatly into the whole in a manner which suggested an aesthetic abstraction of the beehive or wasp's nest. Here and there, long corridors branched off from the main building. Their carpets were a rich, fleshy red, and the smooth, white arch of the ceilings gave the whole the appearance of a whale or shark's famished gullet, through which the people moved like snacks fleeing the digestive track.

Finally, in the atrium of one of these corridors, he found a bathroom. The bathroom was long and narrow, and smelled of a citrus disinfectant. The people at the basins all seemed to pause in their ablutions, and regard their reflections with a melancholy warmth, as though the images in the mirror were people to whom they were bidding a fond farewell, after long, tumultuous shared adventures. A jaunty, repetitious melody was piped into the bathroom, but he found that there was a peculiar sense of irresolution or absence in the culmination of the figure, such that the melody created in his mind the looping image of a beautiful face slowly brighten to a wide smile, only at the last to reveal a toothless and cankerous mouth.

Having paused for some time at the cubicles, he edged nervously to one of the wash-hand basins, and regarded his appearance in the mirror. He was, he guessed, about thirty-five. He had brown curly hair, short and untidy, and large blue eyes which he thought were the colour of a declining evening sky, reflected in cold water. Besides the slightly piercing quality of the eyes, his appearance struck him as unremarkable. He was pale and slender, with the look of one of those introverts who strike most people as passive and emotionally neutral, an impression owing not to a lack of passion but rather a certain waxen, inexpressive quality about the physicality. He knew that type of person vaguely in his own memories: the type who smiled detachedly and kept their own counsel, having seemingly resolved that life was a boisterous party at which they knew nobody.

It was not mere disappointment in his looks, however, which troubled him so sorely. It was that his reflection stirred neither the slightest memory, nor inspired in him any discernible emotion whatever. He knew that the reflection in the mirror was his own, that the appearance which returned his searching looks was in some vital sense himself, only by a logical necessity of spatial correlation. Beyond that, his physical body was a stranger to him, and looking at his face elicited no greater connection than that of a passer-by on a busy street. Had his reflection abruptly turned its back, and proceeded towards the door of the bathroom, it would have had engendered no great shock of dissociation.

This estrangement from his body filled him with a sorrow which felt unprecedented to his dim recollections. They had taken everything from him – his entire past, and any connection to his physical selfhood, was utterly lost. All that he had to hold onto were his present stream of thoughts, knotted as they were in the unravelling of a pervasive nightmare logic. In the mirror, his body was convulsing slightly, and tears streamed down its face. An elderly Japanese man, dressed in a funereal suit, patted his shoulder gently – that gesture again. He turned and glared at him.

He made his way up to to one of the elevated footbridges that spanned the perimeter of the terminal. Observing the scene from this particular vantage point, it was clear that the crowd broke down into two separate groups. There was a smaller minority of people like himself whom he called “New Arrivals.” The New Arrivals all exhibited varying symptoms of extreme disorientation and anxiety. He had to assume that they were all in the same position – that their memories had been wiped and they had no idea where they were. The second group he called the “Departees” and the “Comforters.” The Departees had come to be at peace with the circumstances of their abduction and were now leaving Intermundia Airport – back to their old lives? They all had that peculiar, almost mystic placidity which they tried to impart on the New Arrivals, by way of reassuring glances and that insufferable petting.

Clearly, there was some kind of process at work whereby frightened New Arrivals were gradually transformed into contented Departees. Their minds were first wiped clean, and then remade so as to completely acquiesce to the process whereby their identities had been stolen, and remoulded as self-effacing model citizens. Perhaps Intermundia Airport was a kind of re-education camp were everyday people were indoctrinated, and then sent back into the world as the hidden operatives of an ideology or agenda so vast and esoteric that their activities went everywhere unnoticed. Whatever the case, he had now at least acquired a goal and a purpose: to resist this process with every fibre of his being. They had made him forget everything, and that fact alone he would not forget. To have found a goal and a provisional plan, even one composed entirely of rage and opposition, brought on a mild cessation of his churning nerves. A fire which had blazed in his nervous system cooled to to a more patient simmer.

He then felt yet another pat on his shoulder, this time with a considerably less friendly import. Turning from the railing, he found that he was accosted by two security guards. The guards were an odd couple indeed. One was middle-aged, small and paunchy; the other youthful, tall and lean. The middle-aged guard was balding, with grey, wet-looking hair. The sides had been scrupulously combed back, and the remainder on top formed a near perfect rectangular peak at the dead-centre of his forehead. His face, closely-shaven and filmed with perspiration, was plump, boyish, frog-like and endearing. He had the air of a perpetually harried yet good-humoured uncle.

The younger man had a shaved head, tanned complexion and handsome Latin features. He looked sleepy and arrogant. They stood facing him for a moment, the older shifting nervously, the younger man's body immobile, his eyelids flickering as though he was falling asleep.
'Hello, sir', the older one finally began, 'if you'll excuse me, sir. My name is Eddie. This is my colleague Giacomo. Your case officer, sir, would like to see you now, and it is our privilege to accompany you to his office.'
'What if I don't want to go?'
Giacomo edged closer to him, his manner more languorous than insistent.
'You'll see your case officer,' he said, 'one way or another. Don't want to go now is fine with us. We get to take an hour off. You wanna make life difficult for yourself, and easier for us, you're welcome to.'
Eddie cast a reproachful glance at Giacomo.
'What my colleague means to say is that you can see your case officer any time you please! There's no obligation, none whatever. It's up to you! The thing is, though, it's really better – better for you – if you see him sooner rather than later. It's like – like the dentist! Nobody really wants to go to the dentist. They put if off! And the rotten tooth, the pain, you see, it just gets worse. So eventually they have to go. And then – just a little prick, a bit of yank, and all the pain is gone! And then they're kicking themselves, saying “I should have to the dentist ages ago!”'
'I don't have a toothache.'
Giacomo seemed to approve of this remark. He looked at Eddie with a smirk.
'You see? He doesn't have a toothache. Why would he want to go to a dentist?'
'That's not the point. I didn't say he should go to a dentist, I was simply drawing an analogy - '
'You and your analogies, you're just confusing the issue! The man is disorientated, he needs to get his bearings, and you're telling him he has a rotten tooth, he needs to go to the dentist - '
Eddie turned away from Giacomo, and looked at him imploringly.
'You see what he's trying to do? He doesn't want you to go! He just wants to take an hour off. I'm only trying to give you good advice! I have your feelings at heart. He just wants to have a drink.'
Eddie and Giacomo continued to bicker in this farcical manner, eventually wearing his patience to the point where he submitted to attend the interview. Eddie beamed. Giacomo shrugged and gave a little yawn. They sauntered off briskly and he followed them down the steps. They seemed to forget about him instantly, becoming absorbed in their own conversation.
'Did you know,' Eddie was saying, 'that dentists have the highest rate of suicide among all the professions?'
Giacomo shrugged.
'They do. Its a very strange thing, if you think about about it. I mean, it's a respectable middle-class profession, well-paid, secure, steady. Not as respected as the doctor, but less pressure! The dentist never has to tell anybody they've got a month to live, or that they'll never walk again. So why do they do it?'
Eddie glared at him.
'Do what?'
'Kill themselves!'
'All the bad breath seeps into their brains?'
'You make a joke out of everything, but it's an interesting conundrum. I have a theory about the whole thing. There is something, I suspect, in the mouth, that only dentists see. Think about it, how often do you actually look into the inside of your mouth? Nobody does! It's like this undiscovered country, you know, that we carry around inside our faces, this landscape of pink flesh and naked bone and rotting chunks of grizzle and the calcified residuum of an endless stream of words, a lifetime of words that flow profusely out like bile but never really say anything at all. And nobody looks into this world for any sustained length of time, nobody except the dentist. But he looks! Day in and day out, he wrestles with the ungovernable tongue and probes the private parts of a thousand faces, until humanity becomes in his dreams a single gaping mouth! What does he see in there?'

They were passing the bench where he had woken up. The old woman was awake now, sitting up and shaking with a piteous expression of terror on her face. Two other New Arrivals, a man and woman, sat either side. The woman cradled the older woman in her arms like a child, and whispered close to her ear. The man looked like he had suppressed his fear in deference to the older woman's worse plight, but his eyes, wide and bird-like, darted frantically. Both looked at him suspiciously as he passed with Eddie and Giacomo. It occurred to him that he must already look more acclimatized to Intermundia Airport, a change in his appearance perhaps brought about by his first concession to the security guards.

Giacomo regarded Eddie with a look half indulgent and half exasperated.
'Do you say this shit to your wife?'
'No, no, of course not. She's a wise woman in her own way, but not intellectual. She likes her creature comforts, and no noise or stress. That's wiser than most women, I can tell you. But this stuff would be far too deep for her. I only share this stuff with you, Giacomo, because I sense that there are deep, deep currents hidden beneath your boorish veneer.'
'Nope, no currents here. Please don't.'
They turned into one of the corridors that branched off from the main terminal. The corridor was empty, and its peculiar acoustics seemed to amplify the absurd conversation of the security guards.
'There are currents, yes, I can tell. You are a thoughtful man. Now – where was I? Yes, what is it that the dentists see? It seems to me that there could be something in the mouth – some hideous asymmetry – that points to a greater truth about the human condition. Perhaps the mark – the scrawled initials – of a cruel or senile creator. And the dentist, by virtue of the nature of his profession, is forced to face this mortally dispiriting truth every day of his professional life, along with a rouge's gallery of misshapen and rotten molars, swimming in a dank miasma of the halitosis. It drives him to despair, you see. He begins to question the whole premise of his profession – that one should fix that which was designed, after all, only to give pain and yield to decay.'
Giacomo snorted.
'Your brain is a hideous asymmetry.'
'Did I ever tell you my theory about why plumbers and pipe-layers tend to be extremely fertile?'
'Please don't.'

They paused at a stairwell. Eddie turned to him. “We're going out to the Central Command Complex, so we have to get a train.” They proceeded down the first of several stairwells. A crowd started to mill around them again, like a tumbling stream. He glanced at the posters on the wall while they descended. They were advertisements composed of a mishmash of religious, historical and commercial iconography. A jolly, rotund Oriental sage demonstrated the virtues of a water-resistant wrist watch. A benevolent, bearded youth enjoyed a carbonated beverage after he had been scourged by a group of soldiers. A collapsing tower emphasized the importance of comprehensive life insurance. Others suggested political and militaristic themes: mobilization of war efforts and nationalistic projects, fomentation of xenophobic panics, evocations of the transcendent power of vast crowds, or a single, abstracted fist clenched in the manic idolatry of an idea. Some of the posters were more abstract or elusive in intention. “TODAY IS TOMORROW'S YESTERDAY” announced one, over an image of a family of skeletons enjoying a summer picnic.

Finally, they arrived at the concourse of a vast underground rail network. As they descended a stately granite staircase, his senses were once again overwhelmed by the scope and bustle of Intermundia Airport. There were five separate train tracks, linked by a system of overpasses. People ascended to the footbridges on escalators, and were then carried smoothly across on mobile walkways, giving the overpasses the appearance of relentless conveyor belts. The tracks moved to a similarly breakneck pace: it seemed as though there was always a train either departing or arriving at each track, producing a vertiginous feeling of panic like that of the old variety show gimmick of spinning plates. He noticed with a kind of sickening jolt that a huge percentage of the crowd was made up of New Arrivals accompanied by one or two security guards. They were hundreds, perhaps thousands of these groups in the underground.

He was momentarily stunned. 'Are all those...?'
Eddie nodded, grinning with fond awe. 'Yes, all new-comers, just like yourself. It never stops. The turn-over is amazing.'
Giacomo regarded him smugly.
'Not so special now, eh?' 

Continued shortly.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Weird, Haunting Art of Graszka Paulska.

Graszka Paulska is a Polish artist based in Warsaw.  Her work is very striking and brilliantly executed:


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Intermundia Airport (Chapter 1).

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate Dim Thule-
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE – Out of TIME.

Edgar Allen Poe, Dream-Land.

Chapter 1.

He woke up and found himself huddled on a bench in a busy airport terminal. If he hadn't been so drowsy he would probably have been alarmed, for he had no memories of anything prior to the intense disorientation of his dreams. He couldn't remember his name, or anything that had ever happened to him, before waking up in that airport terminal.

Holding his nerves at bay, he attempted to get his bearings. He sat up on the bench, and looked around. The terminal was a vast, ovoid-shaped structure, with its latticed ceiling curving high above the activity on the floor. Every surface was white, gleaming and reflective, and through the curving lattice work of the ceiling, and glass walls broken into cubes by white frames, he saw a pure, pulsating blue sky.

In contrast to the sharp clarity of the terminal's appearance, its sound was distant and diffuse, like the low, steady hum of a hidden machinery. Feet clacked on the tiled floor, the walkers becoming upturned shadows that arced across its polished sheen. Their voices coalesced into a happy, bee-like static that ebbed and swelled in waves across the terminal. Behind this sound, a woman's voice rose intermittently to make announcements on a tinny intercom. Her language and accent were so unfamiliar to him, and the effect of her voice so mysterious, that he could only picture her hidden behind a musty black veil, fingering the beads of some forgotten heresy as she made her muffled announcements.

He marvelled at the hive-like bustle of the terminal, its suggestion of a factory that produced steady, minute permutations in the global pattern of human dispersal, and in the private, intangible allotment of human destinies. People moved this way and that, across the busy floor, up escalators and away out of view on mobile walkways. They were all charged with the mingled anxiety and giddy excitement of imminent departure. Here and there, he saw other individuals who appeared, like himself, blear-eyed and disorientated, as though they had just awoken in an unfamiliar skin. He was struck abruptly by an oddity in the whole scene: nobody was carrying luggage of any kind.

Taking all this in, it occurred to him that he had a perfectly adequate memory of the most generalized things. He know what airports were. He knew what airplanes, taxies and buses were. In the broadest strokes, he know what the world was, and how one functioned in it. What he lacked completely was a memory of particular things. This extended beyond his own identity. He tried to remember what year it was, and found he was uncertain which decade. When he tried to remember who was the president of America, no particular president emerged, only a kind of composite image: an energetic, middle-aged man in a suit with a gleaming smile. This happened, again and again, with popular music, fashion and technology. His mind seemed to possess only rough templates, or an awareness of the precursors of things, rather than their present, living instances.

Growing more troubled, he turned his attention back to the terminal. The benches were arranged in rows that faced the terminal's massive electronic display, a black rectangle affixed to the downward curvature of the ceiling. Some of the destinations were immediately familiar to him, evoking second-hand memories of famous landmarks and national stereotypes. Others, he was certain, he had never encountered before, and their names affected him like pieces of music or passages of recondite poetry.

At the bottom centre of the display, a smaller screen was tuned to what he assumed was a news channel. This news channel, however, was subject to an instantly notable and deeply alienating peculiarly: there were no people in it. It alternated between long, static shots of a studio in which two empty chairs regarded the viewer portentously, and wide, rapidly cutting shots of urban locations equally devoid of human presence. When the news programme broke for commercials, he was initially relived to find that these, at least, contained people. However, just as the news reportage lacked its crucial human element, the advertisements were rendered stark by the absence of the objects which were their chief subject. The beaming actors mimed the various pleasures and utilities of absent, notional consumer products, producing an effect which he found almost as forlorn as the empty spaces of the news programme.

Turning back to the people milling about beneath the display, he began to notice other things. There were, as far as he could see, no children in the terminal. He estimated that the average age was somewhere between forty and sixty. He saw one teenager, and some who were in their twenties, but they were outliers. Their clothing had the same indefinite quality which characterized his memories. Most of it was impossible to pin down to any specific decade. Where the clothing did evoke a particular period, it did so in an unconvincing fashion, like a much later recreation for a television show or magazine spread. Finding nothing in the scene to place the terminal in either time or space, he resolved that he had to speak to somebody.

Standing up, he found himself initially dizzy and nauseous. The use of his body felt peculiar, as though his mind floated in a jittery, pliant suit of rubber. After a few steps, however, his body gradually regained its sense of solidity and continuity. The queues to the check-in desks were far too long, so he decided to accost the first person that crossed his path. This turned out to be a women whom he guessed to be in her mid-forties. She had the general appearance of an academic or solicitor: a small, stoutish figure, short brown hair and a kindly bespectacled face.

'Excuse me,' he said, 'please, pardon me, do you speak English?' She paused.
'Yes, yes I do.' A French accent, he thought.
'This will seem like a really strange question. Could you tell me the name of this airport?' She smiled indulgently: 'This is the Intermundia Airport. Or one of them, at any rate.' She was beginning to move away again.
'But, I'm sorry, I really don't know where I am. That name doesn't mean anything to me. What country are we in?' She touched his shoulder gently.
'We aren't in any country, really. Look. I can tell that you are new. All this is very....disorientating and overwhelming at first. But it's okay, you will get used to it. You need to relax, take a deep breath. I assume that you haven't seen your case officer yet?'
'My what?', he enquired, becoming impatient despite himself.
'Your case officer. Have you had a session with your case officer yet?' He could only shake his head. 'Well, you'll be called very soon, to have a meeting with them. They will explain everything to you. Really, it's okay, they'll explain everything.' Her owlish face was beginning to drift back into the crowd. He looked at her imploringly. She patted his shoulder again. 'I can't help you now. But don't worry. Just wait for the meeting. Things will be clearer.' She turned, and walked away.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to stave off his mounting anxiety. He was troubled now by two things. First of all, he was suffering from extreme amnesia. Perhaps worse still, however, his memory was still sufficient to emphasize that his current situation was utterly bizarre and even sinister. Was he dreaming? Though the most desirable solution, he ruled this out almost instantly. He had no doubt that his perceptions were veridical – had he been dreaming, his awareness of the wrongness of everything would have nudged him to wakefulness long ago. Was he going mad? Again, though this might have been an almost reassuring explanation, it seemed untenable. His reasoning felt completely lucid and clear-sighted. What troubled him more than any temporary foible or malfunction of his brain was the conviction that everything around him was real. His amnesia, and the unnerving oddities of the airport terminal, were a related phenomenon.

Was he a political prisoner of some kind? The woman's reference to a case officer suggested that he had fallen under the jurisdiction of some bureaucracy or other. He couldn't persuade himself, however, that the situation was merely political. The airport's unnerving air of insularity and timelessness suggested an order that existed aloof from politics, operating in a place untouched by the world's fluctuating values and fortunes. His suspicion was that something had been done to his mind to render it as neutral and indistinct as the airport itself.

He turned to make his way back to the bench and discovered that the precise location where he had been sleeping was now occupied by an elderly woman. She too was curled up asleep, her face obscured by wan, diaphanous hands clenched as though in prayer. He had to get out of the terminal, and far away and fast. To the right of the benches, through the milling crowds, he saw a row of automatic exit doors bathed in sunlight gleam. He ambled towards them, trying not to let his pace betray his urgency.

Outside in the glare, he found only a vaster sense of confinement. The airport was marooned in an aesthetically spartan landscape of transport hubs, served by a wide, teaming motorway. People were disembarking from taxies and busies at a ramp, and again he noted that none of them carried luggage. Squinting airport staff wheeled empty luggage trolleys along the concourse, imparting a peculiar sense of theatre or ritual. Across the motorway, accessible by an overpass, there was a long, five-story concrete structure, composed of a lattice of narrow conservatory balconies. Elevated above the roof, large unlit neon letters identified the building as the “I  N  T  E  R  M  U  N  D  I  A    O  V E  R  N  I  G  H  T.” The conservatory rooms contained identical furnishing: a two-seater couch and wicker-table facing the glass, and a bureau with a seat facing the wall. A painting hung over the bureaus. Although he couldn't make out the details, it was clearly the same study in each room.

Even from that distance, through the gasoline haze of the motorway, everything in the little conservatories seemed faded, decrepit and somehow mortally dispiriting. Though he had no precise memory of any other, he felt certain that the Intermundia Overnight was among the least welcoming of all hostelries. Many of the conservatories were occupied. The distribution of those who sat facing the glass, and those with their backs turned at the bureaus, formed an eerie binary code. He felt as though the people seated at the wicker-tables watched him with a kind of unwavering intensity, like individuals who have been brutalized by a regime of boredom to the point of cultivating cerebral, highly specialized homicidal tendencies.

Beyond the Overnight, there was a vast parking lot, and after that what appeared to be an exact facsimile of the terminal he had just existed. The harsh concrete terrain of motorway, overpasses and expansive parking lots stretched as far as his eyes could register. Trying to escape on foot was pointless.

Up to that point, a kind of premonitory anxiety had kept his attention focused on the surrounding buildings. Now he looked fully into the blue sky, and his brain reeled. The pulsating quality he had earlier noted was a result of the exhaust fumes of a staggering volume of airplanes. The sky was full of them: the nearer ones like flocks of birds, and those further off like swarms of locusts. Their flight paths seemed to extend indefinitely into the horizon, becoming at the limits of visibility like tiny evening stars. It was a beautiful and terrifying spectacle, a dance of metal fuselages becoming liquid and molten in the sunlight, rising like scattered motes against the crisp, boundless blue.

Continued shortly.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A House is a Machine for Living In: A Warm-up for Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (Part 2).

2. Civilisation and its Discontents.

Something in all men profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn.

Jean Baudrillard.

When considering this possibility, we come up against a contention that is so astonishing that we will dwell on it for awhile. It is contended that much of the blame for our misery lies with what we call our civilisation, and that we should be far happier if we were to abandon it and revert to primitive conditions.

Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents.

In the previous part of this essay, we looked at how influential modernist architects like Le Corbusier believed that a radical new architecture and urban design could produce a stable, happy community of people whose behaviour ultimately emulates the harmonious mathematical order of the buildings in which they live. In Shivers and High-Rise, however, we find the opposite happening. The residents of Starliner apartments (in Cronenberg's film) and Anthony Royal's high-rise (in Ballard novel) do not replicate the mathematical balance of their environments; rather they surrender to the inherent disorder and chaos of their deepest instincts and most primal impulses. There is a double irony at work here: we observe not only anarchy breaking out in a built environment of idealized mathematical simplicity, but also a kind of atavistic reversion taking place in an architecture which was designed to embody the modern, and act as the incubator of the individual and community of the utopian future. Here is the ultimate riposte to the modernist utopia: instead of going boldly into the idealized tomorrow, the residents of the high-rise are regressing back, to the infantile stages of human identity and civilisation. With a vengeance.

We also argued in the previous section that modernity signalled a radical new juncture in how we perceive time. Previous epochs were often enthralled by the myth of the Golden Age – the belief that the past was infinitely better – nobler, more elevated in manner and wisdom – than the present. The present, in this view, was a failing away or degeneration from a prior, more exalted civilisation, destined either to be lost forever or to come back again according to some grand historical cycle. The return of the past is thus something to be welcomed. In the modern era, all this was reversed. Once we conceive of the present as the pinnacle of civilisation, and the future as the potential Golden Age, the return of the past becomes a danger, a creeping menace. We begin to conceive of modern civilisation as a grand albeit precarious achievement, constantly imperilled by the threat of some kind of reversion back to its well-springs in the primitive and barbaric. This attitude developed from a variety of sources: not only the modernist utopianism which we discussed in the previous chapter, but also from a climate of fierce chauvinism and belief in the superiority of western civilisation which flourished in the Victorian period.

The Victorian period in particular was characterised by a widespread anxiety regarding the stability and permanence of civilisation and the hard-won fruits of progress – a fear of the ‘resurgent atavism’ in cultural terms. In biology, an atavism is a throwback, an ancestral trait or characteristic which returns in individual cases after it has been lost for several generations by the species. It is the anomalous return of some characteristic of a prior stage of evolution and form of existence. The concept of the atavism has enjoyed a rich life in the cultural sphere as a metaphor for the sudden resurgence of primitive forms of thought and behaviour in the context of modern civilisation. In its inception, this concept was often aligned with ideologies of social Darwinism and racism; in time though, it has also come to express ambiguous attitudes towards the value and validity of rationalistic modern civilisation. In Shivers and High-Rise, we find a breakout of resurgent primitivism in the modern apartment complex: in Shivers, a return to a greedy, unbounded infantile sexuality, and in High-Rise to both the prior infantile forms of the individual and of human society in general. To contextualise both works, we will look at the theories of Sigmund Freud, a considerable influence on both artists, and in particular his 1929 essay Civilisation and its Discontents

Das Unbehagen in Der Kultur (“The Uneasiness in Civilisation”) was written in the aftermath of World War I, which had been to many a profound blow to the notion of human progress and rational civilisation. What is interesting about the particular unease with civilisation which Freud posits in this essay is that it was not – as in the case of traditional fears of the resurgent atavism – something extrinsic to civilisation. It was not something which civilisation had progressed beyond, something external and alien which might still be observed in the customs of the “less developed” cultures. Rather, Freud argued that a conflict between the primitive and the civilised might be an intrinsic part of the very relationship between the individual and civilisation itself. For Freud, civilisation offered the individual something like a Faustian bargain in reverse. The traditional Faustian bargain offers its recipient the capacity to indulge themselves to the maximal degree – to have no limits placed on their capacity for self-indulgence and self-expression.

Civilisation, on the other hand, offers the following bargain. You will enjoy ever greater levels of security, comfort, hygiene and health. The bounty of intellectual and aesthetic “high” culture – art, philosophy, the sciences – will be yours to enjoy. Your home will be warm and the provision of your food require no foraging, hunting, or sowing. For the greater part of your life, you will be shielded from physical privation, violence and mortal threats. These are the fruits of civilisation. However, in order to maintain them, we have to give something in return: a great measure of our freedom and individuality must be sacrificed. Most crucially for Freud, our instinctual being – our naturally unbounded desires for the gratification of our sexuality and our individual will – must be repressed:

“Thirdly – and this seems the most important point – it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilisation is built up on renunciation, how much it presupposes the non-satisfaction of powerful drives – ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large sphere of inter-personal relations; as we already know, it is the cause of the hostility that all civilisations have to contend with.”

To understand Freud’s view of this tension between the individual and his society, we need to briefly sketch out his well-known structural model of the psyche. Freud saw the outward social individual as the mediation between two conflicting forces: the Id and the superego. In this instance, the Id is the atavism: it is the throwback to our infantile stage as an individual, and pre-civilized state as a species. A confluence of our instinctual desires and urges, the Id desires only instant pleasure and gratification, and recognises no law, no limit, no reason or compromise:

“It is the dark, inaccessible part of your personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of Dreamwork and of course the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations…It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principal.”

The id is held in check by the superego which is the voice of conscience, the authority of the father, the police force of the individual psyche. Out of some kind of compromise between the clamour of our instinctual desires, and the authoritarian stop-brake of our superego, our public, social persona, or ego, emerges. However, as Freud saw it, this compromise, particularly under the demands of advanced civilisation, is rarely satisfactory for the individual. Inside every humble, self-effacing bourgeois lies a violent, priapic barbarian waiting to claw its way out. Inside each of us, like a buried archaeological stratum of private and evolutionary history, resides an infant and a primitive, a creature of unfettered appetite that swells and seethes with every compromise and accommodation to the adult, civilized world.

In this regard, we can see that there is a neat parallelism between Freud's conception of the individual psyche and civilisation as whole. In terms of mass civilisation, the superego corresponds to the coercive forces by which a society maintains its ideological equilibrium and order – not only the physical force represented by military and police, but also the more crucial invisible forms of psychological coercion and conformism which lead individuals to police their own behaviour. The ego corresponds to the outward appearance of society as a smoothly functioning, cohesive whole whose various parts are content with their societal roles and the overall moral structure of their society. Under the surface, however, there remains the society's id – the seething cauldron of individual discontent, of repressed but unvanquished instinctual drives, which constantly threatens the stability of the society from within.

The marvelous lithographic illustrations for Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms in Nature) - via Wikipedia.

Freud's ideas in this regard were influenced by the recapitulation theory of the German biologist and polymath Ernst Haeckel. This theory, roughly stated, holds that the embryonic development of the individual contains within it and repeats in its individual growth the various evolutionary developmental stages of the species – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, ontogeny referring the development of the individual, and phylogeny the collective evolution of the species. In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud argues for a similar conception of the psyche, using the metaphor of an imaginary Rome whose entire history remains permanently present in its current form:

“Now let us make the fantastic assumption that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long, rich past, in which nothing that ever took shape has passed away, and in which all previous phases of development exist alongside the most recent.”

Though discredited as biology, the recapitulation theory has as a certain elegant, resonant quality: the individual organisation becomes a fractal of the species as a whole, and a living museum of its own vast evolutionary history. The idea clearly fascinated Ballard; in The Drowned World he utilized as a “literary device” the notion of the spinal column as a vessel containing “the details of the entire evolutionary development of the human race”:

“I tell how human beings likewise regress into the past. In a certain sense, they climb down their own spinal column. They traverse down the thoracic vertebrae, from the point at which they are air-breathing mammals, to the lumbar region, to the point at which they are they are amphibious reptiles. Finally they reach the absolute past, which on one hand represents the birth of life itself in the hot womb of the primeval jungle, and which in another sense represents their own origins and birthplace in the mother's womb.”

Whether strictly accurate or no, Freud's conjoined notion of the psyche and society as a placid veneer or facade, perpetually threatened by atavistic impulses and instincts that remain perfectly preserved below the surface, was perhaps the most enduring and influential of his ideas throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. It is certainly this central idea informs the narratives of both Shivers and High Rise. Partially funded by the Canadian Film Board and apparently shot in just 15 days, Shivers remains the most extreme, forceful – and “Cronenbergian” - of all Cronenberg flicks. Its first five minutes, in fact, are so gruellingly warped and unsettling that it was almost as though the auteur was trying to instantly jettison any viewers who weren't in it for keeps. The rest of the film is a sustained assault on every orifice the film's bodies and the viewer's mind has to offer – it isn't every film that features a faecal-phallic parasite as its antagonist – perhaps for the best.

Cronenberg's early films have a unique atmosphere which derive partially from the imperfections and artefacts of their production milieu. Shot cheaply with actors of variable ability, and shot through with a chilly, insular Canadian quality, they have a kind of sinister sterility which is increased rather than off-set by soundtracks of gentle, lullaby-like library music. They feel like mutant public information films. It is interesting that Cronenberg's early cinema often focuses on medical scientists whose well-intentioned experiments produce horrifying consequences. In the 50s and 60s, the well-intentioned monster D. Ewen Cameron carried out a series of appalling experiments in psychological conditioning (under the auspices of the CIA's MK-ULTRA programme) in Montreal's Allen Memorial Institute. Some years before, an estimated 20,000 orphaned children (the Duplessis Orphans) had been falsely certified as mentally ill as part of a scheme in Quebec and confined to psychiatric units. Whether a conscious influence or otherwise, these events make Canada an apt location for the emergence of a chilly, medical variety of horror.

The first of Cronenberg's messianic dabblers is Dr Emil Hobbes in Shivers. Like Freud, Hobbes believes that civilisation creates a fundamental cleavage between humans and their natural and instinctual being; he describes man as “an animal who thinks too much” and “an over-rational animal that's lost touch with its body and its instincts.” However, whereas Freud believed that the repression of the instinctual drives was a worthwhile and necessary sacrifice to make in order to maintain civilisation, Hobbes is a libidinal anarchist who believes that western civilisation is itself a mass neurosis that must be cured at all costs. To this end, he develops an artificial parasite which is a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease. This parasite, he hopes, will unleash the libidinal id on a mass scale, and transform the world into “one beautiful mindless orgy.” In this sense, Hobbes follows in a strain of sexual anarchism which developed out of conventional Freudian theory. The first of these outlaws was the equal parts brilliant and demented Wilhelm Reich, whose championing of orgiastic potency as a cure for neurosis lead to him being labelled the “prophet of the better orgasm” and the “founder of a genital utopia.” 

Since Cronenberg is making a horror film, Hobbes' plan to initiate a genital utopia goes Horribly Wrong – as plans which involve the creation of artificial venereal parasites are wont to. On the surface, it might appear that Cronenberg's film expresses an essentially conservative viewpoint: unleash the id, and you open a Pandora's Box of uncontrollable violence and chaos. This was how Robin Wood, a trenchant early critic of Cronenberg, interpreted the film when he saw it at the Edinburgh film festival: “It's derivation is from Invasion of the Body Snatchers via Night of the Living Dead, but the source of its intensity is quite distinct: all the horror is based on extreme sexual disgust.” To take such a view, however, is to misread the very ambiguous nature of Cronenberg's sexual apocalypse in Shivers. The director has often said that he identifies more with the characters after they have been infected – which is to say that a world of sexual anarchy, violence and wanton destruction is somehow preferable to the dull, routinised existence of the middle-class professional. 

Although our modern connotative sense of the word apocalypse is a negative image of total destruction, the literal meaning of the word is a disclosure, an unveiling; a revelation of the true nature of the world. “Something in all men,” Jean Baudrillard wrote, “profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn.” Cronenberg is by intellectual temperament very much a modernist, but he rejoices in seeing the orderly and antiseptic world of the urban bourgeois thorn asunder. For him, the parasite simply unveils the true animal nature of the high-rise dwellers; like the car crash in Ballard's fictions, it reconnects them to their bodies, to the rich, precarious corporeal existence from which they have become disengaged. In Crash and Shivers, disgust in an intrinsic part of the body and sexuality. This idea is expressed in Shivers by Nurse Forsythe (played by ethereal exploitation movie queen Lynn Lowry):

Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I'm having trouble you see, because he's old... and dying... and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.

Continued shortly.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A House is a Machine for Living In: A Warm-up for Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (Part 1).

1. Architecture or Revolution?

In the new beginning that dates from Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture, the machine occupied a central place: its austerity, its economy, its geometric cleanness was claimed almost the sole virtue of the new architecture. Thus the kitchen became a laboratory, and the bathroom took on the characteristics of a surgical operating room; while the other parts of the house, for a decade or so, achieved excellence almost to the degree that they, too, were white, cleanable, empty of human content.

Lewis Mumford, The Case Against “Modern Architecture”, 1962.

The spectacular view always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for this concrete landscape. Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence.

J.G. Ballard, High-Rise, 1975.

The high-rise apartment or office tower is a perennial icon and symbol of the modern world. It embodies the primary characteristics of high modernist architecture: the rejection of ornamentation in favour of cool, minimalist function, and organic complexity in favour of an austere rectilinear geometry; the omnipresence of glass facades and curtain walling, which prompted Lewis Mumford to pithily observe that glass was the only material modern architects were unable to see through. In its clean, uniform character, it evokes the age of the machine and of mass production; in its scale and elevation, the dream of conquering gravity which presided over the twentieth century in a myriad forms. Most of all, the high rise represents the dream of a fully rational, mathematically simple and predictable landscape in which the wilder vagaries of the natural world, and human nature, have been ousted. 

A vertical village in which nobody knows anybody else, the high-rise embodies many of the contradictions of urban life: the close physical proximity and emotional distance of its inhabitants, the merging of their public and private space in its tiers of balconies, corridors and stairwells, allows the high-rise to serve as a model for the city's peculiar conjunction of populousness and alienation. As a symbol of modernity and urbanism, the high-rise carries a variety of different meanings and resonances, and provokes antithetical responses of considerable emotional intensity. An ambiguous entity, it embodies both the utopian and dystopian characteristics of modern life. On the one hand, the high-rise tower block makes us think of the disastrous structures that urban councils built to house (and segregate) the urban poor in the 60s and 70s, with all the morass of crime, deprivation, and hopelessness that resulted. On the other, we think of the luxury high-rise blocks favoured by middle and upper middle-class dwellers as the embodiment of a certain kind of sleek urban elegance - a living space somewhere between home and hotel, safely cloistered in the upper air from the clamour of the streets below.

Apartment Building, Ramat Gran, Israel, 1960-65, (Alfred Neumann, Zvi Hecker and Eldar Sharon) Fuck Yeah Brutalism

Hiliard Center, Chicago, 1964, (Bertrand Goldberg) Fuck Yeah Brutalism

Orange County Government Center, Goshen, New York, 1971, (Paul Rudolph) Fuck Yeah Brutalism

Parish Church for the Resurrection of Christ, Melaten, Germany, 1964-70 (Gottfried Bohm)  Fuck Yeah Brutalism.

Modernist architecture has always been hugely divisive. For some, it has embodied all the failings, aesthetic, intellectual, or spiritual, of modernity itself. A common idea (or ideology) underlying modernity was that it represented a point of total historical novelty in which a new awareness or mode of consciousness was born, wholly unconnected to and unencumbered by the past. This is the essence of modernity conceived as a utopian project: a Manichean conflict between the past, envisioned in a wholly negative light, and the salvation offered by the novelty of the present moment, which contains in utero a future of continual improvement and progress. Modernist architecture was keenly informed by this sense of a radical break with the past, and as such its towers and monuments arose with a brash disregard for their predecessors in time and surroundings in space, serving for some as the harbingers of a new aesthetic order, and others as a crude effacement of the historical continuity of the urban landscape, the city in time which is a living record of its own history.

In the late 1960s and 70s, modernist architecture and urban planning were undergoing a particularly sustained backlash. This perhaps provides a partial explanation for the striking coincidence of two works of art which appeared in 1975: JG Ballard's novel High-Rise and David Cronenberg's feature debut Shivers (They Came from Within.) High-Rise and Shivers are so similar in theme and basic outline that I'd always assumed one must have influenced the other, until I realized that they came out in the same year. 

Both are apocalypses of the middle-class in which the denizens of luxury modernist high rise towers cumulatively descend (or perhaps ascend) into total anarchy and violence. In Ballard's version, a series of small, petty acrimonies gradually escalate into sectarian violence, tribalism, and eventually a total reversion to nomadic primitivism. In Cronenberg's more explicitly psychosexual vision of the high-rise apocalypse, our location is Starliner Towers, a self-contained high-modernist Montreal community where “day to day living becomes a luxury cruise.” Starliner's placid middle-class seclusion is shattered by the spread of an invasive parasite, however, which turns its residents into polymorphously perverse zombies.

Ballard's novel concerns class-warfare and the effective collapse of society, while Cronenberg's movie presents the sexual revolution in fast-forward as a claustrophobic George Romero freak-out. Both works hinge on the same basic set of ironic contrasts: between the sterility of the environment and the eventual anarchy of its inhabitants, between the geometry of modern urban architecture and the disorder which both artists present as seething under the surface of its human residents, or, more succinctly, between the utopian aspirations of modernist urban planning, and the apocalypses which Ballard and Cronenberg stage, both with a distinct gusto, within the confines of its iconic signifier, the high-rise. In this essay, I’m going to look at Shivers and High Rise as critiques of Modernist utopianism which both express Freudian ideas regarding the fragility of civilisation in the form of ambiguous, darkly comic middle-class apocalypses.

In a broad historical sense, the word modern denotes the whole panoply of changes which engulfed society, culture and human identity between the 17th and 20th centuries: the rapid development of the physical sciences, industrialisation, mechanisation, increasing urbanisation, the questioning of traditional values and sources of authority, the emergence of state bureaucracies, and so on. In his study of modernity All That is Solid Melts into Air, Marshall Berman quotes (and derives his title from) Karl Marx's poetic evocation of the profound sense of upheaval engendered by modernity:
“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face....the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”

In a climate of such accelerated change and radical uncertainty, new faiths and foundations were required to replace the old, and a faith in the idea of modernity itself would become increasingly powerful by the twentieth century. This was the belief that all human problems were best served, and could indeed potentially be solved, by the application of scientific, rationalistic, and technocratic means. The world was no longer a conflict between good and evil so much as one between the Utopian promise of the modern present and the dank, superstitious follies of the past.

Lewis Mumford argued that a belief in mechanical progress was the central underlying assumption of modern architecture: “Concealed within this notion was the assumption that human improvement would come about more rapidly, indeed almost automatically, through devoting all our energies to the expansion of scientific knowledge and to technological inventions; that traditional knowledge and experience, traditional forms and values, acted as a brake upon such expansion and invention, and that since the order embodied by the machine was the highest type of order, no brakes of any kind were desirable.” In a similar vein, James C. Scott, writing in Seeing Like a State, describes the high-modernist faith as “a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialisation in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its centre was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature) commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws.”

  Futurist architecture by Antonio Casa Sant'Elia (via wikipedia and rust' n' concrete)

                                                            Futurist art by Tullio Crali.

Among the most extreme of the modernist utopians were the Italian Futurists, an avant-garde movement of the early twentieth century whose work expressed an unqualified rejection of the past, and an altogether rhapsodic mania for the powers unleashed by the industrial age: “Comrades, we tell you now that that the triumphant progress of science makes changes in humanity inevitable, changes that are hacking an abyss between those docile slaves of tradition and us free moderns who are confident in the radiant splendour of our future.” (Manifesto of the Futurist Painters, 1910, F.T. Marinetti.) Everybody was excited to some degree or another by the sweeping march of the modern world; the Futurists were stone drunk on it. Their intoxication focussed on images and themes which would become uniquely expressive of the 20th century, and the youth culture which began to flourish after the wars: the automobile, the airplane, the industrial city, youth, speed and violence. (These same signifiers become hugely prominent in J.G. Ballard’s fiction, albeit viewed from a far more ambiguous perspective.)

The first great modernist Utopian in the architectural sphere was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Grist, an extraordinary man of Swiss-French extraction whom the world came to know by the pseudonym le Corbusier. An indefatigable architect, painter, author, urban planner and visionary, the range of le Corbusier’s talents was amply matched by the hubristic scale of his ambitions. Like the Futurists, le Corbusier had been intoxicated by the sense of immense power embodied in the technological world. In L’Urbanisme (The City of Tomorrow, 1924), le Corbusier describes a kind of “conversion” experience to the faith of modernism. The author is taking an evening stroll on the Champs Elysées, and begins his narrative in a mood of stereotypical alienation from the sound and fury of the modern city. Intimidated by the speeding cars, he broods over the loss of the era of the pedestrian, a quieter, idealized world which moved to a statelier tempo.
An abrupt and total change of heart overtakes him, however; he begins to conceive of the modern world as a tidal wave of energy which the individual can participate in, experiencing almost a theophany of technological animism:
“On the 1st of October, 1924, I was assisting in the titanic rebirth of a new phenomenon….traffic. Cars, cars, fast, fast! One is seized, filled with enthusiasm, with joy…the joy of power. The simple and naïve pleasure of being in the midst of power, of strength. One participates in it. One takes part in this society that is just dawning. One has confidence in this new society: it will find a magnificent expression of its power. One believes in it (cited in All That is Solid Melts into Air). ”

Le Corbusier sought to create the architecture of this bold new society, and his project is suffused with all the galvanizing energy, as well as the unsettling autocratic undertones, of the above passage. He becomes the theorist, prophet and practitioner of a new Machine Age design aesthetic, with his hugely influential 1923 manifesto Towards a New Architecture providing the iconic slogan “A House is a Machine for Living In.” His dreams are grandiose in scale, requiring the construction of whole cities from scratch. The Ville Contemoraine, an unrealized project from 1920, encapsulates many of Le Corbusier’s ideas about urbanism, and is a quintessential example of the Utopian mega-city of the future which would become the dystopian backdrop of science fiction like Judge Dredd and Blade Runner. Designed to house three million inhabitants, the focal-point of the Ville was its 24 imposing, glass curtain-walled cruciform apartment/office blocks, “towers in a park” which formed the commercial district, separated by rectangular green-belts from the residential and industrial areas. The plan shows Le Corbusier’s extreme commitment to functionalism in urban design: a network of buses, trains, high-ways, and even roof-top airports makes the intervening spaces almost redundant. The city is divided very strictly into residential and work spaces, with the traditional city’s tendency to produce bricolages of mixed function and purpose eliminated by wide open spaces, traversed by the modern miracle of rapid transportation.

Sketches for the Ville Contemporaine, via FONDATION LE CORBUSIER.

In 1925, Le Corbusier proposed demolishing two square miles of the north bank of the Seine in order to facilitate a smaller version of the ideas embodied in the Ville Contemoraine. His description of the proposed development (Plan Voisin) is typically lyrical and rhapsodic, transforming the office towers into weightless, almost spiritual entities:

“I shall ask my readers to imagine they are walking in this new city, and have begun to acclimatize themselves to its untraditional advantages. You are under the shade of trees, vast lawns spread all round you. The air is clear and pure; there is hardly any noise. What, you cannot see where the buildings are ? Look through the charmingly diapered arabesques of branches out into the sky towards those widely-spaced crystal towers which soar higher than any pinnacle on earth. These translucent prisms that seem to float in the air without anchorage to the ground - flashing in summer sunshine, softly gleaming under grey winter skies, magically glittering at nightfall - are huge blocks of offices.”

Most of Le Corbusier's grander schemes remained unrealized (the closest he got to working on such a vast scale were his contributions to the planned city of Chandigrarh in the north of India.) On more modest terms, however, we find his ideas realized in the Unité d'habitation residential block in Marseille which is often called the Cité radieuse (Radiant City). Built in béton brut (rough-cast concrete) because of post-war steel frame shortages, the Cité radieuse formed the inspiration for the confrontational Brutalist school of architecture which Wheatley and his designers seem to have adopted for Anthony Royal's buildings in the High-Rise movie. Suspended on large piloti containing 237 apartments over 12 floors, it is a fascinating, ugly/beautiful monolith of a building. Also incorporating shops, restaurants, medical and sporting facilities, even a hotel open to the public, the Unité d'habitation provides us the classic model of the self-contained, utopian “city in the sky” which we find satirised in Shivers and High-Rise.

                   Photos by Paul Koslowski, via FONDATION LE CORBUSIER.

What Le Corbusier and like-mined modernists sought to combat most of all was the normal organic evolution of cities. Traditionally, cities and urban settlements developed in an unplanned fashion, following the changing needs of their citizenry. For the modernists, infused by a passion for idealized mathematical order, this produced only a chaos, a detestable hodgepodge. The city street is noteworthy for its randomness: it leads us to chance encounters, unexpected detours, and the experience of various street theatres of public exhibitionism and desperation, pathos and comedy. This was unacceptable to the modernists; they sought in a very real sense to destroy the street. This was because they had a keen appreciation of what is today called pyschogeography, allied to an ideology of muscle-bound modernism.

The environment in which we live and work is not merely a series of functional or aesthetically pleasing locations that we use and enjoy in the course of our daily activities. Rather, the environment is an intrinsic part of our total experience. Like the food that we eat and the books that we read, it becomes a part of us, and has a profound, though often quite subliminal effect on our mental lives. As a corollary to the general mystery surrounding how the mental and physical interact with one another, place and mind are intertwined in various subtle ways. Le Corbusier and his disciples were not only aware of this, but they believed that urban planning was explicitly a form of social planning and control. Le Corbusier believed that there was a Plan, as unique and precise as the solution to an equation, for the design of urban settlements, which, once instigated, would inevitably yield a perfectly harmonious society. This was the meaning of his polemical slogan/question Architecture or Revolution? Environments are no longer to be determined by the unpredictable behaviour of people and history; rather this situation is reversed, so that a centrally planned and controlled environment begins to determine the behaviour of people and history.

This was why the modernists dreamed of razing vast areas of existing cities, and building new ones from scratch. Like contemporary neoliberal economists, they saw no room to gradually implement change; the world had to be remade in the image of their ideology. It is reductive, however, to view le Corbusier and early modernist architecture exclusively in the light of its dubious political underpinnings, and the ultimate failure of modernist urban planning. To do so, at any rate, overlooks his brilliance as an artist, and the fact that his buildings, viewed in isolation from his troubling manifestos, were often striking, even beautiful creations. Nevertheless, by the late sixties, the modernist ethos of urbanism was increasingly being viewed as a failure. Jane Jacobs' 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was an influential critique, and a powerful argument for the spontaneity and ecological intelligence of the organic street over the mono-functional blocks of the modernist dream. In the waning fortunes of the high-rise in Great Britain, we find probably the most direct influence on Ballard's High-Rise: Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower. Goldfinger was a six-foot tall, taciturn Hungarian-born architect who moved to London in the '30s. He occupies a somewhat comical place in pop culture history: Ian Fleming found his architecture and general character disagreeable enough to christen the quintessential James Bond villain in his honour. When Goldfinger threatened legal action, a farcical clash between the two ensued, with Fleming threatening to change the name to Goldprick before the matter was settled out of court.

Commissioned by the London Council in 1966 for social housing in North Kensington, the 98 metre concrete behemoth of Trellick Tower is today regarded as a fashionable London icon. In its early years, however, it was nick-named the “Tower of Terror,” having acquired a reputation for litter, mechanical failure, and an epidemic of serious crimes and sexual assaults.

Top photograph by Andy Spain.  Bottom image found at London From the Rooftops.

Continued shortly.