Stereoscopic urbanism


In JG Ballard’s ‘The Sound-Sweep’, the sonic strata of everyday urban life – a ‘frenzied hypermanic babel of jostling horns, shrilling tyres, plunging brakes and engines’ – is so without respite that it is literally embedded within walls and surfaces and must be vacuumed away with a device called the ‘sonovac’. The central character, Mangon, is a mute who has developed hyperacute hearing, making him a valued soundsweep.

His main client is Madame Gioconda, an ex-opera singer whose career ended with the advent of ‘ultrasonic music’. Ultrasonic producers electronically rescore classical symphonies into musical notation that operates on a subliminal level, making use of the sensorium beyond the normal range of the human ear. Supposedly the new music, ostensibly silent, has richer texture, theme and emotion, but whether this is merely a placebo effect to placate the frazzled masses remains ambiguous.

Mangon strives to resurrect Gioconda’s career, but when he does eventually stage her comeback, she botches it, her voice so cracked, out of practice and out of tune that it causes great distress to all who hear it. The story ends with Mangon driving off in his sound truck as he turns on the vehicle’s inbuilt sonovac – filled with the city’s sonic detritus – to drown out Gioconda singing like an ‘insane banshee’. Effectively, Mangon manipulates the sounds of the city to assuage his psychological turmoil.

Ballard’s story anticipates R Murray Schafer’s World Soundscape project, which aimed to reduce the noise pollution of industrial environments in favour of an ‘acoustic ecology’, eliminating so-called ‘bad’ sounds in favour of prescribed ‘good’ sounds, returning to ‘the Ursound’ supposedly found in nature, where, Schafer rhapsodises, ‘listening blindly to our ancestors and the wild creatures, we will feel it surge within us again, in our speaking and in our music’. But as Geoff Manaugh notes: Where the Project went wrong … was when it thought it had a kind of sonic monopoly over what sounded good. Industrial noises would be scrubbed from the city … and a nostalgic calm … infused in its place. Think church bells, not automobiles. But where would such sensory cleansing leave those … who enjoy the sounds of factories?’

For Ballard, too, neither full reliance on technology (represented by the sterile, calming aesthetic of ultrasonic music) nor the reactionary turn to nostalgia and a safe retreat into the past (ie Mangon’s initial deification of the opera singer) is posited as an adequate solution. Instead, a middle ground is sought, a strategy found throughout his career, grounded in the sense that the built environment must be met on its own terms.

In the novella ‘The Ultimate City’, Ballard moves beyond Mangon’s half-aware thumbnail sketch and into a three-dimensionality: a full-scale cognitive remapping. A future ecotopia, Garden City, has developed wind power and alternative technologies after New York has fallen into ruins from the exhaustion of fossil fuels. The central character, Halloway, dissatisfied with what he sees as the dulling of the imagination in Garden City, with its organic conformity, makes his way back to the abandoned New York, where he attempts to restart the metropolis and its power supplies. Significantly, it is the noise of the city that he misses and that he is inescapably drawn to. With the help of Olds (another mute), Halloway manages to restart the generators and power supplies of a small sector of the city, bringing to life neon and traffic lights, while broadcasting soundeffects records of automobile and aircraft noise: Halloway moved from one apartment to the next, flicking lights on and off, working the appliances in the kitchens. Mixers chattered, toasters and refrigerators hummed, warning lights glowed in control panels … Television sets came on, radios emitted a ghostly tonelessness interrupted now and then by static from the remote-controlled switching units of the tidal pumps twenty miles away.

It was only now, in this raucous light and noise, that the city was being its true self, only in this flood of cheap neon that it was really alive ….

Like Mangon, but on a grander scale, Halloway tunes the city rather than shutting it out, rejecting the sterile, affectless Garden City for a complete reimagining and re-envisaging of the city’s technological grid, including the acoustic footprint that so disturbed the inventors of ultrasonic music. This time, the story anticipates the Positive Soundscapes research project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and comprising five British universities, which aims to convince architects and town planners to think beyond the traditional focus on reducing noise levels and to pay attention instead to ‘the many possibilities for creating positive environments in the soundscapes in which we live. People can completely change their perception of a sound once they have identified it. In the laboratory, many listeners prefer distant motorway noise to rushing water, until they are told what the sounds are.

I have cited these examples of urban sound in Ballard because they represent the key components of a framework he uses to critique the psychological and perceptual dimensions that are saturated in the built environment, but that seem lacking in the discourse that generates architectural practice. In a sense, Ballard’s work is about nothing but the built environment. It is often said that technology and the liminal zones of suburbia and nonplace urban fields are his main characters, and indeed the buildings and zones he erects – the motorway system in Crash, the apartment block in High-Rise (‘an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence’), the secessionist shopping centre in Kingdom Come – all seem imbued with an artificial intelligence determined to eradicate human life as if it were a disease.

This is a gambit that brings sociologist Ron Smith’s observation into stark relief: ‘If you want to see what’s wrong with architecture today, pick up the latest issue of almost any architectural design magazine. They’re filled with pictures of interesting architecture, but you rarely see any people actually using those buildings.’11 In Ballard, trends (and flaws) in architectural design are pursued to their logical extremes, and then bent backwards or forwards through time to go completely beyond logic. In the real world, people might complain about an escalator too far away from a baggage chute in an airport or a concourse in a mall that heats up too quickly, or overly processed floors that make far too much noise when walked upon. In Ballard, the unspoken tension and psychopathology engendered by such scenarios is recycled, reheated and allowed free rein to play itself out to the bitterest of ends.

In High-Rise, which charts the breakdown of the social order in a neo-Corbusian residential building, at first it is the little things that niggle. These then overlay and overlap, each new escalation of hostilities a clear and logical progression from the previous strata, however bizarre each incident might seem in isolation. Parents find that the building hasn’t been designed for children: there is no free, open space, only ‘someone else’s car park’. Shared garbage disposal causes anxiety and division between residents. Raucous parties occur on the upper floors, and residents in ‘better-sited apartments’ are unsympathetic to those living below them. Dog owners are attacked for allowing their pets to urinate and defecate in the elevators, culminating in the fateful moment when one resident’s Afghan hound is drowned in the swimming pool.

Thereafter, things really take off: incidents of violent aggression morph into tribal skirmishes and warring groups cut off escalator access, barricading their apartments and ‘Balkanising’ the middle section of flats to form a buffer zone. Yet, after the system has collapsed and failed, what we are left with is more than a mere glimmer of hope, and clearly akin to a programme of resistance based on emergent psychologies and a radical new approach to the built environment: ‘Even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways.

Yet just as Positive Soundscapes has encountered resistance in persuading architects and engineers to reevaluate environmental sound, ‘perhaps because of barriers to communication across different disciplines chances are you will not find Ballard on the syllabus. According to Nic Clear, who has used Ballard’s work as an aid in architectural learning: ‘Within academia and architectural criticism, if such a thing still exists, there is a general disdain for “popular” fiction – writing on, and about, architecture is still very elitist – and I have met quite a bit of resistance when discussing Ballard as a serious subject.

Yet architects have no compunction about appropriating critical theory to their own ends. Peter Eisenman drew heavily on Deleuze and Baudrillard for his conception of ‘interstitial’ architecture and ‘blurred zones’, where the aim was to examine the way the virtual has invaded the actual, displacing architecture’s traditional role as an anchor for the real. Eisenman’s ‘philosophy lite’ sought to invite architecture to explore conceptual spaces located within the ‘folds’ of the built environment, with the aim of ‘refram[ing] existing urbanism, to set it off in a new direction’. But surely the theory of Deleuze (which has more than a few correspondences with the work of Ballard) is designed to inspire affirmation in the reader, the user, the inhabitant; surely it must be tangible and must work in practice, in real-world terms, in that it must inspire thought and positive action to affirm its validity.

That to me seems the Deleuzian ideal – indeed, the Ballardian ideal. It would seem apposite to say the majority of criticism of Eisenman’s buildings implies that not only are most users unaware of the inner workings of the ‘process of the interstitial’ that built the thing, but that in the final product antagonism and negation is placed before affirmation and interaction. As Roger Kimball writes: When we encounter a stairway that leads nowhere … we need [Eisenman’s] help to understand that we are being given a lesson in linguistic futility. Otherwise we might foolishly conclude that it was just a stairway that led nowhere and wonder about the sanity of the chap who paid the architect’s bill.

Ballard is interested in urbanism and spatial dynamics as a way to understand the city as narrative. The psychological dimension of urban life plays an important part, ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ the city on a sensory level. Indeed, he should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in making architecture more ‘user friendly’, or to anyone who thinks that architecture should be more than a series of shiny icons designed by remote starchitects. In this, he is ideally matched with the aims of Smith, who believes that ‘to become truly great architects [architecture students] also have to be great social psychologists, community sociologists, and organizational theorists, and also those of Michael Kroelinger, who teaches a course in ‘Architectural Sociology’ at the University of Nevada that ‘underscores the importance of understanding people’s values, needs, and attitudes, from an individual level to an organizational one’.

Architects: read, study and learn from Ballard’s writing. Because it should not be the job of the architect to build worlds and indulge the luxury of allowing them to fail at our expense, but that of the writer, the constructor of virtual worlds that live, breathe and, indeed, die in virtuality so that we, in the actual, do not have to expire to prove a point. Only then should we overlay the virtual with the actual to create a stereoscopic representation, a truly interstitial process that places the user at the centre with the power to inform, direct, stage and manage the terms of his or her movement through time and space, perhaps nudging us one step closer to a read/write city in which we are free to ‘tune’ the built environment, free to contribute to the conditions of our cohabitation.

In fact, an interdisciplinary, specifically Ballardian approach may be exactly what is required to shake architecture out of its ‘business as usual’ mentality, forcing it to confront the global economic and environmental crises just over the horizon. Ask the question: is another ‘shiny, happy’ building really what we want or need to see or inhabit?

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