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'Is it burning yet?': The buildings behind J G Ballard's writing

JG Ballard was inspired by the Westway and the Trellick Tower, discovers Ed Frith

Is it burning yet?, 10 March, Greenwich University School of Architecture, London SE9 2PQ

The title of Sibylle Heil’s lecture, ‘Is it burning yet?’, comes from JG Ballard’s latest novel, Kingdom Come (2006). The quote refers to the book’s setting, a mega-shopping mall, modelled on Kent’s Bluewater shopping centre, in a society in thrawl to fascist state.

Heil – an artist and teacher at Greenwich University School of Architecture – revealed a series of buildings that inspired Ballard’s vision, characterised by ‘dystopian modernity and bleak manmade landscapes’, according to the Collins English Dictionary.

His fascination with aerial roads and tower blocks sees the arrival of Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975). Heil concentrated on the Westway aerial road (1970) and Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower (1972) as the archetypal edifices in Ballard’s West London surrealist creative existence.

Ballard’s theory, outlined in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), was that ‘as we move towards a more and more psychotic landscape, psychotic traits are signs of a kind of Darwinian adaptation.’ In High Rise, Ballard’s architect Anthony Royal lives at the top of the pile – in the penthouse – until societal and physical structures break down. The lift breaks, violence is the norm, and the swimming pool becomes the mortuary.

Goldfinger lived at the top of his Balfron Tower (1968) – the East London predecessor of the Trellick – when it was first built ‘to publicise its qualities’. Within a few months, he moved out, retreating to Willow Road in Hampstead, before the possible arrival of his own Ballardian world.

Resume: Ballard gets rich pickings as Ernö’s crystal world comes crashing down

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