J.G. Ballard’s ‘Voluntary Prisoners’: Dystopian Architecture and Space in ‘High-Rise’ and ‘The Enormous Space’

Following on from my review of J.G. Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’, I thought I’d post my essay that I mentioned for anyone that is interested. It goes a bit more in-depth into the utopia / dystopia balance, and explores the concept of dystopian architecture with the novel, alongside Ballard’s short story ‘The Enormous Space’

I hope you find it interesting!

Kerry ☮


James Graham Ballard is arguably one of the most distinguished science fiction authors of recent times. His unusual themes and literary style makes his work highly distinctive; so much so that he has coined his own adjective. The term ‘Ballardian’ has come to mean ‘suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments’ (Collins English Dictionary, 2015). Ballard has drawn inspiration from the modern, built environment and in particular the utopian dream of modern architecture and his novel, ‘High-Rise’, is typical to this Ballardian style. Ballard’s short story, The Enormous Space’, draws on his fascination with, and experience of, suburbia. Using these two works, I wish to explore the notion of the ‘voluntary prisoner’ in science fiction architecture and space, drawing on the critical ideas of Rem Koolhaas’ ‘Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture’. In particular, I want to engage in the paradox Koolhaas puts forward which is that the condition of the freedom that new architecture sells is imprisonment. This concept of freedom through architecture is the utopian vision that Ballard explores in these two texts. The idea of people giving up freedom for the promise of a better life will be explored, and whether this science fictional architecture provides the utopia both the architects and the ‘prisoners’ are searching for. Furthermore, I want to examine how these utopian ideas rapidly deteriorate and become distinctly dystopian. Ultimately, Ballard’s relationship with modern architecture will be considered and he why believes architecture can influence the human psyche or ‘inner space’, and if it is possible to be a ‘voluntary prisoner’ within this ‘inner space’.

High-Rise’ takes place in a modern, luxury high-rise tower block in which the tenants are intelligent and wealthy, and belong to the middle and upper classes of society. The tower block provides many services for its’ tenants, some of which include a bank, a supermarket and even a school. Within the first pages of the novel, there are already warnings signs that the high-rise is set on isolating its’ tenants from the outside world. It is revealed early on that Robert Laing, the novel’s protagonist, is ‘delighted with this glut of conveniences [and] made less and less effort to leave the building’ (Ballard, 2014, p.9). This is the first example the reader experiences of a tenant giving himself to be a ‘voluntary prisoner’. Laing, like all the other residents of the tower block, believes that having all the conveniences within the building frees them. McGrath personifies the building itself and argues that it is ‘a sort of giant robot “mother” [because] the building has been designed to cater to all the physical needs of its occupants’ (2004). It could be suggested that Ballard has drawn inspiration from Le Corbusier for the character of Anthony Royal. Corbusier has been hailed ‘the greatest twentieth-century architect and certainly the most influential’ (Berman, 1983, p.75). Corbusier’s ideas were believed that architecture ‘must be totally machine-like and functional’ (Hall, 2002, p.220). Within the novel itself, the building is described as ‘huge animate presence […] the residences […] were the cells in a network of arteries, the lights […] the neurones of a brain’ (Ballard, 2014, p.40). The tenants of the high rise are waited on by the services of the building which ‘provided a never-failing supply of care and attention that a century earlier would have needed an army of tireless servants’ (Ballard, 2014, p.10) and this reflects the argument made by van Winden who states that a utopic environment is ‘where man is facilitated as efficiently, livably and logically as possible’ (2011). If van Winden’s argument is taken to be true, then Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’ can be considered a utopia. In further support of this, it is the breakdown of these services that ultimately lead to violent and primal gangs of residents forming within the tower. The convenience of being a self-contained unit is described by Laing as being highly desirable which results in him in become a ‘voluntary prisoner’.

Architecture that serves the desires and needs of the individual is a concept which is explored in Koolhaas’ ‘Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture’, which has in fact been termed ‘Ballardian’ by Garcia-Fenech (2012). This project of Koolhaas’ alludes to the Berlin Wall, a major contemporary issue; like West Berlin at the time, Koolhaas’ architectural design became a condition of freedom by self-imprisonment (Lucarelli, 2011). In other words, those who wish to pass the ‘Wall’ voluntarily submit themselves to never leaving it. Similarly to the tower block of ‘High-Rise’, Koolhaas describes the new architecture of the ‘Strip’ as ‘the hedonistic science of designing collective facilities that fully accommodate individual desires (1972, p.7). One glaring example of this is the ‘Baths’; these ‘Baths’ consist of rooms or ‘cells’ and are ‘equipped to encourage indulgence and to facilitate the realization of fantasies and social inventions; they invite all forms of interaction and exchange’ (Koolhaas, 1972, p.13). These cells provide a safe and private place for the residents to act on and carry out their desires, and encourage them to embrace their wants. This is important twofold. Firstly, Koolhaas’ use of the word ‘cell’ is highly evocative of a prison and juxtaposes the apparent freedom that the building is allowing its’ tenants. Secondly, it could be argued that Koolhaas is suggesting that embracing one’s primal desires allows freedom from what the rest of society would deem acceptable’ as Koolhaas states the ‘Baths’ bring ‘hidden motivations, desires, and impulses to the surface’ (1972, p.13).

The freedom that comes from embracing primal violence and highly irrational behaviour can also be witnessed in ‘High-Rise’ and can also be considered utopian. The transition from respectable behaviour to downright barbarism escalates rapidly. From the day the last apartment is moved in to, or has reached ‘critical mass’ (Ballard, 2014, p.15), minor conflicts start to occur throughout the building (this is an interesting choice of phrase used by Ballard. Critical mass, when used in physics, is the minimum amount of material needed to cause a nuclear chain reaction. With the residents’ behaviour in decline, Ballard is suggesting that there would be enough people to create a domino effect or chain reaction, creating an unstoppable (and even irreversible) situation. In this case, it is the deterioration of the tenants’ social behaviour). It begins with rowdy late night parties, and rivalry between parents and dog-owners; although these seem to be insignificant squabbles, the tension is tangible and as Laing states he ‘was waiting for something to happen’ (Ballard, 2014, p.28). However, this atmosphere of tension appears to received well. Far from being anxious or frightened, Laing describes how ‘a pleasant carnival atmosphere reigned’ which ‘made a change […] from the formal behaviour of the high-rise’ (Ballard, 2014, p.29). This utopian shift occurs because the tenants are beginning to break free from social conventions, or the ‘formal behaviour’, they usually act out. Furthermore, it seems that the more their behaviour declines, the happier the residents of the high-rise become. These minor inconveniences progress into vandalism, sporadic acts of violence and culminate in total abandonment of moral and social etiquette. The residents live in hunter/gather like groups and use the pets of the high-rise as their main food source,and eventually turn to cannibalism. The tenants seem to be relishing this; Laing describes his feeling towards the new social order:

[…] he was far happier now than ever before, despite all the hazards of life, the likelihood that he would die at anytime from hunger or assault. He was satisfied by his self-reliance, his ability to cope with the tasks of survival […] (Ballard, 2014, p.154)

By embracing his most primal desires, Laing is happier than he has ever been. It seems the thrill of danger plays a part in this, leaving behind the banality of normal everyday life. Whilst Laing and other residents revel in this primitive utopia, the reader recognises that the high-rise has become an isolated dystopia. The residents of the tower block believe they are living a utopian life because they are free from social constraints and can act out their most primal desires, in a similar way to Koolhaas’ megastructure which claims to cater to every individual’s fancy. However those who live within Ballard’s high-rise will not leave and become anxious when they do. I would argue that the residents are ‘voluntary prisoners’; it is not that they cannot leave, ‘Fortunately, leaving the high-rise  was easier than moving around within it’ (Ballard, 2014, p.101), but they choose not to.

In terms of High-Rise, it is interesting to consider that the tower block was deliberately built and set up to provoke such primitive behaviour and dystopian living. Jones (2009) argues that this is the case and draws on this particular quote to support this:

Without knowing it, he had constructed a gigantic vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other. All the events of the past few months made sense if one had realised that these brilliant and exotic creatures had learnt to open the doors. (Ballard, 2014, p.134)

This quote refers to Anthony Royal who is the architect of the high-rise, and who lives in the building on the top floor. The use of the word ‘zoo’ highlights that the building houses animalistic behaviour but also serves as a prison to contain it. A detached and omniscient narrator takes the reader through the story and gives the sense of a scientist reporting and observing the events taking place. Jones argues that this metaphor suggests that ‘the structure of the high-rise may have been simply a nurturing ground for the behaviour provoked within it, the source of which was innate’  (Jones, 2009, p.262). Furthermore, Jones believes that the failings of the infrastructure of the high-rise were deliberate in order to give rise to such behaviour; I would argue this to be true and also that the breakdown of the building’s services reflects the social and moral breakdown of the tenants. I argue that the high-rise building itself not only mirrors the tenants behaviour, but serves as a catalyst to provoke the decline of social and moral rules. I would also suggest that although the residents of the high-rise believe they have a new-found freedom, they are trapped within the high-rise itself and are ‘voluntary prisoners’.

The concept of the ‘voluntary prisoner’ is very apparent within ‘High-Rise’; the residents choose to remain within the walls of the building because they believe they have found how to live their loves in freedom. The ‘voluntary prisoner’ notion can also be found in Ballard’s short story ‘The Enormous Space’ although it is very different story in many respects. Far from the crowded, urban tower block, ‘The Enormous Space’ is set in the London suburbs and follows the journey of one character instead of the collective residents of High-Rise. Gerald Ballantyne is a calm and courteous man who embodies modern suburbia (Collinson, 2003) but embarks on an ‘experiment’ of sorts which sees him staying indoors indefinitely and develops an unwillingness to leave his house, and eventually he refuses to leave his kitchen. Just like ‘High-Rise’ becomes the prison of Laing and Royal, Ballantyne’s home in suburbia serves as his.

In ‘The Enormous Space’, Gerald Ballantyne suffers a car crash a few months previous which led to a period of convalescence, and is expected back to work on the day the story begins. To add to his ‘unending problems’ (Ballard, 1989, p.1130) he has recently become divorced from his wife. Ballantyne consciously decides that he will stay inside his house because he believes that it will solve the problems he has been experiencing; he states that ‘To shut out the world, and solve all my difficulties at a stroke, I had the simplest of weapons – my own front door’ (Ballard, 1989, p.1130-1). Ballantyne believe that he is creating a utopian way of living for himself; according to Sellars (2012) ‘he convinces himself that he is free to do as he pleases […] since he is supposedly acting true to his imagination’. Although it is obvious to the reader that Ballantyne has become a prisoner within his own home, he believes that by doing this, he has set himself free.

Gerald Ballantyne of ‘The Enormous Space’ voluntarily imprisons himself in his suburban home in search of a utopian freedom from his unhappy former life in a similar way to Laing and the residents of ‘High-Rise’ become ‘voluntary prisoners’ within the tower block to embrace a freer way of living; in both cases, their utopia derives from the abandonment of and freedom from expected social behaviour and morals. In both cases, it is interesting how these utopian ideals rapidly deteriorate in dystopia. This idea is reflected in Koolhaas’ ‘Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture’ which promises ‘totally desirable alternatives’ (1972, p.7), such as the ‘Baths’ previously mentioned, but there is a dystopian undercurrent that is present throughout. Felicity Scott suggests that one aspect of such dystopian undertones present in ‘Exodus’ is the concept of the social condenser. This concept originates in Soviet Russia in the 1920’s and can be defined as:

[…] a space or volume that causes the overlap and intersection of different programs and agendas, bringing people together for an eventual shared purpose by which they are united by way of ‘social collision’. (Housing+ Wiki, 2008)

The premise that architecture can influence behaviour is central to the concept of the social condenser. One of the most famous examples of a social condenser is the Narkomfin building, built in Moscow in 1932. It was designed to promote communal living; by offering communal facilities such as a nursery, restaurant and gymnasium. The aim of the architect, Moisei Ginzburg, was to create a ‘Communist utopia’ (World Monuments Fund, 2006); the building was meant to free its’ inhabitants from the housing concerns of the working class or what Trotsky deemed ‘household slavery’ (Wolfe, 2013). There are several similarities between the Narkomfin building and Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’ tower block. The ‘glut of conveniences’ (Ballard, 2014, p.9) provided by the high-rise seems to mirror those provided by the Narkomfin building but, as previously discussed, what appears to be the ultimate convenience can lead to voluntary imprisonment. The similarities also extend to the freedom from the social norms; the Soviet Urbanist Leonid Sabsovich believed that such living would lead to the obliteration of marriage and property, and that there would be freer sexual relations (Wolfe, 2013). There is a similar suggestion in ‘High-Rise’ has Laing states ‘Sex was one thing […] that the high-rise potentially provided in abundance’ (Ballard, 2014, p.13). Although the concept of the social condenser appears to promote freer relationships and freedom from ‘household slavery’, it is not the utopian freedom that it claims to be. Koolhaas states that his building is a social condenser and that it ‘brings hidden motivations, desires, and impulses to the surface to be refined for recognition, provocation, and development’ (1972, p.13). The architecture brings the residents’ desires to the surface but does not allow them to carry out and fulfil as they wish; instead their desires must be ‘refined’ to conform to the new community. Whilst Koolhaas’ building gives the residents the illusion of freedom by promoting the fulfilment of desires, they instead become ‘voluntary prisoners’ of the architecture in which every aspect of their lives is controlled.

In contrast to the social condenser notion (which is that communal living is the utopian future), Oscar Newman suggests that communal living can lead to vandalism and violence because there is no clear sense of identity or control (1996, p.11). Newman uses the example of Pruitt-Igoe, a large housing development that was built in Missouri in the 1960’s. In a striking similarity to ‘High-Rise’, Newman describes the state of disrepair that Pruitt-Igoe falls into:

The corridors, lob­bies, elevators, and stairs were dangerous places to walk. They became covered with graffiti and littered with garbage and human waste.

[…] garbage was stacked high around the choked garbage chutes. Women had to get together in groups to take their children to school and go shopping. (Newman, 1996, p.10)

The tower block of ‘High-Rise’ suffers the same fate, ‘[…] plastic sacks filled with garbage blocked the entrances to individual floors […] Almost everything possible had been vandalised’ (Ballard, 2014, p.101). Newman argues that communal spaces, such as corridors, become anonymous and the residents struggle to ‘exert proprietary feelings’ (1996, p.12) over these spaces. The corridors with ‘High-Rise’ do not seem to be a part of a bigger utopian living space; in fact quite the opposite. The corridors are dark and dirty, and are the scenes of some various acts of violence. When comparing his work withI ‘High-Rise’, I would disagree with Newman. I would argue that the violence and vandalism do not occur because of the lack of proprietary feelings towards the communal areas but in fact the residents are competing to own these areas and use vandalism and violence to mark and defend their territory. They group together in ‘informal clans spanning two or three floors based on the architecture of corridors, lobbies and elevators (Ballard, 2014, p.65). These primitive acts of territorial marking and defence are a part of the residents embracing their most primal desires. Newman supports the idea that, whether or not his arguments are accepted to be true, that it is the architecture itself that creates the fall from utopia to dystopia. It is the communal nature of the certain areas of the building that give rise to and perpetuate acts of violence from residents towards other residents and also towards the building itself.

Koolhaas presents an architectural phenomenon that claims to cater to individuals desires but it instead only brings the desires to surface and then reforms them to fit a purpose controlled by an unknown totalitarian. This results in a lack of freedom for the tenants to carry out and enjoy what they want. Not only are they emotional prisoners, they are physically imprisoned within the walls. There is a sense that they are constantly being monitored:

The Allotments are well supervised so that both external and internal disturbances can be avoided, or at least quickly suppressed. Media intake in this area is nil. Papers are banned, radios mysteriously out-of-order, the whole concept of “news” ridiculed […] (Koolhaas, 1972, p.19)

The residents are ‘well supervised’ but it is not clear by who; these ‘supervisors’ suppress any incident they feel are disturbances. Furthermore, the residents have no access to the world beyond the wall. I would argue that despite the initial illusion of freedom and hedonism, there is no freedom as everyone has to conform or fit in. Freedom from societal restraints is a central theme in ‘The Enormous Space’. Ballantyne, in a darkly humorous contrast to the tedious unspoken rules of suburbia, reverts to primitive behaviours of trapping and eating his neighbours pets and even cannibalises the television repair man. The sense of freedom that I find most interesting is the one that Ballantyne seems to find within his home. Far from feeling like a prisoner, Ballantyne experiences his house becoming bigger. He describes the upstairs rooms to be ‘as large as a aircraft hangars carved in the roof of an iceberg’ (Ballard, 1989, p.1137). Whilst this simile evokes the feeling of space and freedom, it is this that further imprisons Ballantyne. He has physically imprisoned himself within his house, but as his mental health deteriorates (highlighted by this hyperbolic simile), he becomes confined to decreasingly smaller areas of the house, until finally he retreats to the safety of the  freezer. The more spacious and open the house is becomes, the more Ballantyne is afraid he will be lost in it and ultimately becomes more imprisoned than ever.

Ballard’s interest in exploring ‘innerspace’ is arguably one reason as to why his work is so distinguishable from other science fiction writers. Ballard believed that stereotypical science fiction themes, such as time travel or space, are limiting because they are such established conventions within the genre and that themes such as these were becoming outdated. In his article ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’, Ballard famously argued:

The biggest developments of the immediate future will take place, not on the Moon or Mars, but on Earth, and it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth. (Ballard, 1996, p.197)

Ballard believed that the behaviour and psychology of mankind is far more ‘alien’ than outer space can ever be. According to Sellers (2012), Ballard was interested in what effect technology, consumerism and mass advertising has on the human psyche and found that an individual psychology, or inner space, was a much more compelling setting for science fiction. In the same way as the majority of his work, Ballard explores the concept of inner space in both ‘High-Rise’ and ‘The Enormous Space’; both Laing and Ballantyne are isolated from the outside world (or outer space) and their psychological states are examined. In a 1974 interview, Ballard explains how he believes isolation that results from immersion in technological systems is a subconscious human fantasy (Sellars, 2012, p.xvi). Ballard argues that people of the modern world are forced into togetherness, ‘pressed together in traffic jams, aeroplanes, elevators, hemmed in, an artificial connectedness’ (Sellars, 2012, p.xvi) which results violence and a withdrawal into one’s inner space. If Ballard is stating that willed social isolation is a latent human desire, then it can be argued that the protagonists Laing and Ballantyne have perhaps discovered a utopian way of life; by becoming voluntary prisoners they are fulfilling this suppressed human-wide need to be alone.

Ballard was not only interested in what occurred in his character’s inner space, but also what influence architecture had over it. Lockton (2008) has called this interest of Ballard’s an ‘obsession’ as it is a noticeably reoccurring theme throughout his work. This is addressed in both ‘High-Rise’ and ‘The Enormous Space’ but in different ways. ‘High-Rise’ makes it clear that the ‘seeds of behavioural change’ (Lockton, 2008) are dormant within everyone and are drawn out by specific situations or environments, whereas ‘The Enormous Space’ is more complex as it takes this concept to ‘the characteristically Ballardian level of actually reflecting the participants’ mental state in the environment itself’ (Lockton, 2008). Lockton deems this as ‘architectures of control’ (2008) which is architecture that is designed to either encourage or discourage certain behaviours. As mentioned previously, there is a definite sense when reading ‘High-Rise’ that the tower block deliberately fails its’ tenants in order to create the right environment for primitive behaviour to flourish. When it comes to examine the architect of the tower block, Anthony Royal, it is suggested that he designed the tower block in this way and the residents and their behaviour to follow is all part of a perverse experiment. Laing comments on how Royal, after tricking him into thinking they were playing squash, ‘seemed to be checking that an experiment he had set up had now been concluded’ (Ballard, 2014, p.27). Later, the omniscient narrator of ‘High-Rise’ reveals Royal’s feelings towards the tenants of his building:

Royal detested this orthodoxy of the intelligent […] these people were the vanguard of a well-to-do and well-educated proletariat of the future, boxed up in these expensive apartments […] Thank God that they were at last breaking out of this fur-lined prison. (Ballard, 2014, p.81)

Royal dislikes the way in which his middle class tenants conform to tedious societal norms, such as having the latest technology or appealing colour schemes in their apartments, and it could be argued that the breakdown of the facilities with the high-rise are deliberate to, in Royal’s mind, liberate them from the banality of their lives. In this way, Royal is attempting to free the residents of the high-rise but, perhaps unwittingly, turns them into ‘voluntary prisoners’.

In terms of ‘The Enormous Space’ it is more apparent that Ballantyne is undertaking an experiment, ‘Whatever happens, I must hold to my decision and all the consequences that flow from it’ (Ballard, 1989, p.1130). The narrative voice takes on that of Ballantyne itself and it reads almost like a journal to note down the effects and results of the experiment. This is reflected in the television adaption of ‘The Enormous Room’ called ‘Home’ (2005) in which Ballantyne narrates throughout and some of the camera shots take the form of video diary. In the short story, it is not so much the architecture that influences Ballantyne’s behaviour but the pressures of suburban living. The reader, or viewer in terms of ‘Home’, notice that as Ballantyne’s mental health declines so the rooms within his suburban home grow larger and get the sense that Ballantyne believes his home contains the whole of reality. This is Ballard projecting the inner space of Ballantyne outwards. Although initially the reader may feel that the outward projection of the inner space makes Ballantyne a prisoner, I believe that Ballard is suggesting that this vastly different approach to suburban life is actually freeing. Far from being a prisoner by his failing mental health, Ballantyne is free from the conventions and restrictions of everyday life. Ballard, in his novella ‘Running Wild’, stated that ‘in a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom’ (1999, p.81). Taking this into consideration, it can argued that Ballantyne is a voluntary prisoner of the physical kind, mentally he is free through exploring his inner space.

Koolhaas’ notion of the ‘voluntary prisoner’ is extremely interesting, particularly the paradox he puts forward in which the condition of the freedom that modern architecture promises is imprisonment. In regards to ‘High-Rise’ the residents become free from societal conventions and ultimately return to a primitive style of living. In a similar way, Ballantyne frees himself from the pressures of suburban life and experiences a new realm of being. In both of these Ballardian works, this spiritual freedom comes at the price of the characters’ physical freedom; Laing and the other residents as well as Ballantyne become ‘voluntary prisoners’ in order to experience a different kind of freedom. Although this may appear dystopian to the reader, this reflects Ballard’s personal view that future holds no excitement unless a different course is embarked upon; Ballard believes that ‘the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul’ (1982, cited in Sellars, 2012, p.288). In other words, the alternative to the situations he presents in ‘High-Rise’ and ‘The Enormous Space’ are far more dystopian; it will be mankind living in a world where everything exciting has already happened or controlled by advertising and consumerism. It is not that the alternative is a shining example of utopia, and as McGrath states ‘personal salvation is a lonely, harsh, and demanding mistress’ (2001). Ballard, according to Manaugh, identifies with a ‘constant dissatisfaction with architectural surroundings [which] becomes a kind of quiet aggression, an unarticulated suburban angst’ (2006, cited in Sellars, 2006). This ‘angst’ towards urban and suburban modern life comes to a head in both ‘High-Rise’ and ‘The Enormous Space’ as the ‘angst’ is directly acknowledged and overcome. There is no glimpse of utopian hope in Koolhaas’ ‘Exodus’; the architecture not only imprisons the residents physically but also latently controls their activities and ultimately their desires. I would agree with McGrath’s argument that ‘High-Rise’ is ‘designed to destroy the media fiction of normal society and reveal our inner feelings as the ultimate reality’ (2001) and also extend this to ‘The Enormous Room’; both of these Ballardian works present an alternative reality which can be obtained through examine the inner space. Through exploring the inner space and overcoming societal conventions, Ballard believes that mankind can reach their full potential and not merely exist living within a ‘suburb of the soul’. Paradoxically, the only way in which this can be achieved is by wilfully surrendering one’s freedom and becoming a ‘voluntary prisoner of architecture’.

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