A friend of mine alerted me to an interesting article in the New York Times on the trouble in Dubai. Dubai, one of Mike Davis’ Neoliberal Evil Paradises, has been enjoying an economic boom over the last several years. A corollary to Dubai’s financial power has been an unprecedented building boom. Dubai wasn’t building just any old skyscrapers. It was building the world’s tallest skyscraper, revolving skyscrapers, whole archipelagos of luxury islands, and many other wonders of contemporary starchitecture.
The building boom was so extensive, that an estimated 25-50% of the world’s construction cranes were located in Dubai. The crane boom was matched by the proliferation of architectural forms. World’s most prominent architects lined up at the Emirate’s door offering science-fictional visions of mutant architecture.
I’ve always thought that Dubai resembled the 1922 Chicago Tribune design competition for its headquarters. Hundreds of architects and laypeople submitted sometimes outlandish proposals for “the most beautiful and eye-catching building in the world.” Raymond Hood & John Mead Howells won that competition. In Dubai, every starchitect is a winner. Almost every month some marketing materials announced a new iconic project. Every design must be built!
Now, the Dubai economic bubble seems to be popping. Streets once full of luxury vehicles are empty. Thousands of cars sit abandoned in the Dubai airport left by foreign workers fleeing the country to avoid debtor’s prison. Unemployment is rampant. Dubai’s economic power now resembles a desert mirage. That huge number of cranes (which appears to have been a little… inflated) is sure to shrink as the building boom is grinding to a halt due to plummeting real estate values. Things are not looking good. The NYT article had a tantalizing passage:
Lurid rumors spread quickly: the Palm Jumeira, an artificial island that is one of this city’s trademark developments, is said to be sinking, and when you turn the faucets in the hotels built atop it, only cockroaches come out.
A couple of months ago I wrote about an imaginary Ballardian ‘Drowned World’ theme park… in Dubai. It seems they’re getting a little closer to accomplishing the task.
On a different track, check out Jeet Heer’s recent post on the role ‘free and rich’ Dubai played in neoliberal capitalist imagination. The comments section has an interesting discussion which vaguely reminds me of a recent comment on this blog.
A new theme park is coming soon to Dubai. Named The Ultimate City, its theme will be the the world refracted through the many faceted crystal-like mind of writer J.G. Ballard. It will be distributed throughout the city to make it’s experience as much part of the urban fabric as possible. Some of the attractions will include:
• The Drowned World water park where guests can experience the rising sea levels of global warming as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.
• As oil rapidly becomes a scarce commodity, Crashland will become the only place to partake in the visceral and intoxicating power of the internal-combustion engine.
• Get closer to the nuclear power of the sun over the ozone free Terminal Beach, or descend into the cool shade of vintage Bikini Atoll concrete nuclear blast bunkers scattered among it’s sandy dunes.
• In a special arrangement with the Burj Dubai, a large section of the world’s tallest skyscraper has been reserved for High Rise: a paint-ball arena where guests struggle for advantage as they try to reach the top of the building.
• Other attractions will include: The Burning World, Concrete Island, and more.
Well… not quite. This is a swimming pool designed by the Mumbai branch Ogilvy & Mather for HSBC Banking group. It is supposed to raise public awareness of the dangers of global warming, but instead they’ve succeeded in creating world’s first (?) Ballardian swimming pool. With all the apocalyptic talk on this blog lately, I couldn’t resist!
The most interesting comic book of this year SPX was easily Yuichi Yokoyama’s New Engineering. I’ve been obsessing about Yokoyama’s work since I first saw random pages from his books posted online. Now that I actually got my hands on New Engineering I’ve been concocting all kinds of strategies for reading and understanding this work. I decided to string together a bunch of notes, observations, and theories I’ve accumulated over the last few weeks into this loose essay. Hopefully, this will make some sense to someone out there and they will find it useful in looking at Yuichi Yokoyama’s work.
By no means do I think any of this is the definitive way of looking at this work. Picturebox plans on publishing further volumes in the near future, and that work may contradict some of the things I say here. In any case, here are some correspondences between J.G. Ballard and Yuichi Yokoyama’s visionary architecture.
I. Enigmatic Engineering
I see the stories in New Engineering fall into two distinct, though interconnected, categories. First, there are the ‘engineering’ stories, where massive architectural projects are realized by gigantic machinery with some aid from the humans (are they human?). The second category contains everything else. These are stories of combat, athletics, warfare, fashion, etc. I’ll first talk about the separate categories. Later I’ll attempt to make some sort of unified statement on their relationship. First up is engineering.
The Wind from Nowhere
The first thing that came to my mind when I saw pages from New Engineering (the story with that title also shared by the book) was J.G. Ballard’s first novel The Wind from Nowhere. In the book, the surface of the whole planet is rapidly destroyed by a powerful wind. The apocalyptic wind increases in force with deadly regularity. The wind sandblasts the planet into a cue ball. Civilization is on the brink of annihilation. Meanwhile, a mysterious structure is built – in secret – by a megalomaniacal millionaire Hardoon. The description of the building process has an uncanny resemblance to the way Yokoyama depicts the massive feats of engineering in his stories.
Here’s a taste:
“The hill had gone, obliterated beneath the gigantic jaws of fleets of bulldozers, its matrix scooped out like the pulp of a fruit and carried away on the endless lines of trucks.
Below the sweeping beams of powerful spotlights, their arcs cutting through the whirling dust, huge pylons were rooted into the black earth, then braced back by hundreds of steel hawsers. In the intervals between them vast steel sheets were erected, welded together to form a continuous windshield a hundred feet high.
Even before the first screen was complete the first graders were moving into the sheltered zone behind it, sinking their metal teeth into the bruised earth, leveling out a giant rectangle. Steel forms were shackled into place and scores of black-suited workers moved rapidly like frantic ants, pouring in thousands of gallons of concrete.
As each layer annealed, the forms were unshackles and replaced further up the sloping flanks of the structure. First ten feet, then 20 and 30 feet high, it rose steadily into the dark night.”
Like Frantic Ants…
This is only the first of several similar passages in the novel. Ballard totally dispenses with a human perspective. The construction is apprehended from a series of unnatural vantage points that allow us to experience the massive scale of the endeavor. Humans at this scale are “like frantic ants.” Since Ballard doesn’t have any visuals accompanying his prose, we have to imagine the scene. With Yokoyama, we are provided with vague glimpses. Chris Lanier has a great description:
“Yokoyama uses off-panel space with a droll brilliance — machines that cut rock or drill into the earth appear from the edges of the panels, needing no plausible leverage or further apparatus to do their work. The mysterious engine that runs these tools is the invisible will of the artist; the drill bits and jackhammers are really extensions of Yokoyama’s pen. The people in these stories have far less presence than the machines — they come at the end of the narratives to make the finishing touches and voice their approval.”
New Engineering is different from The Wind from Nowhere. Ballard eventually tells us what is being built and why: a gigantic steel pyramid designed to withstand the force of the wind. Hardoon, the builder, hopes not only to survive the catastrophe but thrive in it as well. But his motives aren’t entirely clear and sometimes the reader is led to believe the pyramid exists solely so Hardoon can comfortably sit in his steel cage, watch the world turn to dust, and listen to the savage howl of the hurricane.
Hardoon is a typically Ballardian character who transforms and adapts as best he can to circumstances on the ground. A world catastrophe in this case and in Ballard’s early novels. In his later work modernity and technology are circumstances enough. We encounter these characters in what we recognize as ‘our’ world. But they already belong to another, hidden world, emerging in our midst like one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. And with the new world come new psycho(patho)logies. This is what’s missing from Yokoyama’s structures. The author consciously avoids depicting the psychology of his world. In the interview published in New Engineering Yokoyama says that he wants to create:
Characters without psychology — I am interested neither in the feelings of people nor in their emotions. I examine only what is to the eye. My characters do not work towards the satisfaction of a collective or individual interest, but to achieve a great goal, to achieve a great mission.
These “great goals” and “great missions” are opaque to us. They seem absurd, strange, and bizarre. Again Chris Lanier:
“ Its four stories show the construction of strange monuments and spaces. They describe huge mobilizations of resources for apparently useless ends. One “public work” is a fluorescent-lit room, set into a boulder, positioned in front of an absolutely straight (and also artificially constructed) canal. Another is a glass room, outfitted with chairs and a floor of Astroturf, set under the surface of a man-made lake. These constructions are not only absurd in themselves, the methods of construction are entirely impractical. The third “public work” is an artificial mountain, assembled from boulders that are dropped from airplanes, then coated with glue flowing from a single hose.”
Memorial to Newton
If Yokoyama wants to banish psychology from his pages, we as readers want to put it right back. Because we lack direct knowledge of Yokoyama’s world we proceed archeologically and anthropologically. We compare our world or the artifacts of our world to the ones depicted in New Engineering in an attempt to excavate the smallest bits of meaning. Chris Lanier finds similarities between New Engineering and the kinetic architecture of superhero comics. James Benedict Brown can’t help but wonder about the ‘why,’ ‘how’ and ‘where’ of the New Engineering projects and compares their depiction to the sterility, purity, and disconnection of contemporary mainstream architectural photography.
Indeed, Yokoyama’s world is close enough to the one we live in to make direct comparisons irresistible. In the “Memorial to Newton” sequence Yokoyama provides us with a clue as to the purpose or origin of these enigmatic works. The comic shows crowds of people irresistibly drawn to climb the immense Memorial to Newton structure. This is the only building that has any corresponding reality in our world. Perhaps it can serve as a key of sorts.
It refers to the unbuilt, and imaginary, Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton by the 18th Century visionary French architect Etienne Louis Boulle. It also brings to mind the endless specimens of visionary architecture that have been built and planned in the course of human history. Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Egyptian Pyramids, Roman Aqueducts and Temples, the great Gothic Cathedrals, the visionary paper architecture of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, The Crystal Palace, to the massive and often baffling projects of today’s starchitects that are going up all over the world. The list goes on.
Magnetism of Architecture
Many of these structures, especially the ancient ones, are as unfamiliar to us as Yokoymas. What do we make of the Great Pyramids? The Easter Island sculptures? After centuries of trying to ‘solve’ the riddle of the Great Pyramid, we’re really no closer to understanding the psychology of the builders.
The closest relatives of Yokoyama’s context-less plastic mega-structures are in Dubai or Las Vegas (and other alike places). Dubai is a veritable laboratory of modern architectural gigantism. Artificial islands, archipelagos in the shape of palm trees or the world itself, rotating skyscrapers, tallest towers in the world. These are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Ostensibly we think we understand these structures. They are engines of economic growth, steel, and concrete representations of financial capital. Looked at in the larger context of globalization, global warming, war, and peak oil, they seem baffling and foreign. But they retain an irresistible and seductive pull. These structures— their sheer physicality, and what they represent —draw us in. In fact, climbing great monuments of civilization is one of the great past-times of today (and yesterday). People will travel thousands of miles for the privilege of climbing the Great Pyramids… and the pyramids of Las Vegas. What has been the initial impulse of the many people who first encounter the Great Pyramid of Egypt? Climb it!