“Tellingly, the cities that tourists most enjoy are those in long-term decline –Venice, Florence, Paris, London, New York. The last two are gigantic money-mills, churned by a Centurion-card elite who are retreating into gated communities in Surrey and the Upper East Side. Already their immense spending power has distorted social life in London and New York, freezing out the old blue-collar and middle classes, and validating the notion that the dreams that money can buy are a perfectly fit topic for the young painter, novelist and film-maker. It’s not their own ambition that corrupts today’s artists, but the subject matter facing them.
“So where to find a more astringent, a more challenging and a more real world? Le Corbusier, the greatest visionary architect of the twentieth century, remarked that “a city built for speed is a city built for success”. But almost no city in the world today is built for speed, in the sense that a rapid-access communications system is directly engineered into the asphalt of everyday life, visible from our front doors. Yet hundreds of virtual cities do exist at this very moment that embody Corbusier’s dictum. They surround London, Paris, Chicago and Tokyo, and, as it happens, I live in one of them. “Shepperton”, some of you will say, appalled by the thought. “My God, suburbia. We went to London to get away from that.”
“But Shepperton, for what it’s worth, is not suburbia. If it is a suburb of anywhere, it is of London Airport, not London. And that is the clue to my dislike of cities and my admiration for what most people think of as a faceless dead-land of inter-urban sprawl. Hurrying back from Heathrow or a West Country weekend to their ludicrously priced homes in Fulham or Muswell Hill, they carefully avert their gaze from this nightmare terrain of dual carriageways, police cameras, science parks and executive housing, an uncentred realm bereft of civic identity, tradition or human values, a zone fit only for the alienated and footloose, those without past or future.
“And that, of course, is exactly what we like about it. We like the fast dual carriageways, the easy access motorways, the limitless parking lots. We like the control-tower architecture, the absence of civic authority, the rapid turnover of friendships and the prosperity filtered through car and appliance purchases. We like roads that lead past airports, we like air-freight offices and rent-acar forecourts, we like impulse-buy holidays to anywhere that takes our fancy. The triangle formed by the M3 and the M4, enclosing Heathrow and the River Thames, is our zone of possibility, far from the suffocating city politics and self-obsessions of the metropolis (transport, ugh, fares, rents, kerb-side vomit). We are the unenfranchised citizens of the shopping mall and the marina, the internet and cable TV. And we’re in no hurry for you to join us.”
J.G. Ballard, “Welcome to the Virtual City”, Tate, Spring 2001. p 33.
Image: Ed Ruscha, Gasoline Stations, 1989.