Atlas of Places
The Suburban Dream
The chapter on architecture in Frost and Stevens returns to the metaphysics of dwelling in order to show how, in an era when the traditional myth of dwelling can no longer be revived, modern poetry assumes the task of defining a new relation to dwelling, as a mode of being, in the form of poetic language itself. The difference between the two poets lies in the respective meanings they assign to this dwelling in relation to the more universal conditions of being. The final chapter examines the literary response to the modular, temporary, and cumulative architectural forms produced by the adaptation of building technology to the imperatives of mass consumption and globalization—what the architect Rem Koolhaas has called “junkspace.” The works of J. G. Ballard and Michel Houllebecq serve as testimonies to radical transformations in subjectivity and the social fabric—transformations seen as intimately related to specifically contemporary architectural forms, such as the high-rise apartment building, the corporate office park, the suburban shopping mall, and the highway interchange. Our reading of these works brings us back to the question of dwelling, both in historical time and in the space of the present, and of the need to find a way to live in a world in the absence of any necessary relation between the human subject and the built environment—where dwelling always has to be learned or invented anew.
In The Ethical Foundation of Architecture (1997), Karsten Harries cites the suburban shopping center as an example of a structure built to serve the demands of a certain way of life but which then gives a new shape and development to that way of life. Ballard’s novel is a nightmare vision of the second stage of this process, where the shopping center has given form to a totalitarian consumer society. His fictional Metro-Centre is described as the largest in the Greater London area, and, like the real Stockley Park, it is located in one of the nondescript motorway towns spread out along the M25 north of Heathrow Airport. In Ballard’s description, this is a region where “a filling station beside a dual carriageway enshrine[s] a deeper sense of community than any church or chapel” and where parking is the greatest spiritual need. The Metro-Centre is the focal point of this suburban sprawl, serving as a kind of cathedral for the religion of consumerism. With millions of square feet, it meets the gargantuan standards of the Mall of America. It has six cineplexes, forty cafés, and three hotels. One of these is the Holiday Inn, which overlooks a swimming pool with machine-produced waves and a crescent of sandy beach. At the center of the Metro-Centre rises the central atrium, a vast, circular, scented space of diffused light surrounded by galleries of the upper retail floors. Richard Pearson, the novel’s first-person narrator, remarks, “The enclosed geometry of the Metro-Centre focused an intense self-awareness on every shopper, as if we were extras in a music drama that had become the world”.
If we take this feeling seriously for once, what presumably distinguishes a hotel of this kind is its status not exactly as junkspace but as a nonplace, and the life Ballard imagines there is one of the freedom granted by a series of absences: the absence of the burden of the past and of the confining sense of place; the absence of a sense of the uniqueness of one’s surroundings and even of oneself; the lack of a necessary connection between oneself and the constructed environment. There is a freedom in rootlessness. Harries notes that what Europeans have traditionally found exciting about the American landscape is the “openness in which a democratic ethos finds expression.” This is true even of the suburban landscape with its jumble of supermarkets, hamburger joints, crisscrossing highways, and cars, which would seem to provide almost the perfect illustration of “loss of place”.
Text: David Spurr, Architecture and Modern Literature, 2012