This Paper was presented to the Housing Studies Association Autumn Conference, which was held September 4/5, 2001, in Cardiff. (Note: I've callously edited out Ms Blandy's analysis of real gated communities and her look at TC Boyle's Tortilla Flats. To read her entire article, click here for a PDF file)
Gated Communities Unhinged
By Sarah Blandy
School of Law
University of Leeds
Gated communities are a fascinating phenomenon: what motivates people to voluntarily wall themselves in? They are a relatively new phenomenon, as historically, “material enclosure in the design of urban populations has been the exception.” (Kosloff, 1992, p.104). Mediaeval cities were of course walled but their walls enclosed the whole population. Today’s gated communities are a market response to the perceived failure of government to ensure maintenance of property values and personal security. Groups formed of individuals from largely the same sector of society buy environmental quality and security in a retreat behind walls, gates and even their own security forces. This paper outlines the different types and scale of such developments, together with the legal basis of gated communities both here and in the States, before moving on to their treatment in fiction.
It is not surprising that gated communities appeal to novelists, as a number of perennial motifs can be played out against the background they provide: for example, social inclusion and exclusion; order and disorder; nature and human artifice. As well as the rich possibilities of exploring the psychological impact on those living within the walls, gated communities can be taken as a metaphor for the state of the world at the beginning of the 21st century. It seems that increasingly states are dividing into smaller nations, as fear and hatred of ‘the other’ operates on a far larger than individual scale. This paper looks at the work of J.G. Ballard. Ballard has used gated communities as more than just the setting for his novels. Ballard is interested in the psychological state of the communities’ residents. The narratives and themes of his novels are explored, and the final section of the paper considers the question of the place of fiction in shaping our views about gated communities.
Fictional gated communities
The English novelist J.G. Ballard, probably most famous for Empire of the Sun, the controversial novel Crash, or his output of science fiction, has written several novels set in one or another form of gated community. It is possible that this almost obsessive interest arises from his childhood experiences in a Singapore prison of war camp, the ultimate in gated communities. As Ballard describes his own, fictionalised, experiences in Empire of the Sun, the camp was a lawless community in which conventional middle class families who strove to preserve their ‘outside’ values, lost out to opportunistic petty criminals and bullies who rose to become the rulers of the camp. Ballard’s novel High Rise was published in 1975. It concerns a luxury forty-storey apartment block in London which was in effect “a small vertical city …(with) an impressive range of services” (p.9), including sports facilities, shops and a junior school. The two thousand tenants “formed a virtually homogeneous collection of well-to-do professional people” (p.10). At the beginning of the book, the block has only just been completed, and the new residents move in. Gradually they stop leaving the block for work or at all, and turn in on themselves during “a period of continuous bickering, of trivial disputes over the faulty elevators and air-conditioning, inexplicable electrical failures, noise … in short, that host of minor defects which the architects were supposed specifically to have designed out of these over-priced apartments.” (pp. 17-18).
However, their grievances are directed against other groups of residents rather than against the architects or the building’s management. Rivalries emerge between the dog-owners living in the more expensive upper floors, and the residents with children who mainly live in the cheaper lower floors. Fuelled by alcohol and drugs, parties start to get out of hand and tensions simmer, occasionally spilling over into low level violence between groups of residents, who divide “into the three classical social groups, its lower, middle and upper classes.” (p.53). Inexorably, social relations between these groups worsen, with residents from the lower floors forming raiding parties to the upper floors, and residents there erecting barricades to repel them. Soon, food and water are in short supply, dogs are eaten and there are hints of cannibalism. The apartment block’s services deteriorate still further, but strangely, no residents complain to any outside agency. Soon a situation is reached where “violence would clearly become a valuable form of social cement.” (p.92). Finally “the new order had emerged, in which all life within the high-rise revolved around three obsessions - security, food and sex.” (p.136). By the close of the novel, a strange type of equilibrium has been achieved within the tower block.
In 1988 Ballard published Running Wild, a novel about a different type of gated community. The fictional Pangbourne Village, Berkshire, was made up of ten mansions each set in two acres of grounds, a security gatehouse, and a gymnasium. The estate was “ringed by a steel-mesh fence fitted with electrical alarms … regularly patrolled by guard-dogs and radio-equipped handlers. Entry to the estate was by appointment only, and the avenues and drives were swept by remote-controlled TV cameras.” (p.13). Thirteen children, aged between eight and seventeen, lived on the estate, “scarcely a minute of (whose) lives had not been carefully planned.” (p.32). Running Wild is written as an investigation into a terrible massacre which took place on the estate, in which all the adults were killed and the children disappeared. The novel is an indictment of “the unlimited tolerance and understanding that had erased all freedom and all trace of emotion” (pp.82/83) for the children of Pangbourne Village. It was, of course, the children who had planned and carried out the massacre. They then disappeared, to re-emerge five years later with a failed assassination attempt at “an exclusive estate in Dulwich against a former British prime minister”. (p.105).
Nearly ten years later, in 1996, Cocaine Nights was published by Ballard. It concerns Estrella de Mar, a gated peninsula on the Costa del Sol, “a residential retreat for the professional classes of northern Europe.” (p.35). Against all expectations, it is a a real, vibrant community with a lively atmosphere, the inhabitants engaged in artistic and sporting activities. But there is “another side to Estrella de Mar. The Harold Pinter seasons, the choral societies and sculpture classes are an elaborate play-group. Meanwhile everyone else is getting on with the real business … Money, sex, drugs.” (p.117). The novel describes how one key character managed to transform the resort from its very dull beginnings, giving its residents a sense of community through his use of crime as performance art. Crime has become the heartbeat of the community. Despite the security alarms and surveillance cameras, the “main function (of the privatised police force) seemed to be the preservation of the existing criminal order, rather than the tracking down of miscreants.” (p.167). This resort, built in the 1970’s and incorporating an old harbour town, is contrasted with the “pure 1990s” Residencia Costasol, a gated community up the coast, in which “everything is designed around an obsession with crime.” (p.212). Here, the residents “are locking their doors and switching off their nervous systems” (p.219), there are no communal activities and very little use is made of the leisure facilities. However, by the end of the novel this resort too has enjoyed a one-man crime wave and has caught the “infection of optimism and creativity.” (p.289).
Ballard’s latest gated community novel, Super-Cannes (2000), is set in Eden-Olympia, a very upmarket gated business park which “concentrated on the office as the key psychological zone.” (p.17). Unlike Ballard’s other novels discussed here, Eden-Olympia is not primarily a residential community; the flats and houses which accommodate only a fifth of the workforce are merely “service stations, where people sleep and ablute.” (p.17). However, like the gated communities in the other novels, Eden-Olympia has its own sporting facilities, artificial lakes and forests, shopping malls, its own TV station, and above all elaborate security features and its own armed police force. The community is described as “an ideas laboratory for the new millennium” (p.16), full of high-achieving and driven experts in their respective fields, too busy for leisure activities, engaged in a “regime of fulfilment through work” (p.39).
Yet “these highly disciplined professionals had very strange dreams. Fantasies filled with suppressed yearnings for violence and ugly narratives of anger and revenge…” (p.258). One of the main characters is a psychiatrist who prescribes “small doses of insanity” to counteract “internal stress, the obsession with the invisible intruder in the fortress…” (p.257). His patients began to seek violence and excitement outside Eden-Olympia, organising “brawls … vigilante actions … drug-dealing and prostitution, burglaries and warehouse robberies.” These activities did away with insomnia and depression, and restored their creative edge to the inhabitants of Eden-Olympia. The novel concerns the aftermath of a shoot-out involving a paediatrican, security guards and several other residents, tracing what happens to the paediatrican’s successor and her husband.
Exclusion and inclusion, both physical and social, are major themes in these novels about gated communities. This aspect is less apparent in Ballard’s work, although Super-Cannes also features intruders, who cannot be kept out but who are dealt with brutally by the private security force.
Ballard’s novels set in Europe address another facet of social in/exclusion; the wealthy expatriate community. Cocaine Nights imagines what would happen to an elite society with too much leisure time, while Super-Cannes imagines one that works too hard.
The author also describes the process of the initially cynical outsider being drawn in to the claustrophobic world of their gated community. The main protagonists of High Rise, Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes all become embroiled in the violence which provides the driving force in these novels. In the last two, the central characters specifically follow the tracks of a previous character who has gone too far and ended up contributing to a massacre.
Ballard also characterises the gated community as an over-efficiently ordered, artificial environment : “There are no pine cones to trip you, no bird shit on your car. At Eden-Olympia even nature knows her place.” (Super-Cannes, p.83). However, as we have seen he is more fascinated by the disorder within gated communities. This is expressed in two ways : a deep-seated internal drive to anti-social behaviour, and the community’s need for disorder around them. If people are protected from the reality of social and other conflicts, their lives become meaningless and dull. The first of Ballard’s gated community novels, High Rise, is a study of collective social breakdown. Ballard suggests that this is made possible by “the remarkably self-contained nature of the high-rise, a self-administered enclave within the larger private domain of the development project.” (p.76), where the services provided in the apartment block “took over the task of maintaining the social structure… removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left (the residents) free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses.” (p.36). Thus, the gated community environment encourages the expression of ‘natural’ selfish and primitive behaviour by the residents through providing, initially, too much external and sanitised order.
In Running Wild, an explanation given for the terrible events at Pangbourne Village is that “the regime of kindness and care …has given birth to its children of revenge…” (p.106). Because their lives were so well regulated, they went “beyond the point where questions of guilt and responsibility have any meaning for them.” (p.80). Even as adults, if everything is provided for us, and there is no need to interact with other members of the ‘community’ we live in, then “There are none of the social tensions that force us to recognise other people’s strengths and weaknesses, our obligations to them or feelings of dependance. … there’s no need for personal morality.” (Super-Cannes, pp.254/5). The other aspect of this theme explored in Ballard’s novels is that “Crime and transgressive behaviour … provoke us and tap our need for strong emotion, quicken the nervous system and jump the synapses deadened by leisure and inaction.” (p.180, Cocaine Nights). In both this book and in Super-Cannes, communities and individuals have their lives enriched by indulging in, or witnessing others indulging in, anti-social behaviour. If disorder is regulated out of our immediate environment, then human need for it will ensure that it is provided by different means. Ballard’s message is that designing out disorder from our lives and communities is futile and ultimately counter-productive.
The force of fiction
Does fiction have the power to shape our views of gated communities? It would be as well at this point to define what type of fiction we have been considering. These novels do not belong in the science fiction genre; even though the gated business park depicted in Super-Cannes is very hi-tech, this feature does not play an integral part in the plot of the book. J.G. Ballard’s gated community books all concern violence and murder, and could be categorised as thrillers. In each of the books discussed here, there is a strong element of social realism and satire. Perhaps the best description is ‘predictive fiction’. The books are set in the present, written in a style of heightened naturalism, and describe unlikely, but not impossible, events. High Rise might have seemed before its time in 1975 when it was first published, but developments in design and in housing aspirations have since caught up with Ballard’s imagination.
All the gated communities described in the novels discussed, were originally designed as and considered to be utopias. Klaic (1994) uses the term ‘dystopia’ to convey the “withering away of utopia, its gradual abandonment or reversal” (p.3). He describes the view of the future portrayed by dystopias as a “polemic, cautionary, or admonitory gesture, a provoking and shocking rendering of what our futures might turn out to be.” (pp.5-6). Thus ‘dystopic’ certainly seems to be an apt description of the gated community fiction. In reading these books, we are alerted to how the media-fed paranoia which leads to gated communities can suck us in, including those who were initially cynical about the benefits or even actively opposed to the creation of the exclusive and excluding development. The author creatively explores the consequences of moving away from a natural environment, both in terms of the residents’ own psychological well-being, and the consequences for others who are left outside the gates.
Novels can offer qualitative insights into the potential implications of our actions, and as a result perhaps have more influence than much academic research. Maybe we should accept that novelists’ imaginations are more developed and finely attuned than most people’s, and it is therefore worth listening carefully to what they have to say, certainly before European countries embrace gated communities as enthusiastically as America has done.
School of Law
20 Lyddon Terrace
University of Leeds
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