Concrete Island

[Image: From the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale].

The stated subject of this year’s biennale is “the meta-city, an agglomeration that extends beyond the traditional form and concept of the city.”
I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be looking at up there – but I like what I want to see in that image, which is either a reclaimed assemblage of highway overpasses, or a house built to look like an assemblage of highway overpasses. Either way, it’s genius.
Is it practical? Well, the ramps could be terraced, for starters, with floors at different levels, and steps cut into them, and toward the center of the cloverleaf could be a walled interior: bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, guest rooms, all with floor to ceiling windows. A readymade, full-surround deck. Easy parking. Plumbing and electrics would come up through one of the concrete trunks – along with a staircase, through which to enter the house or visit your own backyard (or “underyard” – unless that’s too Freudian).
It’s the house of the future: built like a highway overpass. Built on a highway overpass.

[Images: From the Freeway series by Catherine Opie].

I suppose it’s not even outside the realm of possibility to imagine, several hundred years from now, after nearly everyone’s died of bird flu, AIDS, or open civil warfare, that freeways – those massive examples of widespread land use, the world over – could be reclaimed, domesticated, built upon as new foundations. Houses in the midst of highway flyovers, cloverleaf junctions given windows, bedrooms constructed on off-ramps. New feudal worlds of elevated flyovers, towns held aloft in the sky.
In Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard, we enter such a world, framed by drainage culverts, feeder roads, ascent ramps and storm tunnels, and we meet a man, called Maitland, who finds himself marooned after a crash, stuck alone in an urban blindspot: out of sight, out of mind, on an off-road island made entirely of concrete.
“In his aching head the concrete overpass and the system of motorways in which he was marooned had begun to assume an ever more threatening size. The illuminated route indicators rotated above his head, marked with meaningless destinations.”
The man looks for “some circuitous route through the labyrinth of motorways” – but finds none. He simply sees “vast, empty parking lots laid down by the planners years before any tourist would arrive to park their cars, like a city abandoned in advance of itself.”
Indeed, Maitland, our new Crusoe of the London motorways, is “alone in this forgotten world whose furthest shores were defined only by the roar of automobile engines… an alien planet abandoned by its inhabitants, a race of motorway builders who had long since vanished but had bequeathed to him this concrete wilderness.”

In any case, as freeways continue to form the only visible horizon for urban inhabitants worldwide, we may realistically find that houses soon come to look like them: back-looping knots of elevated platforms, curved nests of ramps that are suitable for living in, elevated over an empty world we’ve left behind.

17 thoughts on “Concrete Island”

  1. people do live under freeway ramps, trolls and ogres, just like always lived under bridges.

    I imagine the cloverleaf becoming the foundation for a vast cardboard shantytown where the occupants don’t have to start over every evening. Huge permanent structures built from corrugated boxes and yellow nylon strapping.

  2. Tim, that’s a good point. But just wait till suburban developers catch on… Entire expanses of tract houses, all of which look like circular concrete cloverleafs standing high on buttressed stilts, a huge Los Angeleno valley full of disconnected overpasses, loops and ribbons and knots, topology arranged across the desert – each multiply-windowed shape given a nice little mailbox outside. Fields and fields of knotted houses.

    Somebody needs to draw this…! I can’t draw for stinking, as they say.

  3. I particularly like the photo at the top of the post. The spectators in the foreground, separated from the exhibit and its occupants by the concrete “moat” of the freeway, makes it very reminiscent of one of those concrete penguin habitats at the zoo.

  4. It reminds me of the story, first on This American Life, then on 60 Min. of the group of people in New Orleans who were turn away in their hous of need and then camped out on a freeway overpass until they were dispersed by a police helicopter later that evening.

  5. “…that freeways…could be reclaimed, domesticated, built upon as new foundations.”

    this is exactly how people reclaimed cities, monuments and forts after the roman empire collapsed. in some european cities the shape of the imperial circus, arena or theatre is still there, because people took it over and slowly turned it into living space. as an example: in the middle ages there was a whole city in the amphitheatre of arles (france).

    for more, see the chapter “homage to the squatter” in bernard rudofsky’s “the prodigious builders”.

  6. In which case a whole new series of science-fiction novels becomes possible, set within the automobilized landscapes of greater LA, or outer London, ring-road Beijing: these autopian motorscapes are gradually settled upon, 600 years from now, and our narrator’s back porch is a broken overpass, his neighbor’s house a half-collapsed bridge. Adventures in the post-flyover zone. Wanderers amidst concrete infrastructure. Rivers flow down the paved embankments of what used to be I-95, an elevated river that flows above ruined cities. Accidental viaducts.

    6 books. 1 narrator.

    Future classic.

  7. The prospect of living in and among freeway interchanges brings to mind Le Corbusier’s 1933 “Plan Obus” for Algiers. The post colonial critique of this project is that it is a late metaphor for colonial exploitation, in which the administrators commute each day between their gated community on the cities edge and a central office tower on a super highway built on top of the workers houses. The Mega structure is back in Vogue but Constant’s “New Babylon” isn’t its only socio-political precedent.

  8. I recall an article run a few months ago in the Guardian newspaper (I think), about a group of Katrina survivors in New Orleans, building a temporary community on a freeway up-ramp and foraging around for supplies and materiels.

    Greg, UK

  9. hey, so, what about single speed design’s amazing project for a house built from reclaimed materials from boston’s Big Dig? one of the best conceptual (and practical) architecture projects i’ve come across, completely inspiring. houses made of old highways!

  10. Reminds me of the slapstick version of ‘Concrete Island,’ an indie film out of Canada called ‘Nothing.’

    Two guys live in a disheveled house under a freeway overpass. Things take a turn for the very, very surreal, but the isolation and alienation are all there.

  11. Hasn’t anyone read the William Gibson trilogy Virtual Light / Idoru / All Tomorrow’s Parties? Virtual Light starts off with people living on the remains of the Golden Gate bridge. They just climbed up there one day, after the big quake, and started strapping things on.

    Seems like the sort of way this might happen organically rather than commercially.

    But the commercial prospect is interesting as well.

    And by the way, I’m from New Jersy – exit 26a.

  12. Great stuff, haven’t thought about Concrete Island for a long time.

    Two projects come to mind;

    1) Rem Koolhaas gave a lecture at Columbia about the Pearl River Delta which, as I remember it, likened the massive freeways being laid out across the rice paddies to Manhattan’s grid. The scale and pace at which it was being filled in dwarfed Manhattan, though. The whole thing meant that all of HK and Kowloon was the equivalent of the cramped, tenement-filled Lower East Side. Or, it would be.

    2) MVRDV had a project for a dense hi/slow-speed development along a stretch of NL freeway, where there are these multiple frontage…not roads, really, zones?…where it was the speed limit that determined usage. The result looked like the High Line, though, with the freeway going through all the bldgs.

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