Has this train changed direction?

Some thoughts on the absent boundary

Guy Trangoš (DDes)

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‘Wait!' Franz leapt out of his seat and stared at the indicator panel.

‘What's the matter?’ someone opposite asked.

'East!' Franz shouted. He banged the panel sharply with his hand but the lights held. ‘Has this train changed direction?'

‘No, it’s eastbound,' another of the passengers told him. ‘Are you on the wrong train?’

'It should be heading west,' Franz insisted. 'It has been for the last ten days.’

'Ten days!’ the man exclaimed. 'Have you been on this sleeper for ten days?’

Franz went forward and found the car attendant. 'Which way is this train going? West?’

The attendant shook his head. 'East, sir. It’s always been going east.’

‘You’re crazy,’ Franz snapped. 'I want to see the pilot's log.’

'I'm afraid that isn’t possible. May I see your ticket, sir?’

This extract from J.G. Ballard’s dystopian short story Concentration City (1957) captures the moment at which the protagonist, Franz, discovers that his mission to discover free space in an endless urban agglomeration is not to be. The story is set in a place of immense human and built density, where property is traded by the square foot and addresses locale space in a seemingly endless vertical and horizontal three-dimensional grid. Franz, a physics student, has developed a conceptual flying machine, and hypothesizes that free space must exist somewhere on the edge of the urban. Here, he could test his invention, so he sets off in one direction on a ‘Supersleeper’ highspeed train to find it. As we’ve discovered, the train travels for ten days through variations of this hyperdense fabric only to suddenly be traveling back. In a true science fiction turn, the train delivers Franz back at his starting point at the exact date and time of his departure.

In crafting this ubiquitous urbanity in three (possibly four) dimensions, Ballard creates a world full of boundaries, but without a boundary itself. These boundaries appear in the rigid property matrix, severe class distinctions, and the ever-present walls which come to demarcate everything. In Franz, he creates a dreamer who imagines a world beyond and, unlike many bounded by their daily drudgery, sets out to find it. By choosing to do so, Franz draws his own mental border; the city must eventually come to an end and at that point there should be enough free space to fly his machine.

Designers are often tasked with imagining and preparing for distant possibilities, and like Franz, are left trapped in the machinations and self-replicating material matrix of their political and financial systems. This is not to say that we designers should be quasi-deities dictating life, but rather, we should be exploring the boundary zones we collectively construct as a society, and working in the murky space beyond. In imagining the beyond, Franz constructs an absent boundary: a space of immense social, political, and cultural productivity. Today, that boundary is often associated materially with borders and walls, and socio-politically with insurmountable inequality and divisions. However, we are so mired in overcoming this mesh of boundaries that ensnare our everyday that we fail to see, and imagine beyond, the immaterial boundaries that confine us.

Bibliography:

  1. Ballard, J.G. (2010) ‘Concentration City,’ in The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard. New York (NY): W. W. Norton & Company

 
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