J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island

London’s Westway has been the a popular cultural reference for many books, movies and songs. Over the years, the elevated motorway has drawn many writers and artists and becames the dystopian setting of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island.

Under the Westway
The abandonment landscape below the London Westway

The Island

Ballard’s book is about the architect Robert Maitland, who tries to leave London for a weekend away. Driving along the Westway, a car accident leaves him stranded below the newly constructed motorway. Injured and unable to escape, he finds himself imprisoned on a desolate concrete island.

Soon though Maitland notices that he is not alone. The derelict place is also occupied by two outcasts, who removed themselves from the modernising world above. Perceiving Maitland as an unwanted intruder, they start defending their realm in a deadly battle.

Written in the 1970s, Ballard’s story responds to the contrasting environments of a changing city. Built to modernise the city’s ageing traffic infrastructure, the Westway was cut through the neighbourhoods of North Kensington and Notting Hill. It its path it left behind the derelict spaces of demolished terraces.

In Ballard’s book fast moving cars and gleaming tower blocks look over the desolate realm of a bygone era. Even though they are in close proximity, neither side takes notice of the other. Therefore any crossing of boundaries can only happen by accident.

Maitland undertakes several half-hearted attempts to escape J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island. Consequently the question arises whether he really wants to leave and return to his old life.

Since the construction of the Westway, communities on along its path have slowly reclaimed the deserted space. Persistent work turned an open wound into a healed scar, though parts still radiate the sense of abandonment described in the book. If one travelled the motorway by car, the elevated perspective remains the limited view of Ballard’s removed passers-by. If one explores the environment on foot, the multiple layers of the city’s fabric become traceable.