The year 1956 can be seen as the birth of British Pop Art, in the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition This is Tomorrow, and the birth of J.G Ballard, not the man himself, rather the Ballardian author. This is Tomorrow opened its doors for one month on August 9th, and received almost one thousand visitors a day. Among these visitors was the twenty six year old Ballard who would, four months later, have his first two science fiction stories published in the December issues of the magazines ‘New Worlds’ and ‘Science Fantasy’.

Poster for the This is Tomorrow exhibition by John McHale and Edward Wright(via).

The close proximity between the exhibition and Ballard’s first published fiction is not a chance occurrence. Ballard had embraced sci-fi as a reader years earlier while training as an RAF pilot at a remote Canadian airbase, however he initially had reservations about the genre, reservations that he would hold throughout his career. The forward thinking artworks on display at This is Tomorrow were collaborations, organised mainly by members of the Independent Group (part of the ICA), between small teams of varied practitioners (artists, designers, architects, critics & theorists). The installations were not intended to be finished pieces of art, instead they were speculative collaborative experiments focused on the possibilities of the near future.

It was this that had a profound effect on Ballard’s idea of what Sci-Fi could be, a speculation on the near future, or even the present, rather than a fantastical imagining of the distant future. Ballard’s 2008 autobiography ‘Miracles of Life’ cements the links between the exhibition and his unique brand of fiction - ‘The overall effect of This is Tomorrow was a revelation to me, and a vote of confidence, in effect, in my choice of science fiction’ [1] while he also remarks retrospectively saying it ‘was the most important event in the visual arts in Britain until the opening of Tate Modern’ [2].

The connection between Ballard and This is Tomorrow is not just that it helped the author to discover the mood of his fiction at the early stages of his career. The exhibition was also a huge turning point culturally in Britain. Pop Art and New Brutalism (an architectural movement whose development can be seen in This is Tomorrow) act as major signs that Britain was transitioning away from both its pre-war roots and post-war austerity into a more modern society. This transition can be seen as one from a Britain that Ballard did not understand or appreciate, into one which interested him, in which his fiction could be nightmarish (yet plausible) speculations rather than far-fetched fantasy.

Posters created for the exhibition by 3 of the different groups involved (Images from the V&A archive). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

‘Yesterdays tomorrow is not today, so maybe todays tomorrow won’t be quite what you expected…’ [3]

This is Tomorrow came only 5 years after the Festival of Britain, which was intended as a ‘tonic for the nation’ [4], an optimistic celebration of the potential of everything modern. The idea that the festival could have a beneficial effect on the entire nations people seems fairly naïve today, and was no doubt inspired by the example set by America. A prosperous nation that was highly modern and consumerist, how could a war-ravaged austerity Britain not look up to America? This is Tomorrow, coming a few years later and organised by a collection of angsty intellectual anti-establishment artists, seems more of an appropriate fit for fifties Britain than the Festival of Britain ever was.

Retrospectively the Festival of Britain feels like part of an American aesthetic of Googie architecture, space age imagery and soft modernism, in short: overtly optimistic about the future. The group behind This is Tomorrow, although excited about the future, and keen to move away from a stuffy traditionalist establishment, were simultaneously critical and sceptical about the future. Just as Ballard did not buy into the outer space stories of Sci-Fi, the artists behind This is Tomorrow did not buy into the idea that consumerism and technology meant everything in the future would necessarily be wonderful.

This is Tomorrow may semantically be akin to Walt Disney’s futuristic theme park Tomorrowland (opened in 1955), but it is an ambiguous exhibition title and more foreboding than optimistic. You can get a good feel for the general mood of 1956 by watching ‘The Face Of Tomorrow’ a Pathé Newsreel about the exhibition, the films tone is optimistic, and its style places the exhibition firmly in its time. The clothing, the views of Whitechapel High street, the soundtrack, the voice of it’s narrator and the whole concept of a newsreel all sit in stark contrast to just how modern the exhibition was. The artists involved in This is Tomorrow, like Ballard, were surer of the realities of the future because they were living so much closer to it.

The Face of Tomorrow, Pathé News, 1956.

One of the most strikingly modern element to be seen in the Pathé video is Edward Wright’s signage for the exhibition. Wright used a consistent typographic style across all his This is Tomorrow graphic design work and there is something extremely contemporary about its aesthetic. It also has a highly Ballardian mood; tightly packed and claustrophobic, it pulls no punches, legibility and affability were not key concerns.

The cover for the exhibition catalogue designed by Edward Wright. This copy is a facsimile reprinted in 2014.

Wright’s typography adds to the ambiguous nature of the title, set in a different typeface the message would be altered completely. Theoretically Wright’s design fits the modernist Bauhaus principles of typography; all lower-case and sans serif. Yet Wright subverts conventions; the letters are tall and tightly packed in a way that is usually necessary when space is at a premium, yet the words themselves are highly spaced or surrounded by empty space. It is vaguely unsettling and Edward Wright’s subversions of functional modernist principles set the tone for the whole exhibition whose participants were often modernists. But modernists who weren’t afraid to challenge the prevailing views of modernism, especially it’s utopian optimism.

Images from the newsreel ‘The Face of Tomorrow’ (Pathé News, 1956), showing examples of Edward Wright’s typographic signage for This is Tomorrow.

‘Pop was a resistance movement…directed against the establishment in general’ [5]

Pop art grew out of subversion of the highbrow optimism that modernism had become. It was also a rejection of the class system fixated and backwards-looking art establishment in Britain. By being obsessed with the realities of a confusing modern world and its possible future, it was also a rejection of the utopian ideals found in much of modernism. This is similiar to Ballard’s dual dissatisfaction with both popular sci-fi for being too fanciful, and mainstream British fiction for being too stuck in the past, both were disconnected from reality as Ballard saw it.

‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ Created by Richard Hamilton or John Mchale in 1956. It’s origin is now contested.

Richard Hamilton’s (or John McHale’s) ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ was created as a poster for This is Tomorrow and is seen as one of the first and most definitive works of British Pop art. Ballard says that it was ‘a convincing vision of the future that lay ahead’ [6], both Pop art and Ballard explored themes that the mainstream did not consider. Shared themes of consumerism, sex, technology, new media, automobiles, advertising, cities and most of all the critical effect that these modern issues could have on individuals and society.

The cover of the first edition of ‘Crash’, 1973.

Long before Ballard’s highly controversial and auto-erotic novel ‘Crash (released 1973) the Independent Group’s 1953 ICA exhibition ‘Parallel of Life & Art’ featured photos of car crashes. Richard Hamilton, in 1962 writing for magazine Architectural Design says ‘Sex is everywhere, symbolised in the glamour of mass-produced luxury — the interplay of fleshy plastic and smooth, fleshier metal’ [7]. The roots of the idea behind J.G Ballard’s most contentious speculation can be seen in the work and interests of Pop art. Even Andy Warhol, the best known of all Pop artists, explored car crashes in a series of works beginning in 1962.

Car crashes were a fact of life in the 20th century but it was left to radicals like Ballard and the Pop artists to consider them. Roy Lichtenstein in a 1963 interview states ‘Outside is the world; it’s there, Pop art looks out into the world’ [8]. Pop art today is often misunderstood and seen as kindred to Pop music, superficial and easy. Many children will study the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein because of their bright colours and simple aesthetic, although superficiality is one aspect of Pop art, there is of course a darker side. This is especially evident in the early days of the British wing of Pop art. It is this dark side that interested J.G Ballard and links him with Pop art, a link strengthened by his long friendship with This is Tomorrow exhibitor and one of the fathers of British Pop art - Eduardo Paolozzi.

Both Pop art and the fiction of J.G Ballard can be seen as early signs of a British postmodernism. They both explored issues of popular mass consumer culture and its impact on society in a critical way. They are both concerned with the iconography and symbols of the modern world. In fact there is a Ballardian vocabulary of contemporary signs, symbols and motifs repeated across his entire career. It is this that resonates so strongly with Pop art, in a very postmodern way.

David Pelham’s J.G Ballard book cover designs (via).

‘Modernism was never popular in Britain — a little too frank for its repressed natives’ [9]

In the same way that postmodern connections can be made between Pop art and J.G Ballard, modernist connections can be made between Ballard and architecture. His writing has always been highly associated with modern cities and their buildings. The dictionary definition of Ballardian lists ‘dystopian modernity’ and ‘bleak man-made landscapes’ [10] as conditions found in his work. Bleak man-made landscapes sounds like a phrase that could be aimed directly at Brutalist architecture by one of its many critics. There is an association between Ballard and Brutalism but it is not quite as obvious as it may first seem.

‘New Brutalism’ (after béton brut — raw concrete) was a term coined by critic and writer Reyner Banham in an Architectural Review article written the year before This is Tomorrow. He cited Alison and Peter Smithson as the key exponents in this new movement and they were part of the team (with Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson) whose This is Tomorrow installation most affected Ballard.

‘This is Tomorrow’ group 6. As seen in the exhibition catalogue (via).

Despite its rough and often foreboding aesthetic the New Brutalism is part of an overall utopian modernist movement in architecture. In his 1955 article ‘The New Brutalism’ Banham criticises earlier modernist architects who ‘go out of their way to look as if they were the products of “pure” functionalism’ [11], while Peter Smithson tells students ‘We are not going to talk about proportion and symmetry’ [12]. In essence the Brutalists challenged the clean and comfortable modernist aesthetic. They moved it in a slightly different direction, one they considered more honest and human. Yet they still agreed with the utopian possibilities of modernism and believed they could design buildings that were functional, frank and improved the lives of those living in and using them.

Poster for the upcoming Ben Wheatley film adaptation of Ballard’s ‘High Rise’

One of Ballard’s best know books ‘High Rise’ published in 1975 explores the possible psychological effects of living in a tower block. But Ballard’s dystopian skyscraper was not a critique of modernist architecture itself, in fact it was far from it. ‘Architecture is not just something to keep the rain out… they are forces acting upon our lives’ [13] says a second Pathé newsreel on This is Tomorrow, Ballard’s teenage years spent in a Japanese interment camp in Shanghai meant that throughout his adult life he was well aware the effects environment and isolation could have. The Brutalists also knew architecture could have a profound effect on people, and hoped they could make it a positive one, whereas Ballard wondered — could the modern environment actually bring out the worst in people? What he saw as a dark side present in humanity.

This Is Tomorrow, Pathé News, 1956.

‘Housing schemes, factories and office blocks designed by modernist architects were clear-headed and geometric, suggesting clean and unembellished lives for the people inside them’ [14] for Ballard these clean unembellished lives, far from making people happy, could uncover a hidden psychopathology. The brutalist housing estates were essentially social experiments, to discover if modernist architecture and planning could make people happy. They acted as perfect self-contained laboratories; similarly for Ballard the high-rise block was an incubator for his speculations about the human psyche. But a modernist towerblock was just one such test zone, throughout his career upper class villages, shopping malls, Spanish resorts, business parks, Pacific atolls and suburban satellite towns would also serve a similar purpose.

In the B.S Johnson documentary ‘The Smithsons on Housing’, made for the BBC in 1970, Peter Smithson says he regards their Robin Hood Gardens estate as ‘a demonstration of a more enjoyable way of living’ [15]. Despite signs of optimism from the Smithsons, the documentary is offset by a lot of pessimism. They often seem to be resigned in defeat about the nature of the people they are building for. With an attitude that seems to have more in common with Ballard’s thoughts on the dark destructive potential of the human psyche than with a modernist optimism that design could improve ordinary lives. Only 35 seconds into the documentary Alison Smithson says that perhaps they should ‘just leave people where they are to smash it up in complete abandon and happiness’ [16].

B.S Johnson’s 1970 BBC2 documentary ‘The Smithsons on Housing’.

The Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens, along with most of the brutalist housing experiments, have retrospectively been deemed failures. In truth this can be mostly put down to the deprived populations they housed, who were often left to fester rather than bloom in these sealed off incubators. As philosopher critic Henri Lefebvre says in his book ‘Writings on Cities’ (1996) ‘The Architect is no more miracle-worker than the sociologist. Neither can create social relations’. Many of these brutalist estates now house a very happy middle and upper class population, the sort that could very easily be Ballardian protagonists. The problems of the working class can be seen as rational, a side effect of poverty and political problems. Ballard was more interested in the irrational potential of a very affluent society. One afflicted with a boredom and lack of affect, both caused by the modern world.

There is a similar interest in affluence in the writings of Architectural theorist Theo Crosby. Who himself was part of This is Tomorrow in a team which also included designer Edward Wright. Crosby is credited as originator of the entire idea behind the exhibition. There are many ominous and Ballardian thoughts on affluence in his 1965 book Architecture: City Sense (although Crosby’s pessimism on affluence is offset by an optimism about the future of poverty) ;

‘In the future the problems will not be slums and poverty, but the sprawl of suburbia, and aimless affluence’ [17]

‘Our civilisation, poised uneasily between affluence and oblivion’ [18]

‘Affluence, not poverty, is the problem of the sixties. Twenty years of technical and social progress have changed the situation’ [19]

Being grounded in reality meant there was a limit to how far these architects and theorists could expand their anxieties, and that’s where J.G. Ballard’s speculative fiction was able to step in and explore these modern possibilities, taking them to their nightmare conclusions.

‘Strange, exasperating, too much for some people to swallow. But giving everybody something to think about…’ [20]

This closing line from the ‘This is Tomorrow’ Pathé newsreel, spoken by the narrator, in a quintessentially nineteen fifties RP accent, over a lingering close-up shot of collaged garish food photographs, could appropriately be applied to the majority of Ballard’s work between 1956 and his death in 2009. In many ways the strongest link between Ballard’s writing and the works of art on show at This is Tomorrow is a shared refusal to aim to please the public, to be easy and affable. Ballard, like the Pop artists and New Brutalists, was tired of the British establishment and it’s conventions. They all wanted to alter the prevailing mood and challenge their audiences to get out of their comfort zones and think in real terms about the future. Ballard’s own youth in an Americanized Shanghai made him an outsider in Britain and this was a position that would define his entire life and work. The young radicals of This is Tomorrow would have been an inspirational factor in his embracing of outsider status.

Ballard’s love of art is well known; from his autobiography and many interviews it is clear that surrealism was one of the biggest artistic influences on his work. However visiting This Is Tomorrow would have also had a big impact on the young Ballard, in terms of structure as well as content. The work on show was not presented as finished pieces; they were explorations in process and experimental ways of communicating ideas. This is also usually true of Ballard, in his most Ballardian stories the idea is always key, other aspects that are usually important in regular fiction often feel totally inconsequential. Ballard and a few of his contemporaries moved from being Sci-Fi writers to ‘Speculative Fiction’ writers. His fiction from the very start was a vehicle for exploring ideas about the future and human nature, what he termed ‘Inner Space’. So it is no surprise that short stories make up the majority of his output. Short stories, like the collaborative methods of This is Tomorrow, allowed for a much easier and less pressured exploration of ideas.

Although perhaps misunderstood and under appreciated at the time, we can now look back at the speculations of Ballard, and all the people involved in This is Tomorrow, and say definitively that they were living on the leading edge of the real future that we see around us today, rather than yesterdays tomorrow.

A series of speculative book covers I designed for J.G Ballard, using a typographic style inspired by Edward Wright’s designs for ‘This is Tomorrow’ and photographs from the books of Theo Crosby. I hoped to achieve an appropriately Ballardian aesthetic that references the significance the exhibition had on his work.

[1] J.G Ballard, Miracles of Life (2008), p.188.

[2] ibid., p.187.

[3] Pathé News, ‘The Face Of Tomorrow’ (1956)

[4] Gerald Barry, 1951. V&A Designing Britain

[5] John Russell quoted in — Simon Wilson, Pop (1974), p.34.

[6] J.G Ballard, Miracles of Life (2008), p.188–9.

[7] Simon Wilson, Pop (1974), p.39.

[8] ibid., p.4.

[9] J.G Ballard, ‘Handful of Dust’ (2006), The Guardian, 20th March.

[10] Collins English Dictionary

[11] & [12] Reyner Banham ‘The New Brutalism’ (1955), Architectural Design, January.

[13] Pathé News, ‘This is Tomorrow’ (1956)

[14] J.G Ballard, ‘Handful of Dust’ (2006), The Guardian, 20th March.

[15] & [16] B.S Johnson, The Smithsons on Housing (1970), BBC2.

[17] Theo Crosby, Architecture: City Sense (1965), p.5.

[18] ibid., p.20.

[19] ibid., back cover.

[20] Pathé News, The Face Of Tomorrow (1956)

Like what you read? Give Theo Inglis a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.