# LITERATURE /// Psychotropic Houses by James Graham Ballard


Living Pod by David Greene (Archigram) in 1966

It has been a long time that I wanted to write a post about the short story The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista in the book Vermilion Sands written by James Graham Ballard between 1956 and 1970 (and published in 1971).
In fact, this story introduces a very peculiar type of houses that Ballard entitled Psychotropic (ethymologically: that is stimulated by the mind). Those houses physically reacts to their inhabitant’s mood and stress and thus adapt their spatiality to them.

…it consisted of six huge aluminum-shelled spheres suspended like the elements of a mobile from an enormous concrete davit. The largest sphere contained the lounge, the others successively smaller and spiraling upward into the air, the bedrooms and kitchen…
Stamers, the agent, left us sitting in the car… and switched the place on (all the houses in Vermillion Sands, it goes without saying, were psychotropic). There was a dim whirring, and the spheres tipped and began to rotate, brushing against the undergrowth.

…I got out and walked over to the entrance, the main sphere slowing as I approached, uncertainly steering a course toward me, the smaller ones following.

…As I stepped forward, it jerked away, almost in alarm, the entrance retracting and sending a low shudder through the rest of the spheres.

It’s always interesting to watch a psychotropic house try to adjust itself to strangers, particularly those at all guarded or suspicious. The responses vary, a blend of past reactions to negative emotions, the hostility of the previous tennants…

…Stamers was fiddling desperately with the control console recessed into the wall behind the door, damping the volume down as low as possible…

He smiled thinly at me. “Circuits are a little worn. Nothing serious…”

(excerpts from Technovelgy)

Of course, like in every Ballardian narratives, as soon as a technology is described or invented, its degeneration and its loss of control has to be introduced as well. In the Thousand Dreams of Stellavista, the narrator buys a psychotropic house that used to belong to a couple whose wife killed her husband. The house  remembers the crime and tries to reproduce its conditions in the same way that a patient in psychoanalysis can reconstitutes his trauma under hypnose. The narrator, in an obsessive curiosity associated by a tendency for masochism, follows this architectural ‘crisis’ until its climax when the house attempts to assassinate him.

Then suddenly the room grew calm. A second later, just as I had raised myself on one elbow, a violent spasm shook it, twisting the walls and raising the bed off the floor. The whole house began to tremble and twist. Caught at the center of this epileptic seizure, the bedroom alternately contracted and expanded like the ventricles of a dying heart.”

This description makes me think very much to the theories of Eyal Weizman who has been interested in “forensic architecture” (see the article I wrote about urbicide) and more specifically the military strategies of crimes using building as weapons able to collapse on their inhabitants.
In the same spirit, Bernard Tschumi in its Architecture and Disjunction, in a chapter about architecture and sadism wrote: “The rooms are too small or too big, the ceilings too low or too high. Violence exercised by and through space is spatial torture.”