high rise

high-rise-movie-poster-4In which the skyscraper gets a blazing critique, class warfare ensues, and no dog is safe…

J.G. Ballard was a grad school discovery for me.  Best known for his memoir of survival and escape as a British child in wartime Shanghai, Empire of the Sun, the bulk of his work was insanely well-crafted dystopian science fiction, always set in a plausible future and almost invariably obsessed with ruined–or ruinous–technology gone awry.  His short stories were masterful set pieces that dug deep into the psychology of the space-age, perfect stuff as a cool-down to seminar reading lists full of Frederic Jameson on hyperspace, and evidence aplenty for a master’s thesis on airport design and culture in the late 20th century.  Crash, his most infamous work, took place on the service and access roads around Heathrow, making it required (if, given its subject matter, tough) reading…

Ah, memories.  Ballard shows up in class whenever we get talking about critiques of technology in the 60s and 70s, along with McLuhan and drop-out culture.  And I dive back into Memories of the Space Age whenever a good, weird hit of Burroughs-esque decadence with ruinous scenery seems appropriate–“At dusk Sheppard was still sitting in the cockpit of the stranded aircraft, unconcerned by the evening tide that advanced toward him across the beach” is a great opening line, and I can’t imagine anyone not reading further.  (And if you do keep reading “Myths of the Near Future” there’s a dead spouse, an abandoned launch complex and motel, and an epidemic of a psychosomatic ‘space sickness’ to keep you going).

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAQfAAAAJGNlYTZlOTNlLWRjYmItNDY2NS1hMDYwLWQ1NGZhYTRjZTYwNABallard took on megastructural architecture in 1975’s High Rise, a novel that, like Crash, revealed a psychic horror show beneath the promises of mechanical efficiency, automatic servicing, and the engineering of human emotions and desires implicit in post-industrial technology.  His target was pretty clearly the Brutalist housing towers that had risen in his adopted hometown of London; Erno Goldfinger’s brilliant, unapologetic, and hugely despised Trellick Tower had been completed in 1972.  Ballard was both appalled and fascinated by the phenomenon, and examined the  implications of such a massive piece of social engineering in excruciating detail.  In his scenario, the tower is stratified by class–subsidized tenants live on the lower floors, market-rate-paying professionals on the upper.  At the top is the architect himself, Anthony Royal.  Told through the eyes of a physiologist, Dr. Robert Laing, the novel traces the slow decline of the enforced community as the building malfunctions.  Tenants begin fighting one another for increasingly scarce services and amenities, and eventually the high rise becomes contested territory for a civil war in miniature.  It’s a good story, well-told, and chilling to anyone who’s stood in an apartment elevator wondering if their fellow passenger is the one who left the rotting vegetables out next to the jammed trash chute…

high-rise-novelBallard’s writing is incredibly cinematic, but difficult to translate to the screen–a film version of Crash by David Cronenberg in 1997 got reviews ranging from luke warm to scathingly appalled.  The studio almost refused to release it for its literal renditions of Ballard’s admittedly twisted mashup of sex, violence, and trauma.  So when I saw posters for the film version of High Rise in the London Tube a couple of months ago I was both thrilled–and skeptical.

The film is out in America now, not so much in theaters but all over streaming services.  And it’s worth a look.  It definitely captures Ballard’s full-throated ambivalence about the megastructure, with lingering and beautiful shots of its grotesque, raked profile on a smog-filled skyline and obsessive art direction that gives the interiors a lush, threatening atmosphere somewhere between the shag carpets and angular, bush-hammered concrete of the early 1970s and an imagined future of razor-sharp haircuts and post-modern costume parties.  Tom Hiddleston stars as Laing, but he could be any number of Ballard’s characters–utterly without affect, often at a loss to understand the forces compelling and influencing him, but fashionable, cool, and only intermittently the conscience of the film.  Jeremy Irons stars as Anthony Royal, and he’s all film-villain architect, compulsively manipulating the lives of the building’s tenants, spouting utopian theories that are totally at odds with the crude, gesturing profiles of his towers and–Mies, anyone?–inhabiting a penthouse apartment where the decoration goes as far as it can to contradict and soften the otherwise unyielding hardness of the rest of the building.

4262High-Rise has had generally good reviews–the Telegraph called it “coolly immaculate,” which is about right.  It stays true to Ballard’s tightrope walk between the horror and thrills that come with any confrontation with the technological sublime, all the while finding moments of lush beauty and disgust in the violent and erotic connotations of a society in which the rules gradually disappear, in which anything goes, and in which the very architecture seems to eviscerate any sense of morality or ethics.  Ben Wheatley’s direction veers toward understanding the psychology of such a wartime situation in shockingly domestic surroundings, but ultimately it makes the disturbing decision to revel in the weird decadence that emerges in the apocalyptic society that forms out of the building’s filth and decay.  Think Mad Max meets Clockwork Orange, with a touch of Reyner Banham thrown in.  It’s not quite a substantive architectural critique, but it’s a pretty good ride, and the queasy beauty its production design lends it is weirdly convincing.

Perhaps most laudable is Wheatley’s decision to start the film just as the novel starts, with another of Ballard’s incomparable openings:

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

That’s a pretty good indicator of the grotesque but compelling action to come, and the film is, for better or for worse, super true to the tone and (ahem) the events Ballard conjured up.  Recommended?  Sure, but only if you can make it through that first scene intact…

2 thoughts on “high rise

  1. You should publish a book of your architecture farm essays!! This is wonderful…

    From: architecturefarm <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: architecturefarm <comment+l6tgw3dtf2gnn-t-wqgbxq@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Thursday, May 26, 2016 at 9:57 AM To: Teddi Barron <tbarron@iastate.edu> Subject: [New post] high rise

    twleslie posted: “In which the skyscraper gets a blazing critique, class warfare ensues, and no dog is safe… J.G. Ballard was a grad school discovery for me. Best known for his memoir of survival and escape as a British child in wartime Shanghai, Empire of the Sun, the”

    Liked by 1 person

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