Friday, 9 June 2017

ART IMITATING LIFE - High-Rise and Brutalism


There is a strange familiarity to watching Ben Wheatley's adaptation of J. G. Ballard's 1975 novel High-Rise. The retrofuturism utilised over the more popular postmodern/high-tech style's of speculative fiction lands the film in an alternate 1970's, where the utopian dreams of modernist architects are still held in high regard, but the microcosm of class society that inhabits the block of flats leads ultimately to chaos and violence. The style of the high-rise is distinctly Brutalist, a post-war style favoured by governments around the world for its functionality, and used mainly for municipal complexes and housing estates.

The architect of the high-rise is Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), unironically named, who designed these towers as a way to "live free from the shackles of the old tired world", fitted with schools, gyms and a supermarket, and housing people from all areas of life, but with an obvious hierarchy; the working class (though not poverty stricken) live on the lower floors, with each richer group reaching higher up until you get to Royal, the proverbial all powerful creator, living at the top. The building starts to disintegrate quickly after our protagonist Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves in, with blackouts happening frequently and the rubbish piling up, resulting in class warfare, as the rich at the top look to sacrifice the poor to regain power over the tower.


High-Rise has its roots in many sources, no less a disgruntled ground-floor tenant in a tower block on the Costa Brava, and Wheatley states in an interview with Anna Winston of his viewpoint: "The film is not a criticism of post-war architecture, it's more that the building is a metaphor... I think whenever you try to take a god-like view and try to force social stuff on to people and have an overarching idea of how people are going to live, you're opening yourself up for trouble". However, it is impossible not to be reminded of some of the real life housing projects that inspired High-Rise.

Superstar architect Le Corbusier designed the unrealised Contemporary City in 1922. Supposed to house 3 million people, and with a big emphasis on its collection of sixty story skyscrapers and road networks, critic Robert Hughes later went on to describe it as too unyielding; "being random was loathed by Le Corbusier... its inhabitants surrender their freedom of movement to the omnipresent architect". In 1952 Le Corbusier's residential Unité d'habitation opened in Marseille, using the much cheaper raw concrete instead of steel, and instigating the Brutalist aesthetic. As well as the apartments, the unit houses shops, medical, sports and educational facilities, a hotel and, indulgently, an architectural bookshop and a restaurant called The Architects Belly. Playfully, the flats are nicknamed La Maison du Fada, The Nutter's House, by the residents.

Photo by Dom Garcier

Influenced by Le Corbusier, Ernő Goldfinger became renowned for his residential tower blocks he designed for the British government to house those who's homes were destroyed in World War II. Two of his most famous designs are in London: Trellick Tower and Balfron Tower. These towers became icons of the Brutalist style, as well inhabiting the fundamental problems of using concrete and steel, mainly that they degenerate quickly. Many of these buildings were used for social housing, and its a pathetic irony that these people and the councils that own them couldn't afford the upkeep, leading to some of these Brutalist buildings to be ultimately demolished

Fun Fact: Goldfinger lived with his wife on the 25th floor of Balfron Tower for a couple of months and held champagne parties, so as to learn from the residents their opinions of the tower, and prove that living in a high-rise was desirable. While Goldfinger didn't stay long, others did, and the building soon became prey to anti-social behaviour and "pretty much a no-go area". Now, with it's Grade II listed building status, regeneration means council tenants have been moved out in favour of richer middle class people who want to own a slice of history.


There is emphasis that the tower block in High-Rise is its own being, like a human body, with a personality. Laing describes it as "prone to fits of mania, narcissism and power failure". The building was created by Royal, but he is akin to an ineffectual god, unable to control his creation, and unwilling to take responsibility for his mistakes. It is commented in the film that the building failed because there was too many different "elements" (people) for it to work functionally, but maybe, as Hughes commented earlier, the residents were unable to give up their freedom to the modernist Royal. Constrained in the concrete "streets in the sky" and told that all their needs were met, a couple of minor problems was all it took to turn the residents feral. 

High-Rise is an exaggerated example of social planning, but it holds within it the reality of many idealist architects. These buildings are dreams on the part of their designers, and many failed because they are too delicate to exist, requiring extreme levels of micromanaging that would boarder on sociopathic. Royal's tower failed because he saw himself as a champion of the future, instead of enabling people to have agency over their own existence.

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