Up and Away
Dancing about architecture may be impossible (or “stupid,” if I want to accurately quote Elvis Costello, who coined the phrase), but “acting” about architecture? As High-Rise, a new film directed by Ben Wheatley and based on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, makes clear, the built environment can be far more than just a set piece.
Set in the 1970s, High-Rise is the story of Robert Laing, a young doctor seduced by a residential tower block in London. The building, really a small vertical city, is divided so the super-rich reside on the upper floors, the rich live in the middle, and the middle class live on the lower floors. With residents seduced by the insularity and glamour of its co-habitants, chaos ensues as the high-rise, and its social strata, begin to crumble. Imagine Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange cross-wired with the faulty towers in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and an apocalyptic class polemic akin to 2013’s Snowpiercer.
From the start, the conceptual framework of the film is built around an impressive geometrical precision similar to the building in which it is set, and creates a feeling of a laboratory experiment, less a narrative where we are supposed or care about the characters, and more like a thought exercise meant to explore the inner space of buildings, and what they represent psychologically, spiritually, physically, and more. Taking this a step further, one could easily view the building itself as the main protagonist in the film, with the imbedded class strata carrying not-so-subtle Freudian representations of the ego, id and super id, and it’s actually the building going insane, not the occupants.
None of this will be any surprise to fans of Ballard: his novels repeatedly explore how physical landscapes affect the psyches of his characters, in particular “gated” or segregated ones. However, as interesting as these tropes may be from a literary or narrative perspective, I quickly found myself in this thought exercise being drawn to more allegorical explorations of urban environments. I was reminded, for instance, of Jane Jacobs’ argument that urban violence can be mitigated by designs and layouts that exploit the natural surveillance of open spaces inside and outside buildings, something that high-rise buildings notably lack.
Architecture enthusiasts will no doubt feel right at home here, and have fun picking out the Brutalist design cues that were lifted from “a moment in design that looked to the future and was still excited about it,” said Wheatley in an interview with The Guardian. “Now we mainly see dystopia or a white, shiny iPod future. The idea of a book looking to a future that has already happened and making a film looking back to the past to show a possible future was interesting.”
And yes, the class warfare elements cannot be ignored, but in and of itself, High-Rise is not the place to come looking for moral commentary about the bleak economic and social inequality that seems to be evident everywhere these days – like the events in Baltimore, Ferguson and other American cities, set against the rise of mega-towers and the spread of gated communities for the super-rich, and the fact that there were 40 million more slum dwellers worldwide in 2012 than there were in 2010, according to the UN. But what I admired about this film, and a growing number of similar ones, is that it takes architecture and urban design out of the background and places its importance in everyday life in the foreground, forcing us to think about the social dimension of architecture and design and how it is an integral part of the challenges familiar to cities and communities around the world.