When We Feared Skyscraper Living

Los Angeles Review of Books
October 15, 2016
J. G. Ballard’s “High-Rise”: When We Feared Skyscraper Living

HIGH-RISE, the film version of J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, hit British screens in March and American theaters at the end of April. Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, and Luke Evans star as the inhabitants of a new 40-story apartment tower in the London Docklands whose self-contained world turns catastrophically deadly. The residents’ problems start with rudeness and class friction. Small, seemingly logical steps lead to social disorder, gang violence, warfare between floors (folks on upper floors own dogs, lower floors have children), gang violence, and the death of hundreds of the tower’s inhabitants. The building, designed to be substantially self-contained with its own shopping floor and swimming pools, so disorients its residents that they forget their jobs in the outside world, cut contact with friends and relatives, and descend into a war of all against all. We see the mounting disaster through the detached eyes of physiologist Robert Laing (Hiddleston), who relishes the building’s impersonality, enjoys sex with unattached Charlotte Melville (Miller) and married Helen Wilder (Moss), and manages to survive at least three months of social implosion. We see him in the same scene at the start and end of the film, roasting and eating a rather handsome dog and reflecting on the future: “He’d now sit back to wait for failure to reach the second tower of the high rise development, ready to welcome its residents into the new world.”

In 2016, when skyscrapers are in and high-rise living is one of the components of “smart growth,” it takes a bit of imagination to recover the architectural fears of the 1970s that inspired Ballard’s novel. From the 1940s through the 1970s, Western Europeans and white Americans shared fears of two different catastrophes — nuclear bombs and what Paul Ehrlich in 1968 called The Population Bomb. Ehrlich was updating earlier work by Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr. in Our Plundered Planet (1948) and William Vogt in Road to Survival (1948). As Miles Powell has shown, both had sounded a common theme. World population was spiraling unsustainably out of control, and the problem lay in the prolific darker-skinned peoples of the Global South. Time magazine put “That Population Explosion” on its January 11, 1960, cover with a montage image of dark-skinned mothers, children, and infants.

In the hands of science fiction writers like J. G. Ballard, fears of overpopulation morphed into nightmares of overcrowded living. Probably the best known example is the film Soylent Green (1973), based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! Both the book and the movie depicted a New York in which an excess of residents crowd into tiny, claustrophobic rooms. Families hang out at the city morgue to learn when an apartment might become vacant; one such family evicts the main character from his one-room apartment after his flatmate dies because their numbers give them legal claim to the square footage.

Robert Silverberg’s novel The World Inside (1971) posited a world in which 75 billion humans live in megabuilding “urban monads” that are cheerful dystopias a thousand stories high. “Urbmon” society encourages sex for procreation from the early teens, has no nudity taboo, and promotes open promiscuity, with any woman theoretically available to any man. The structures that house the busy billions are exaggerations of urban ideas common in the 1960s. They are grouped in clusters with names like Chipitts, Boshwash, Sansan, and Wienbud: terms coined following publication of Jean Gottmann’s Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States in 1961, which described the Boston–Washington corridor as an emerging urban super region. The millions who inhabit the vast structures survive by internalizing the social imperative to be happy. Misfits are put in their place, tossed down mile-high garbage chutes.

When Ballard followed with High-Rise, he had already written two stories that highlighted the sheer scale of future cities in an overpopulated world and the potentially appalling consequences for daily life. “The Concentration City,” an early work from 1957, described a future American city of nearly infinite size. This megacity of unspecified billions is subject to periodic structural collapses that can squash “half a million people like flies in a concertina” and undergoes constant redevelopment, carving miles-square gaps in the urban fabric. “Billennium” (1961) took the fear of density to the opposite extreme. Within it, the Malthusian pressure of population on food requires the British government to halt the outward growth of London in order to preserve every scrap of farmland, forcing the “internal colonization of the city.” Londoners literally live in closets, on stairway landings, and in partitioned cubicles where five square meters is enough floor space for a double. The streets are so thronged that pedestrians can compact into a “lock” that holds everyone immobile, in one case trapping the protagonist Ward with 70,000 others into a jam that did not clear for two days (Google Ngrams suggests that the word “gridlock” also dates to around 1962).

John B. Calhoun’s notorious experiments with overcrowded rats, which he popularized in Scientific American, also in 1962, under the title “Population Density and Social Pathology,” put too many rats into too small a box and watched them turn nasty. Social critics immediately projected the findings from rodents to people, forgetting that rats lack governments, laws, religious codes, and other cultural paraphernalia that reduce the pathologies of human societies.

The problems created by high-rise warehouses for the poor, such as the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis, were common fodder for social theorists in the 1970s. Because these projects were heavily populated by African Americans, the critique of such projects often drew on Calhoun’s dubious science to reinforce the racism of “population bomb” rhetoric.
Ballard grabbed on to these indictments, transposed them to middle-class Britain, and narrated apocalypse in a high-rise test tube. Ballard’s takeaway for High-Rise was the inevitability of a downward spiral, a sort of “broken windows” theory of crime taken to extremes. Richard Wilder (Evans), a hotheaded documentary filmmaker from the lower floors who turns thuggish agitator and then bestial avenger, draws the connection directly, referencing “the psychological pressures of high-rise life” as a reason for social chaos and his own descent toward madness.

The film carefully sticks to the 1975 setting of the novel. The building reflects the period’s fascination with the raw concrete masses of brutalist architecture. The decade’s ubiquitous Che Guevara poster appears on an apartment wall, partygoers snort cocaine, and the soundtrack includes a cover by Portishead of ABBA’s 1975 hit “SOS.” It ends with the voice of Margaret Thatcher — just elected leader of the Conservatives in 1975 but still four years from 10 Downing Street — defining the difference between free-market capitalism and socialism.

The Iron Lady’s words evoke the deep divide between capital and labor, but the class divisions in High-Rise are less economic than social. Every apartment dweller belongs to the new class of information workers: barrister, physician, architect, television executive. In early scenes, they bustle out of the building swinging attaché cases in lockstep. The distinctions between floors revolve around subtle social markers and behaviors (Laing makes the mistake of bringing an inadequately pricey bottle of wine to an upper-floor party and is quickly shoved back into the elevator). As the tensions build to disaster, fops on the upper floors dream of replacing lower residents with a driving range and cricket nets, not about sweating more production from factory workers.

The homogeneity of residents makes it difficult to tell second-tier characters apart. One upper-middle-class twit (either male or female) seems much like the next. The action doesn’t help, alternating between parties where nearly everyone acts the same (smug cocktail swigging in the early going, naked orgies later on) and quick cutting scenes of mounting chaos with blackouts, accumulating piles of garbage, and fights over the last of the food in the 15th-floor market. Viewers know that the building is going to hell, but the sequential stages of ruin that Ballard clearly outlines in the novel are collapsed into a narrative muddle.

High-Rise was and is a barbed satire on urban planning. When the novel appeared in 1975, it skewered Britain on the verge of the Margaret Thatcher years when the gospel of free markets impoverished the public sphere, and when the Docklands district would go through cycles of real estate boom and bust. Ballard undercut the pretensions of star architects and top-down planners, anticipating Michel de Certeau’s commentary, in The Practice of Everyday Life, on the limitations of panoptic views of cities compared to the actual experience of walking the streets. The building’s architect Anthony Royal (Irons) lives on the top floor and views his creation as a “crucible for change,” but it is the middling folks lower down whose anger fuels spatialized class warfare and turns his social experiment to disaster.

The film gives women contradictory roles true to the ambiguous 1970s. For most of the way they are second-class citizens: trophy wife, washed-up actress, desperate housewife, rape victim. Rumor has it that men are bartering their wives for food on some floors. But as the men destroy each other in power games and open battles, the women gather and protect the building’s children and slowly band together. As the film nears its end, Wilder manages to make his way up blocked stairways to the penthouse and shoot Anthony Royal. Moments later he is stabbed to death by respectable British ladies transformed into maenads. The implication at the end is that a handful of men survive in scattered apartments while women and children now occupy the top floors.

In one context, High-Rise is an updated entry into the venerable genre in which journalists have explored and reported on the mysteries of downtrodden East London. Victorian reformers and sensationalists compared East London slums to the unknown interior of Africa, and Jack London wrote of his months among “The People of the Abyss.” The jam-packed tenements and rookeries of 1875 are now substituted in 1975 by vast empty fields of rubble, concrete, and weeds, interspersed with high-rise apartment towers and construction cranes on the horizon. The East London jungle has turned to desert, and the pathologies of the abjectly poor are reimagined as the pathologies of the middle class (women as maenads fit the venerable urban jungle metaphor). Producer Jeremy Thomas and actor Tom Hiddleston seem to have an affinity not only for science fiction and fantasy but also for urban dereliction — East London here, abandoned Detroit in their previous film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).

The film is closer to surrealism than to science fiction, resonating with the psychologically trapped dinner guests in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. The spookiest feature in High-Rise may be the withdrawal of its residents into the miniature world of the building. Early on, its parking lot is filled with shiny late-model cars; by the end, it is virtually empty except for piles of garbage. One by one, residents start calling in sick, then take extended leaves from the jobs that financed their tony apartments. Even the strongest personalities find that they can’t leave, even when they claim that is what they want. The police and other public authorities, oddly enough, ignore the building even as its parking lot fills with smashed and abandoned cars. Ballard explains the reclusion of residents with the psychological justification that the building infantilizes residents by providing all their wants, allowing them to revert to uncontrolled two-year-olds. The movie recycles this dubious idea when Laing’s voice-over describes the chaos as “a huge children’s party gone bad.”

However, the film also suggests a stronger science fiction connection when Anthony Royal says that he wants to “colonize the sky.” Ballard made more of this, describing the tower as both “a small vertical city, its two thousand inhabitants boxed up into the sky” and as a spaceship. It is an earthbound analogue of a generation starship, a science fiction standby utilized by science fiction writers from Robert Heinlein (“Universe” in 1941) to Kim Stanley Robinson (Aurora in 2015). A generation ship is another miniature world, a self-contained spacecraft that takes hundreds of years to voyage between solar systems, with the middle generations knowing only the interior of the ship. In Heinlein’s seminal version and in Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (1958), the command deck ceased to function, life-support systems deteriorated, and colonists devolved to tribal warfare within confined spaces. Substitute the architect for the ship’s officers, building maintenance for life support, and the separate floors of the high-rise for the decks and compartments inside the generation ship, and the analogy is complete. Generation ship mysteries usually end with the hero rediscovering the lost purpose of the vessel. Ballard has no such hope, giving us, perhaps, Non-Stop meets Lord of the Flies.

Robert Laing is unlikely to have read William Vogt or Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr., with their fears of overpopulation and their implicit call for a reduced planetary population of (mostly) white Americans and Northern Europeans. At the film’s end, however, he is enjoying the elbow room of a thoroughly depopulated high-rise and blithely contemplating the similar culling of the unfit from tower number two.

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