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This cult novel of 1970’s offers a dystopian look at the cost of the luxurious high life.
JG Ballard's High-Rise book falls down in the air in front of a high rise building

Dr. Robert Laing is sitting on the balcony of his apartment on the 25th floor of the high-rise, contemplatively eating a dog while thinking about the absurd and sinister events befallen on the inhabitants of the tower.

This is the start of the cult 1970’s novel High-Rise by J.G. Ballard about a dystopia told in the scale of an apartment building. It is certainly an interesting read in a world where new high-rise residence complexes tower at alarming speeds in our cities. Architecture, particularly the isolated and brutalist approach to housing, plays a key role in this satire of “star architects” and their misled approach to creating an urban utopia.

Luxury Living to Die For

The events in the book are set in a high-rise residence of 40 floors, consisting of 1000 apartments filled with respected white-collar professionals. The tower is designed as a vertical city, where the daily life functions are almost exclusively self-contained in the building: a supermarket, swimming pools, a bank, a junior school and a sculpture park for all to enjoy on the roof level.

However, as the critical services, infrastructure and amenities of the building start to fail, passive-aggressive tensions among the residents eventually rise, escalating to violence and mayhem.

Almost like a Lord of Flies turn of events, the self-declared elites and the upper class society inevitably spiral down into uncivilized chaos, where the top and lower floors battle for dominance on the battleground of the middle floors.

What is truly shocking and intriguing is how easily the “elite and rich” succumb to feral behavior and primal urges, egged on by the deteriorating conditions of the high-rise.

Still from the movie High-Rise showing an angle of a brutalist building looking down towards a car park.
Still from the movie High-Rise

Ballard's High Rise

Could the same story be set in a community of individual houses? Perhaps. However, what is crucial in the unfolding events is the ongoing and reinforced architectural symbol the tower presents. Throughout the novel, and later seen in the movie adaptation, it is impossible not to see the commentary on life in high-rise through Ballard’s choice of setting. The structure in the book is an architectural metaphor, where the architect playing god and forcefully creating a “new world” is the crime and the rapid descent of elites into a feral state the consequence.

The imagery of a giant, impersonal block towering towards the sky is key to communicate the oppression of the lower floor residents, crushed under the weight of all the unknown lives above them. Throughout the book, the summit of the building is set as the goal to success, both in previous chapters where the more influential reside at the top and later to “capture” the high-rise.

Still from the movie High-Rise showing a brutalist building on a cloudy sky background
Still from the movie High-Rise

In today’s world, the self-contained, compact high-rise is marketed as a convenient, modern and luxurious lifestyle. Particularly in high density urban settings dealing with traffic and commute, the idea of a convenient complex might seem appealing. However, Ballard also highlights the alienating, impersonal and out-of-scale characteristics of the tower residences.

“People in high-rises tended not to care about tenants more than two floors below them.” –High-Rise, J.G. Ballard

In a building where the premise is to be the height of civilisation and daily convenience, the lack of human scale is striking. The vast spaces around the tower complex and the immense volume of the building itself create a sense of complete isolation among the inhabitants, who start to accept the building as their real-life, and everything outside of it as irrelevant interruptions. This unnatural state of dwelling-dweller relationship is one of the key failures of the residence.

The high-rise is also described to be highly impersonalized. The alienating, barren concrete structures that dominate the landscape are likened to “giants that have succeeded in colonizing the sky,” only containing the thousands of residents, not serving to them. The difficulty of self-expression within the identical units, a lack of unity and sense of neighborhood, and an indifference to other habitants lead to outbursts of discrimination, confrontation and violence as positive alternatives to complete isolation.

These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives, which, needing nothing, were never disappointed. –High-Rise, J.G. Ballard
An image looking up at the Walkie-Talkie Building in London
20 Fenchurch Street in London

Rising to the Age old Question

So, is J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise a warning for the future of society? Certainly not. This book is neither a documentary nor a morbid premonition. However, it is a satire on the architects’ ego and the power of architecture on human psyche.

The novel evokes the age-old question: Can architecture influence society? Or more precisely, can the place you live change your behaviour?

The reality of the situation is definitely not as dire as Ballard’s depiction. However, neither is it too promising, according to a meta-study in 2007 by Robert Gilford. The study has found that high-rise residents have fewer friendships with their neighbours and are less likely to help each other. The children growing up in such structures are likely to have behaviour problems. Crime, fear of crime and depression rate is also greater in high-rise buildings.

So, we find that the main responsibility is on the architect, who is tasked with creating a dense structure with all its social complexities. At this critical moment, the architects should focus on the realistic, nuanced requirements of the inhabitants rather than playing god and creating a structure to house their own fantasies. Because as Ballard suggests, the architect’s failure may eventually become the downfall of every inhabitant.

A black and white image of the London skyline
London’s current skyline is dominated by high-rises

From Real Life to Movie Screen

Architecturally speaking, there are many real-life examples to the High-Rise. In fact, J.G. Ballard has been inspired by several brutalist structures in London, more precisely the Balfron and Trellick Towers by Ernö Goldfinger. Their cold, concrete façades and imposing volumes unquestionably leave a disturbing imprint on the mind. Curiously, Goldfinger has also lived in his building for a few months, before realizing his architectural mistakes and shortly moving out.

In the movie adaptation of the book, visual echoes of the famous Barbican Estate in Central London can also be found in the brutalist aesthetic of the structures.

Image of Barbican Estate balconies stacked on top of each other, made of brute concrete and no decoration
The Barbican Estate – image © Joas Souza Photographer

Several parallels can also be drawn between the book and Le Corbusier, who also believed that “architecture could transform the moral and sentimental lives of its inhabitants.” His urban planning and housing projects can be seen as an influence on High-Rise, such as the Radiant City and the Plan Voisin, with their huge concrete structures and intimidatingly vast open spaces. The only notable difference is that Le Corbusier’s plans were intended for the common people, unlike in the book.

An architectural model of Le Corbusier's Radiant City project, with multiple high rise buildings shapes like crosses.
Radiant City by Le Corbusier

In an age where high-rises are the most common and easiest solutions to the rapidly increasing population in high-density cities, perhaps the questions is not whether the high-rise should exist at all, but how to go about its design. Such structures should be built within the context of the city, integrating itself into the outside world.

For, according to Ballard, isolation is desolation.


Reading Recommendations

High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning by Le Corbusier


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