This is a piece I did for the inaugural edition of a new Swedish publication, Lo-Res, which aims to bridge the gap between academic and more freely written texts. The edition took the theme of High Rise both in the sense of the Ballard novel and also in the sense of buildings that are very tall. Being British, and being a bit of a Ballard fan, I was asked to write a piece on the novel, which I chose to relate to thoughts about London’s current high-rise apartment boom.
November 2013, London. Newspaper reports describe how High Point Village, a new gated development of 600 homes on the western edge of the city, has witnessed a social breakdown between wealthier and poorer ‘affordable housing’ residents. Matters came to a head over a temporary fault in the water supply: the wealthier ‘inner gated’ community was given a temporary hose supply while the poorer occupants were denied access to the hose, even though it crossed their ‘zone’. Even the car parking was separated by gates, and mysteriously the housing blocks of the less affluent residents were left unnamed on the location signs around the development. It was not long before one online commenter referenced High-Rise, the 1974 novel by J. G. Ballard.
In the book, the residents of a vast new 1 000-apartment tower quickly descend into barbarism and violence as the building becomes separated into a class hierarchy, with the ‘upper class’ residents on the upper floors and penthouses, and the lower orders at the bottom. Anthony Royal, one of the tower’s architects and resident of the top floor penthouse, establishes himself early on as the ‘master’ of the building, presiding over a situation where cocktail parties soon evolve into raiding parties to other floors. As the building’s services fail and food becomes scarce, a resident’s dog goes missing – taken for food as it turns out – and eventually the residents turn on each other. Following a recurring theme in Ballard’s work, the protagonists voluntarily isolate themselves from the surrounding city, and seem to willingly descend into a state of barbarity.
It is often assumed that Ballard drew his inspiration for High-Rise from west London’s Trellick Tower, the Brutalist edifice designed by architect Ernő Goldfinger and completed in 1972. There is clearly some truth in this: the tower seems to physically fit the author’s description of “an architecture built for war,” and Trellick was the tallest and arguably most ‘Brutalist’ of the towers of that period. It quickly became notorious in the press, with reports of social strife between floors, problems with elevators and rubbish disposal, noise, muggings and assaults, fires, and an overwhelming lack of security. Furthermore, Trellick also has a ‘sister’, the Balfron Tower, on the other side of London. The block (as well as a shorter tower forming part of the complex), was also designed by Goldfinger, and was a kind of proto-Trellick, coarser perhaps, less refined, and completed five years before its younger sibling. To much PR fanfare at the time, Goldfinger even ‘lived’ in a 25thfloor apartment for two months, where he and his wife threw champagne parties for the residents to find out what they thought, (before retreating back to the comfort of their two-story Hampstead home). The incident was widely reported at the time and unlikely to have escaped Ballard’s notice when placing his own fictional architect in High-Rise‘s penthouse apartment. The construction of both towers should be seen against a background of rising public animosity to high-rise social housing, which gained wider currency in part due to an infamous gas explosion that caused a partial collapse of the Ronan Point tower in East London in 1968.
Yet it would be wrong to read High-Rise as a critique of the failure of large-scale social housing projects of the period, or indeed as a critique of modernism as a style. In fact, the focus of Ballard’s writing was rarely on contemporary social issues in terms of class or housing policy. His fiction was surrealist, using elements of realism and juxtaposing these against a violent, swift and often spectacular social breakdown among a particular group. Often, such a breakdown is set against a backdrop of Brutalist architecture and emergent technologies. His recurring theme, learned through savage childhood experience, is that modern society is merely a surface illusion; that given the opportunity, our psycho-pathological nature will drive us to violence. As in so many of Ballard’s stories, an apparently realist premise moves beyond any direct analogy with society at the time; towards the end of High-Rise, a surreal scene suggests that a kind of matriarchal micro-society has emerged from among the tower’s survivors.
Another factor that suggests we should resist a literal comparison with the high-rises of Trellick and Balfron, and other towers of the period, is that the residents of Ballard’s fictional tower are all private owners – there is no element of social housing, with its links to the state and wider society. These residents are able to pursue their own will undisturbed by the wider world; at one point Anthony Royal’s wife suggests complaining to the owners about the ongoing slide into chaos. “We are the owners,” replies her husband. It is this very fact of ‘ownership’ that Ballard is able to use as a key device to isolate the residents, or rather that allows the residents to isolate themselves, from the outside world.
In theory, the residents are also a homogeneous group – Ballard’s characters are almost invariably middle class professional technocrats – who despite this quickly divide themselves into three classes: floors zero to 10 for the lower classes, 10 to 35 for the middle, uppermost floors and penthouse for the upper class. The character of Richard Wilder feels driven to conquer the tower itself, and literally becomes a social climber as he ascends from the lower levels towards the penthouse.
Ballard’s views on modernism in architecture also resist simplification, and in his own writing he could often seem ambivalent. “I have always admired modernism and wish the whole of London could be rebuilt in the style of Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton” he wrote, in an article that, arguably, laments the ending of the ‘heroic’ period of modernist architecture. Ballard’s novels are rarely without some form of architectural presence: the architectural realm is both backdrop and protagonist. It is architecture that presents itself as ‘the future’, but a future that seems unable to cope with its own implications. His protagonists in High-Rise, sealing themselves off inside the tower, quickly regress to a pre-civilized state, seemingly driven by, or in sharp contrast with, their modernist, machine-like environment. Thus Ballard uses the architecture as a further tool to allow the isolation of his characters, a concept that recurs in several of his novels, most notably Concrete Island and The Drowned World.
At the same time, it is interesting to note that the fictional tower is so specifically located in London’s Docklands, a post-industrial area to the east of the city’s core. At the time he was writing, the vast area of dockyards and warehouses along the river Thames was in terminal decline or already wasteland. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy project of Docklands regeneration, that gave birth to the glittering towers of Canary Wharf, remained entirely in the future. Although only a couple of miles from the financial center of London, Docklands was at the time, and in some ways remains, physically and economically far removed from the rest of the city – perhaps a further literary isolation device.
Clearly then, although Ballard may have taken some inspiration from existing towers, High-Rise is in no way a critique of the high-rise public housing projects of the era. Instead it is perhaps an extension of his own, at times extreme, vision of the human condition. It is also tempting to read Ballard as a hugely prescient author, as many critics have done over the years, to the extent that author Martin Amis, in a 2011 introduction for Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, wrote ”Is prescience a literary virtue? And should the work of J. G. Ballard be particularly prized (as some critics maintain) for the ‘uncanny’ accuracy of its forecasts? The answer to both these questions, I suggest, is a cheerful no.” He goes on to make a strong case for this, with which few would disagree. And yet there is something fundamental about the novel High-Rise that seems to be set more in the London of 2014 than that of 1974. At that time, private residential towers were almost non-existent in the UK, the only notable project in London being the Barbican complex, with its three private residential towers built between 1973 and 1976.
Today, the London skyline tells a very different story. The capital is currently witnessing an explosion of new, private residential towers. At the beginning of 2014, there were 189 residential towers of 20 stories or more, either in planning or under construction. This seems a particular aberration, given that the English much prefer to spread out rather than to go up, driven to suburbanization by an innate dislike of apartment living and an unwarranted respect for the grand myth of the Garden City movement. But London, as distinct from the rest of the UK, is currently suffering from a kind of hyper-gentrification, in large part due to the capital’s opening up to international investment cash, whatever its providence.
As recently as ten years ago, the Balfron tower stood alone, the tallest structure by far in the poor residential district of Poplar. But now the building rubs shoulders with a cluster of new private residential tower developments, and Balfron itself is being refurbished as apartments for open market rent. The social housing tenants, with family close by and a social network of support built up over years, are being pushed out to the city’s periphery.
The residents of the new towers, whether as owners or renters, will be attracted first and foremost by the perception of privacy and security. After all, a ‘luxury’ apartment block is really just code for a vertical gated community – all but the most oligarch-affordable dwellings will fail to deliver luxury in terms of space. These new residents, who seem unlikely to choose their high-rise location based on close family ties or emotional attachment to a particular area, are in effect voluntarily isolating themselves from wider society, from the life of London’s streets and long-established communities and cultures. This is particularly evident in Docklands, where, more than twenty years after the ‘year zero’ that created the shining towers of Canary Wharf, a second wave of development is under way, albeit this time underpinned by a ‘social cleansing’ of the existing population rather than rising out of a wasteland. Here there is a double self-enforced seclusion: in a hermetically sealed, securitized tower, and in the Docklands location that is ever increasingly a world apart from the rest of London. The new residential towers are becoming the physical representation of a new nation. It is a nation of upscale shopping and dining facilities, of exclusive gymnasiums and yes, private swimming pools.
Martin Amis, reviewing High-Rise in its publication year, suggested that eventually whole cities, not just Ballard’s single tower, would “take on that quality common to all Ballardian loci,” becoming “suspended, no longer to do with the rest of the planet, screened off by its own surreal logic.” In the London of 2014, it seems as if this vision of the future may increasingly become reality.
Note 1: Ben Quinn, “Unsocial housing? Gates within gates divide the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’”, The Guardian, October 22, 2013.
Note 4: Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block – Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, Section 2, Part C. (Yale University Press, 1994).
Note 5: J G Ballard, “A Handful of Dust” The Guardian, March 20 2006: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/mar/20/architecture.communities
Note 6: For an evocative glimpse of the period, see John Mackenzie’s 1979 film The Long Good Friday, where Bob Hoskins’ gangster is planning the redevelopment of Dockland’s as, presciently enough, an Olympic venue.
Note 7: J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World (UK: Fourth Estate, 2014. New edition with new introduction by Martin Amis).
Note 8: “Growing Up”, exhibition and report by NLA (New London Architecture).
Note 9: “Tall Towers 2012: London’s high-rise residential developments” – report by Knight Frank Residential Research www.knightfrank.com/research. According to the report, 85% of the buyers are non-UK citizens, who view the capital as a relatively safe investment, and a large proportion of the homes have remained unoccupied long after completion. This is often a deliberate move, as investors wait for prices to move upwards before reselling or renting, increasingly known as ‘buy-to-leave’ properties, and have been described by Simon Jenkins in the Daily Telegraph as “bank accounts in the sky”. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/investmentinproperty/10103226/The-foreigners-buying-Londons-high-rise-high-price-homes.html
Note 11: Heather Spurr, “Dramatic Rise of families forced out of London” Inside Housing, July 18, 2014 http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/care/dramatic-rise-of-families-forced-out-of-london/7004728.article and Nick Duxbury, “Londoners Housed Outside Capital Doubles” Inside Housing, November 1, 2013. http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/londoners-housed-outside-capital-doubles/6529299.article
Note 12: Martin Amis, “High-Rise Review”, New Statesman, November 14, 1975. http://sdicht.wordpress.com/2008/12/09/high-rise-review-by-martin-amis-1975