J.G. Ballard, High-Rise and Brutalist architecture as instant dystopias

In the past few weeks, there has been a flurry of articles and posts about J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise, inspired by Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation, starring Tom Hiddleston, which opens in the UK this week, following a sort of adaptation as the Doctor Who episode Paradise Towers back in 1987.

At the Guardian, Sam Jordison discusses both whether High-Rise is a surrealist novel and how the detached tone of the book poses a moral challenge to the reader. Meanwhile, Christopher Fowler discusses the psychotic London that J.G. Ballard describes in High-Rise and other novels of the period.

The movie High-Rise looks gorgeous BTW, which marks a pleasant change from the Doctor Who episode Paradise Towers, which tells an interesting story, but is serious marred by low production values. However, High-Rise offers something both for architecture and design freaks as well as for fans of Mr. Hiddleston. Though it’s probably not a movie for dog lovers, knowing how dogs fare in J.G. Ballard’s novel. Here is a trailer.

There is also this faux advertisement for the titular building of High-Rise:

One I saw those trailers for the first time, I was stunned by how very much production designer Mark Tildesley nailed the look of the early to mid 1970s. Coincidentally, the films also nails the look of the science fiction films of that era – all of which inevitably were dystopian before Star Wars came along and changed everything – which makes it eerily appropriate for the film adaptation of a 1970s dystopian novel.

However, the most interesting article about High-Rise is this one by Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian, which views both novel and movie in the context of the Brutalist architecture of the 1960s and 1970s as well as of contemporary luxury skyscrapers being built in London and elsewhere. The article also features a great photo of Ernö Goldfinger, the British architect who managed to inspire both the eponymous Bond villain as well as the sinister architect of Ballard’s High-Rise who just happens to live in the luxurious penthouse just as Ernö Goldfinger once lived on the top floor of one of his most famous buildings, the Balfron Tower in London.

The adaptation of High-Rise comes at a time where there is a revived interest in and appreciation for Brutalist architecture, ironically while many of those buildings are being torn down and destroyed as eye-sores. Meanwhile, Brutalist buildings in the UK are also among the biggest attractions of the annual open house weekend, often the very same buildings I used to walk past and ignore as a student only twenty years ago.

On the one hand, the renewed interest in Brutalism manifests itself in the campaigns to save such classic Brutalist buildings as the Robin Hood Gardens estate in London (still standing so far), Birmingham’s Central Library (currently being demolished) or the Tricorn Shopping Centre in Portsmouth (gone since 2004). On the other hand, it also manifests itself in the sheer amount of mostly British films and TV shows, which use Brutalist architecture as settings and background, with the camera often lovingly travelling over the crumbling concrete to the point that I have dubbed this aesthetic (featuring prominently in Misfits, but also found in Luther, Hustle, Spooks, The Fades and others) “council estate punk”. The film adaptation of High-Rise fits right in here, because it looks like prime council estate punk, coupled with currently popular dystopianism.

The revival of Brutalism is fascinating, given that these buildings are incredibly ugly, hard to love, often vehemently hated by the public and have a horrible reputation as a hotbed of all sorts of social ills. Indeed, the sheer ugliness of these buildings is probably part of what makes them so fascinating and iconic. A lot of the current British Brutalism revival seems to be a defiant celebration of the sheer ugliness of these buildings. I even sympathise – something I never thought I’d ever say, considering how vehemently I hated modernist and Brutalist architecture as a teenager – because a lot of the more iconic Brutalist buildings are truly fascinating in their ugliness. I find that I experience a pleasant shudder when I look at a particular notable example of Brutalism – something like Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick and Balfron Towers, Robin Hood Gardens, the Birmingham Central Library or the Alexandra Road Estate in London. I also find myself snapping photos, because a building that awful must be recorded for posterity, since it will either be gone or renovated beyond recognition in a few years time.

Another part of the appeal of Brutalist buildings is that they are science fiction become concrete. These buildings began as utopian visions for a better life for ordinary people (and it is notable how many of the great icons of Brutalism are either social housing estates or civic buildings of some kind like schools, universities, museums, libraries, sports facilities, etc…, i.e. buildings for the people) that quickly degenerated into instant dystopias.

In fact, the utopian intention behind those buildings is at least part of the impetus behind saving them. No matter how ugly many of them were, these were buildings for the people and not just the wealthy and the middle classes either (and High-Rise – both novel and film – serve as reminders that these estates were once viewed as housing for the aspirational middle classes, even though they became associated with the lower classes later on), but for the working class as well. No matter how flawed, housing estates like Thamesmead, Robin Hood Gardens and the Balfron Tower (the latter two conveniently located right across from Canary Wharf with its gleaming bank towers) offer some of the last affordable social housing in central London. And that alone is reason enough to save them, because you know that once they go down, whatever is built in their stead will be luxury flats of some kind and no longer offer any place for the poor. Indeed, the attempt to get rid of the current social housing tennants and create flats for the bankers of Canary Wharf is rather obviously the motive behind the attempts to demolish Robin Hood Gardens. Meanwhile, the Balfron Tower has been privatised and the social housing tennants “decanted”, as this Guardian article puts it euphemistically. It almost sounds like something from a J.G. Ballard novel.

What is more, Brutalist architecture also is the iconic look of 1970s visual science fiction. If you squint a little, Brutalist buildings look like something from A Clockwork Orange (shot at least partly in Thamesmead and the Barbican, both Brutalist icons), Rollerball (which features the iconic BMW Headquarters in Munich), Logan’s Run (shot at the Dallas Market Center), Soylent Green or Star Wars . There is something incredibly cinematic about Brutalist buildings, which is why so many of them have been used as film sets. If you take a stroll through Thamesmead, you expect to walk right into Alex and his droogs or the Misfits gang in their orange overalls. If you walk past the Balfron Tower, you cannot help but remember how it was overrun with zombies in 28 Days Later and also featured in the Oasis video “What’s the Story, Morning Glory?”. In fact, I spent years referring to the Balfron Tower as “the morning glory building”, because I didn’t know it’s proper name.

Oh yes, and the Balfron Tower was designed by a genuine Bond villain or at least the model for one, while John Poulson, the Yorkshire architect who wound up in prison for bribing officials, was the model for memorable morally dubious to outright villainous characters in works such as the TV shows Our Friends From the North and Ashes to Ashes as well as David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet and the TV adaptation thereof, which is only a trilogy for some reason. Of course, the real Ernö Goldfinger never gold-plated ladies, attempted to slice off the genitals of heroic MI6 agents or nuke Fort Knox and while John Poulson may have bribed officials, he was never involved in a massive kidnapping and sexual abuse scandal as in David Peace’s novel. Nonetheless, there is something larger than life about those buildings and the men who designed and built them. Brutalist buildings are science fiction dystopias designed by men who may not have been bonafide supervillains, but who certainly inspired them.

I have a recurrent dream of walking through the endless corridors of a gigantic sprawling Brutalist complex, often lost, often trying to get someplace that I never reach. There are lifts that get stuck, staircases that lead into nowhere, walkways and open atriums. The dream varies a bit. Sometimes the building is a space station or a space ship or an undersea base. Sometimes, I am chased by zombies or Stormtroopers or – in one memorable version – a mob of protesters throwing wrapped gifts. Sometimes, I am a secret agent on a mission, trying to rescue someone or get crucial information to someone important. Sometimes, I am merely on the run. I have had variations of this dream for almost thirty years now and it is easy to see where it comes from, namely from bits and piece of movies I’ve seen, combined with the buildings, many of them Brutalist, I remember from my youth. And since I have an interest in architecture, my dreams usually feature architectural details.

My generation has a curious love and hate relationship with Brutalism, because we were the generation which grew up inside these failed dystopias of our parents’ generation. My highschool, my university and the church where I was baptised and had my confirmation were all Brutalist buildings (coincidentally all long since refurbished, often beyond recognition). I never lived in a Brutalist building, apart from spending a few memorable months in this Dutch apartment block that sits at the borderline between Brutalism and Postmodernism (it was a great building BTW), but many of my generation did. And though a lot of us intensely disliked these buildings growing up – I certainly did – they are also inevitably tied up with memories. Seeing them demolished or refurbished beyond recognition is also a destruction of our youth, often even more difficult to grasp, because those buildings were not just futuristic, they also looked solid enough to survive a nuclear war or the zombie apocalypse. Seeing them going down is seeing the impossible.

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