Dr Robert Laing sits on his balcony, nonchalantly eating the hindquarters of a dog. The opening scene of J.G. Ballard’s novel, “High-Rise’, now adapted for screen by Ben Wheatley, is one of the most arresting in 20th-century fiction. Foul as it may be, Laing’s feast is a treat considering what he has endured up to this point. In the space of a few months, the 40-storey city-in-the-sky he calls home has descended from bourgeois luxury into barbarism, caused not by any external pressures but by the thrusting concrete tower itself, which slowly exerts its psychological imprint on its isolated residents. One resident describes the building as a “huge animate presence”, surveying its inhabits like a panoptic prison. Part satire, part prophecy, the novel offers a terrifying vision of progress-turned-regress.
While high-rise buildings are found throughout history – from medieval Arabian mudbrick dwellings to early 20th-century steel-frame skyscrapers – the form has become particularly associated with the architectural style known as brutalism. By the time Ballard’s novel was published in 1975, “high-rise” had come to denote buildings made from reinforced concrete, consisting of many similar-size flats stacked together. Brutalist architects practised their work with a utopian fervour, believing buildings could fundamentally change people’s way of life, transforming society in the process.
Ballard takes merciless aim at this sort of ambition through the figure of Anthony Royal, one of the high-rise’s architects. From the vantage point of his sumptuous penthouse, Royal studies his residents as a scientist might study rats in a cage, occasionally pausing to daydream about owning his own zoo.
Royal’s decision to live in his own building draws on real-life London examples. In 1967, the humourless Hungarian-born architect Erno Goldfinger moved to the top of his newly built Balfron Tower in London’s East End, not far from the Docklands site Ballard chooses for his high-rise. Coming only three months after the tower block Ronan Point was vacated after an explosion caused by a malfunctioning stove, Goldfinger’s move could be read as an attempt to restore confidence in high-rise living.
Embedded in his tower, Goldfinger spent his days interviewing residents about their experience of the building. He organised cocktail parties – a staple of life in “High-Rise” – so that he could speak to his neighbours in a sociable setting. When Royal grandiosely declares “we are the owners” to his wife, he is echoing Goldfinger’s claim that the residents were “my tenants.” However, while Royal finds himself unable to leave his creation, even when things turn sour, Goldfinger returned to his self-built Hampstead home at No. 2 Willow Road after just two months. He applied what he had learned from his Balfron experience to his plans for his next project, the decidedly more refined Trellick Tower in west London.
While Goldfinger provided Ballard with Royal’s cool empiricism, the high-rise’s idealistic aims mirror those of Alison and Peter Smithson, a husband-and-wife team whose most famous contribution to the London cityscape is the Economist headquarters in St James’s. They intended Robin Hood Gardens, the estate they built in east London, to radically change the road-based plan of the traditional city by creating purely residential “streets in the sky”. In a 1970 BBC documentary, Peter Smithson describes adding curves to the wall panelling “to stop it looking like a prison”, a tacit admission of the estate’s divisive aesthetic.
It is the Barbican Centre (pictured top), however, that Ballard’s building most resembles. Unlike the Balfron and Robin Hood Gardens, both built as social housing, the Barbican was from the offset intended as a private development. Built by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon between 1965 and 1976, it is sealed off from the surrounding streets by its high walls, physically mirroring the psychological isolation fostered by the “High-Rise” tower.
The Barbican also stands as a counterblast to Ballard’s dystopian vision. Not only has it become a fashionable (and expensive) address, its arts centre has made it a focal point of the city’s cultural life. In recent years, critics like Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley have fostered a revival of interest in its architecture. You can now buy the Brutalist London Map, or take a brutalism walking tour. To a certain demographic, the buildings of Ballard’s nightmares have become as much a part of London’s architectural heritage as Georgian townhouses and Wren churches.
But for many people the tower blocks of the 1960s and 1970s still retain their bad reputation. Books like Alice Coleman’s “Utopia on Trial” (1985) turned brutalist architects’ belief in the transformative powers of buildings against them, positing that concrete towers could inspire “High-Rise”-style anti-social behaviour. The enormous Heygate and Aylesbury estates in south-east London became a short-hand for inner-city desolation; the towers of Broadwater Farm in Tottenham are still synonymous with the riots that took place there three decades ago. In the 1990s, Peter Smithson himself was moved to call the (by then notorious) Robin Hood Gardens a failure, blaming “social jealousy” among its inhabitants. Smithson may have gone too far with this criticism, but the success of the Barbican does suggest it may be overly simplistic to blame brutalist architecture itself for societal problems.
Many brutalist buildings, like Robin Hood Gardens, have been marked for demolition. Others, in London at least, are being rapidly gentrified. The Balfron Tower, where the National Trust recently retrofitted a “heritage flat” in Sixties décor for a pop-up exhibition, is to be turned into private apartments. It will be interesting to see what happens once brutalism, having outlived its social mission, becomes the preserve of the chattering classes. Ballard’s novel, it seems, is timelier than ever.