20: High-Rise


Laing and his fellow passengers waited as the elevator car made its slow descent, frozen together like mannequins in a museum tableau - 'late twentieth-century high-rise dweller' - J.G. Ballard
All the evidence accumulated over several decades cast a critical light on the high-rise as a viable social structure, but cost-effectiveness in the area of public housing and high profitability in the private sector kept pushing these vertical townships into the sky against the real needs of their occupants - J.G. Ballard

Perhaps the most detailed  piece of story-telling that occurred in a single building is not in the annals of the great architects of our era but in that of a writer called: J.G. Ballard
High Rise is a cutting description of the mental status of the tenants of a newly built forty floor high residential building when the status of the project descends slowly to tribal behaviour, violence and genocide all while playing with psychological and sociological ideas such as the stratification of society, survival skills, and social stultification created by mental barriers and social dynamics. A single high-rise building is the proscenium in which all actions happen through the book.

The true light of the high-rise was the metallic-flash of the polaroid camera, that intermittent radiation which recorded a moment of hoped-for violence for some later voyeuristic pleasure - J.G. Ballard

Informed by his own experience in an internment camp as a teenager the book comments heavily on authority figures and clan mentality. Ballard invites us to believe in a situation where civility is stripped away , every human natural instinct followed , every sexual impulse condoned and every civil social behaviour exposed merely as a thin veneer of contemporaneity ready to be put away for a more feral reality. A reality where even language imprints the wrong meaning to everything with its unneeded and sophisticated form. A more direct language of forsaking images is preferred: broken furniture, ransacked apartments, fetid pools, urine-washed facades, destroyed windshields, door blockages, blood-stained corridors.

By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses - J.G. Ballard
The ultimate goal of the high-rise, a realm where their most deviant impulses were free at last to exercise themselves in any way they wished - J.G. Ballard

The tenants quickly divide in factors having to do with the actual segmentation of the building and follow the social rung they achieved when buying whichever portion of the building they could afford. A garden of forgotten identities and fragile self-esteems, Ballard describes every character by his/her occupation as if this was the only way to describe someone yet rendering their actual occupation in the world as a superficial activity that allowed them to buy a piece of real estate that will determine everyone's faith and animosity towards other occupants. 
An undercurrent of  violence and chaos that begins with the apparent suicide of a tenant from the higher portions of the high-rise,an incident that no one reported to the police giving way to the idea of justice as a modern construct, and an indifference to the futility of expected outcomes.
Ballard extends the net safely for the the complex social scenarios needed for the narrative to exist: the physical isolation of the building and the sickly psychological isolation of its tenants, explained at some point through a news broadcast flashing on a TV being described as images from an alternate and irrelevant universe.
The narrative shifts perspective with almost cinematic cut precision. making it very difficult to develop empathy with any of the characters except the high-rise.

The model here seems to be less the noble savage than our un-innocent post-Freudian selves, outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet-training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection - J. G. Ballard
Even his own top-floor neighbors, who in the early days had been only too quick to complain about everything, now never criticized the building - J. G. Ballard
Conscious of each of the 999 other apartments pressing on him through the walls and ceiling, forcing the air from his chest - J. G. Ballard
Michael Wolf - Architecture of density

Michael Wolf - Architecture of density

In modernity, all the luxury of the previous eras is now achieved through mechanics and computerized systems, therefore, the decay of the building means reflectively, the decay of social order. New social dynamics are a reflected in juxtaposition to the these modern upgrades, from the reuse of a dishwasher as trash bin or the resettlement of marriages according to new hierarchies. 
The progression for the main arc of the story with its shifting allegiances and homicides is always reflected in those architectural systems that are needed to sustain a modern life: electricity shortages, malfunctioning elevators, broken telephone lines, faltering water supply, blocked trash chutes. These are physical descriptions of the health of the building as a living entity that describes the mental dereliction of the characters's lives and the interconnection of both.

The elevators pumping up and down the long shafts resembled pistons in the chamber of a heart. The residents moving along the corridors were the cells in a network of arteries, the lights in their apartments the neurones of a brain - J. G. Ballard
The same dim light, pearled by a faint interior glow, filled the corridor and elevator lobby, a miasma secreted by the high-rise itself, distillation of all its dead concrete - J. G. Ballard

High-rise aims to answer two of the perennial questions in architecture: can we as architects affect society and its ordering? and does the material reality of a city determine the occurrences within it or describes it only externally? Ballard is a modern writer filled with nostalgia that becomes obsessed with a modern motif and sets to explore it from every angle. To live this unbelievable psychological thriller is to live a more extreme and carnal fictive Pruitt-Igoe described frenetically by a gifted writer with one idea in mind: the decay and negation of modernism, the abhorrence of the orthodoxy of the intelligent and modern well-to-do individuals.

Above all, he looked down on them for their good taste. The building was a monument to good taste, to the well-designed kitchen, to sophisticated utensils and fabrics, to elegant and never ostentatious furnishings - in short, to that  whole aesthetic sensibility which these well-educated professional people had inherited from all the schools of industrial design, all the award-winning schemes of interior decoration institutionalized by the last quarter of the XXth century. - J. G. Ballard





ISBN 13 - 978-0-586-04456-8