Arguably one of Ballard’s most iconic novels, High-Rise is centered around the occurrences in a newly built London tower block. It explores the gradual transgression of the building’s residents, encouraging readers to consider how influential works of architecture can be on our psychological and emotional wellbeing. The 40-storey tower itself is seemingly what gives rise to violent social chaos amongst the building’s residents. The text, which was published in 1975, also acts as a poignant commentary upon issues that are prevalent today, such as the presence of social divides and intense violence.
High-Rise: An Overview | JG Ballard
JG Ballard’s High-Rise is predominantly a work of deep satire: an abstract reflection of the contemporary fears of overpopulation, overcrowded spaces, and skyscrapers. The novel follows Dr. Robert Laing as he experiences the downfall of the tower’s residents. With those of upper classes living at the top of the building and those of lower classes residing in the bottom floors, the book hints at the theme of class friction. There are multiple incidences in which members of different classes, and in this case, floors, clash with one another, indicating the magnitude of the problems of wealth divides and possibly even gentrification.
Slowly, we see the building grow to become so influential upon the minds of those who occupy it that the residents begin to experience psychosis due to the nature of the environment they are living in. Since the building contains such a comprehensive range of facilities, including a supermarket and a swimming pool, none of the occupants need to leave, which leads to widespread unhealthy reliance on the tower. Each resident gradually detaches themself from the outside world, letting their entire identity be based on the dark happenings in the building as they descend into deadly conflict.
Architecture’s Role in the Novel
It is undeniable that the built environment is central to Ballard’s prescient text, High-Rise. The tower block is commonly envisioned as an example of Brutalism, partially due to the style of the building shown in the 2015 movie adaptation of the novel, directed by Ben Wheatley. At the time of writing the novel, Ballard would have been surrounded by the controversy surrounding Brutalist architecture. As such, the novel acts as a manifestation of the stereotype that struck fear in some living in the late 20th-Century: that the harshness of Brutalist buildings would foster a parallel emotional condition.
Not only does the novel encourage us to ask questions about how architecture can shape our feelings, but it also facilitates consideration of the ways in which architecture determines how we interact with one another. For example, the tower block itself represents social division- an issue that is of great significance in society today. The author calls on us to consider how we, as architects, can play a role in either intensifying or easing these divides. In this story, the architect of the tower, Anthony Royal, chooses to use his privilege of being able to craft the built environment in an unethical way, which sees him serve as an agent of social disruption, intensifying the social divide that exists within the community. He lives at the top of the building: a position that tacitly highlights the power he has over the lives of the residents below him.
Social Commentary | JG Ballard
Just as the architect’s position at the top of the tower reflects the control that he has over the residents who live in the floors beneath him, the positioning of residents from higher social classes above the apartments of people from lower social classes is Ballard’s way of subtly drawing attention to the social hierarchies that persist within the architectural realm today. With the built environment having such an inevitably significant impact on the dynamics within our communities, architects have great power to bring people closer together or further apart.
Whilst this book shows an extreme instance of the latter, we can’t help but think when reading the novel that if architecture can have such a strong negative impact on a community, how great of a positive influence can beneficial design be on our society? If we were to replace the extremely dystopian modernism that makes the high-rise building so damaging with an essence of health, a well-informed design could be achieved which, if it were to carry as momentous of an impact on humanity as the building in Ballard’s work, could actively improve the psychological wellbeing of residents.
What Can We Learn from the Text?
You may still be wondering what an architect can learn from a work of dystopian fiction. Why look at fictional examples of the designs we want to avoid replicating when we can read about existing examples of positive works of architecture? The fact is that when we immerse ourselves in the exaggerated, shocking world of Ballard’s high-rise tower, we can develop an understanding of what we don’t want to design. We can learn to steer away from designing buildings that damage human relationships and instead work to design the built environment in a way that uplifts people and strengthens communities. And slowly, we can begin to deconstruct the damaging multi-storey hierarchy within the built environment until we realize that we are all united by one common goal of designing buildings that improve the lives of their users.
Ballard, J.G. (1975). High-Rise. United Kingdom: Jonathan Cape.
High-Rise. 2015. United Kingdom: StudioCanal. (Directed by Ben Wheatley).