High-Rise Nostalgia

Recently I went to a preview of Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise at, fittingly enough, the Barbican. High-Rise is based on J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same title. Both the novel and the film take place in a forty-storey tower block, a microcosm of the British class society, whose inhabitants begin to wage war against one another.

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This narrative—civilisation plunging headlong (and not without enjoyment), into chaos—was a favourite of Ballard. It is the narrative most of his novels are based upon. Luckily it offers so many possibilities that one can read them without diminishing returns. As has often been pointed out this narrative was based on Ballard’s own childhood during the Second World War, when he and his parents were interned in a Japanese camp for two years, an experience he later fictionalised in Empire of the Sun (turned into a film by Steven Spielberg).

Another feature of Ballard’s novel is a charming but sinister character, who helps people to discover their inner primate. Often it is a psychologist, in the case of High-Rise it is an architect called Anthony Royal (played by Jeremy Irons). Royal was probably based on the Hungarian-born, London-based architect Ernö Goldfinger. However, there are many examples of modern architects—Le Corbusier being the most famous one—who wanted to create a new society by designing new cities and houses.

These ideas had been around for a while, at least since the 1933 International Congress of Modern Architecture in Athens, but would probably never have come to fruition without the Second World War—or the “mechanical congestant” as German architect Hans Scharoun called it—and the subsequent demographic and economic boom. Out of the rubble of the war rose tower blocks like the Goldfinger-designed Balfron and Trellick Towers in London.

However, this vision of the city of the future, dominated by majestic high-rises, was not to last. While high-profile projects like the Barbican demonstrated what modernist architecture could achieve if it commanded the necessary resources, other buildings where erected with less oversight, endangering their inhabitants and discrediting the project of modernist architecture. A case in point was Ronan Point in Newham, East London part of which collapsed on 16 May 1968, the day, according to Jonathan Meades, modern architecture died.1

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Even before the collapse of Ronan Point criticism of modern architecture and town planning had arisen. On the face of it, High-Rise fits into this criticism. While Ballard believed that place and architecture has an effect on our mental state, he did not believe that newer, better living quarters would turn us into better human beings—especially if they turned out not to be better at all as so many housing estates did. Yet Ballard’s attitude to modernity was much more ambivalent. Not only was he one of the few modernist writers Britain has produced, he was generally on the side of the new.

Ben Wheatley’s and Amy Jump’s film is set in the seventies and is largely faithful to the book. There is one minor deviation and this is where nostalgia comes in. In the book, there is a “recreation garden” on top of the high-rise, intended for the “amusement of the resident’s children” (46). The film, too, shows a roof garden. This garden, however, looks as if it had been lifted from a British country house. It is is solely there for the use of architects’s wife, whose “chief distraction is the careful cultivation of an intense nostalgia”, as Royal explains in the film.2

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This scene is absent from the book and would not fit its narrative. It is hard to imagine someone less nostalgic than Ballard, who despised what he called “heritage London”, consciously moving to suburban Shepperton, which, he believed, gave him a “close up view of the real England”. As Wheatley and reviewers of his film have stressed, Ballard anticipated many developments, which since have become reality (such as social media).

The folly on top of the modernist high-rise, whose inhabitants have descended into class warfare, is an invention of the writer and director of the film and seems like a metaphor of Britain today. Seen from above the folly on the roof makes it seem as if the high-rise was a peaceful place, a perfect marriage of concrete and flowerbeds. What is missing from this view are, of course, the conflicts that are brewing beneath its benign roof and that will tore the structure apart.

There is yet another aspect where nostalgia comes in. If projects like Ronan Point fell out of favour in the late sixties, they are admired again today. As Owen Hatherley argues in The Ministry of Nostalgia, flats in housing estates from the fifties and sixties are now fashionable. According to him social housing is “the new front line of gentrification”.3 At the same time as Britain is undergoing a new housing crisis, buildings erected to solve exactly such a crisis are now privatised and fetishised.

While housing estates from the fifties and sixties are taken over by estate agents and hipsters, a new high-rise has grown into London’s sky. The Shard exhibits all the swagger of modernism and none of its values. It is, to borrow Jonathan Meades’ expression, a ghostmodern building. Whereas Ronan Point was erected by the local council to provide affordable housing for all, the Quatari built and owned Shard is there for the happy few—one the symbol of the welfare state, the other a monument to postmodern capitalism. Rest assured this high-rise will not descend into class-warfare.

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High-Rise has been reissued recently by Fourth Estate with an introduction by Ned Beauman. High-Rise the film is now on general release.

Further Reading:

Ed Frith, ‘Is it burning yet?’: The buildings behind J. G. Ballard’s writing, in: The Architect’s Journal 20 April 2009.

Will Self, Will Self on the meaning of skyscrapers — from the Tower of Babel to the Shard, in: The Guardian 27 March 2015.

Chris Hall, Why J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise takes dystopian science fiction to a new level, in: The Guardian 3 October 2015.

Oliver Wainwright, A long way down: the nightmare of JG Ballard’s towering vision, in: The Guardian 13 March 2016.

Sam Jordison, Nearly normal: J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise and the ‘uncanny valley’, in: The Guardian 15 March 2016.

Will Self, What would J. G. Ballard have made of the new High-Rise film?, in: The New Statesman 18 March 2016.

David Gritten, ‘I had to go outside and vomit’: Tom Hiddleston on the making of High-Rise, in: The Telegraph 22 March 2016.

  1. Jonathan Meades, Postmodernism to Ghost-Modernism, in: idem, Museum Without Walls, London 2012, p. 170-184, here p. 170. []
  2. Quoted in an excerpt of the film on Saturday Review 19 March 2016. []
  3. Owen Hatherley, The Ministry of Nostalgia, London 2015, p. 198; see the blog post from 10 February 2016. []