Architecture of Decay

by Stephen Ross
First Published: Visual Squirrels, Apr 23, 2016 READ


J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise had been on my radar to read for many years, and I finally did so over the last month when I learnt it had been made into a movie by a film director whose movies I tend to seek out and watch (more on that in a moment).

High-Rise is set in a multi-floor building (ta-da, a “high-rise”) on a barren and isolated estate just outside London (think Canary Wharf, circa. mid 1970s). The building is an almost self-contained world of 1000 apartments, a supermarket, restaurants, bank, school, swimming pool, etc., populated by those who can afford to live in it: the upper-middle, through to the upper class. This is most assuredly a book about class and social structure: the more money you have, the higher up in the building you get to live.

High-Rise is principally the story of three men: Anthony Royal, Robert Laing, and Dick Wilder. And A Royal’s name is a tip-off to the book being a story about hierarchy; and is so to anthropological proportions. The three characters don’t so much have “character arcs” mapped out across the book’s pages, but character evolutions. Wilder, who works in television, lives on one of the lower floors and is on a quest to make it to the top — literally to the top of the building. Laing, a doctor, resides nearer the middle, and ekes out a comfortable middle-ground in which to dwell, and Royal, an architect and the designer of the high-rise, lives in the top floor penthouse and ascends into oneness with the birds that live on the roof (they are the only creatures who are higher than he is).

Re-release cover

The high-rise may have been constructed with utopian thinking, but by the end of the first chapter, social order within its floors has begun to unravel, and the rest of the book charts its descent and decay; and does so as though we’re along on an anthropological fieldtrip with David Attenborough, his dulcet tones informing us of the residents’ divisions into tribes, and their habits and rituals. In fact, the Wilder character actually wanders about the novel with a cine camera in his hand documenting the unfolding events for exactly that kind of television documentary. And to get even more Meta about this, 1975 (when the book came out) saw the screening of one of Attenborough’s early documentary series, The Tribal Eye.

So, how does the book work? In my opinion, Ballard takes the architecture of society (class divisions, social structure), the layout of which is mostly spread out and detached, and abstract, and poses the question of what happens if you rendered all of it into one location and vertically; as it would appear in, say, a diagram (think of the pyramid diagram of society, with the rich and powerful up at the top, and the rest of us somewhere near the bottom). In other words, make the abstract a physical reality within the confines of an apartment building. And he then proposes that this physical rearrangement brings forth what is inherent and not readily acted upon out in the flat: sheer bloody anarchy. It’s all very well for a poor man to despise a wealthy man, and for a wealthy man to hold contempt for a poor man, when they are both separated by distance and space, but when that wealthy man lives directly above that poor man, and is thus doubly “above”, it’s like smoking cigarettes in a gunpowder factory.

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

That’s the novel’s opening sentence. J.G. Ballard (1930-2009) wrote the “creamiest of prose” (to quote Martin Amis). He had an outsider’s view of the world and was one of the great writers of dystopia; perhaps born of his interment as a child in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War. The atrocities of war will do that.

Movie Poster

First published in 1975, High-Rise has often been referred to as a commentary on Thatcher’s England, as an analogy of those times; although in hindsight surely, given that Thatcher didn’t come to power until 1979. Of course, the England wrought in the time of Baroness Thatcher didn’t materialize out of a vacuum, the seeds had long been sown, and High-Rise is perhaps better considered as an advance warning.

The book had often been described as unfilmable. I wouldn’t label it that; a little unorthodox, perhaps. About the only book I know of that is truly unfilmable is the telephone book (it has way too many characters and zero plot). Director Nicolas Roeg was the first film maker to be attached to High-Rise (shortly after the book’s publication). Roeg would have been a good choice, as some of his movies can actually be described as unfilmable (Bad Timing, Performance, The Man Who Fell To Earth). And I lately heard that director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) was connected to it for a time in the 1980s and wrote an adaption.

Finally, in the 21st Century, High-Rise is coming to a movie screen near you, and Ben Wheatley has directed it. Good call, I say. Wheatley and his partner in film-making crime Amy Jump (they’re like the satanic version of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (well, they are in my mind)), are fully conversant with alienation and dystopia (Sightseers, Kill List, A Field in England). They do a line in societal dysfunction that will coordinate well with the wardrobe of J.G. Ballard.

Frankly, I wonder what “Hollywood” will make of the movie? Probably scratchy-headed bemusement. It’s not a reboot of The Towering Inferno; it certainly isn’t a feel good story, by any leap of the imagination; and I’ll eat my desk if it becomes a “box office smash hit”.

Book cover / movie tie-in

I believe Wheatley and Jump have stayed relatively true to the book: they’re not “updating it” in any way, or setting it in the present day. And you couldn’t really, for one simple reason: isolation. The building’s occupants can only isolate themselves from the rest of the world (and unleash their chaos in private) when their only connection to it is a single road in and out and a landline telephone. There’s no mobile connectivity in 1975 England, no Internet, no Facebook, no Twitter. This is a world before we all started interacting with each other 24/7. Before we started finding apps for this and that, taking selfies, and the term “download” meant nothing to 99.99% of the population. I was a child in 1975, and trust me, compared to today, it was an alien planet.

What did I think of the book? I liked it. It’s a nightmare. You’ll either close it with a shiver, or you’ll shake it off as contemptible rubbish. File me under shudder. I like books like that. I can’t wait to see the movie.