The first time I saw the Barbican Estate in London I was entranced. The layered terraces of pitted concrete, the crisscrossing walkways, those monolithic towers that seemed—as with Petra or Al-Hijr—like they might have been carved out of natural stone. It is rare, especially in a city like London, as layered and complex as a geological event, to walk into such a large space that feels so designed, so ordained. Yet, setting foot in those 20 acres of roughened concrete, I somehow felt that I was stepping into an idea, or an ideal, and out of reality entirely. Even now, after having worked there for a spell, passed through and visited countless times, the Barbican Estate and its brutalist volumes of concrete hold a certain weight over me, a sense of both the unreal and yet totalizing impact of designed space.
It’s hard not to think of the forms of the Barbican Estate when watching High-Rise. Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G Ballard’s transgressive, psychosis-riddled novel clearly takes inspiration from the scooped balconies and roughened pillars of the Shakespeare, Cromwell, and Lauderdale towers as well as the Trellick and Balfron towers, whose construction in the early 70s directly inspired Ballard’s work. Wheatley’s adaptation pulls the textures and volumes from this precise era of utopian brutalist projects and their material commitment to a concrete future. In their explorations of Ballard’s inspirations and this powerful aesthetic, Wheatley and his production designer Mark Tildesley crowd their sets with pillars and buttresses of textured concrete, breaking up the carefully composed shots into discrete volumes of highly-charged space. Slit-like windows suggest pillboxes or machine gun nests, or perhaps that obsession of Ballard’s; observation posts for nuclear weapon tests.
High-Rise is a loyal adaptation, then, from its 1970s setting to its commitment to the structured and surreal texture of Ballard’s prose. The novel’s plot, which charts the collapse of the titular high-rise into a state of violent decay as witnessed by the precise and unnervingly calm eyes of Dr. Laing, is replicated in fractured movements; short scenes that have an accumulative effect of growing unease. Arranged in mirrored patterns, these vignettes connect through elegant repetitions of imagery and choreography, perhaps the most memorable being a Luis Buñel-evoking arrangement of a slowly cracking apartment door cutting to the face of a cadaver being rolled back from its skull. This image suggests the connection that animates both the book and the film: the association of internal, psychological space and the architectural spaces of society.
In 1972, Oscar Newman published the book Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design. Putting forward what would become a hugely influential and long-lasting theory of architectural design, Newman combined case studies of high-rise housing estates with a theoretical study of the impact of space on the human mind. Newman’s position, sketched out with now questionable associations between building heights and crime figures, public spaces and degradation, presented the behavior of individuals as stemming from the design of their environments. Outlining how increased public areas, shared space, and open undivided areas led to a lack of collective responsibility in residents, Newman proposed that safe space must be “defensible”—owned, divided, surveillanced, and secured. It’s no surprise that Ballard was attracted to such a work. Already Ballard’s work had connected space and psychopathology, perhaps most powerfully in the short story The Terminal Beach (1964), where Traven, a character who would later reappear in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), wanders a retired nuclear testing site, his memories and movements choreographed by the blocks and bunkers that make a labyrinth of the atoll. In Newman’s defensible space, Ballard found a sketch of the future he would create in High-Rise (1975), one where possession and privatization would dictate space, and the individual—not the state—would be championed as the arbiter of the new order.
Panoramic view of the Barbican (February 1982), via The Guardian
Ballard wasn’t the only one to latch onto Newman’s “defensible space.” Taken up by planners and politicians alike, it began to dictate the ornate fortifications of the decade’s grand housing projects. Margaret Thatcher, the would-be modernizer of the British state, drew a particular strength from these ideas. Her world view—where “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”—sought to place the impetus on the individual, to blame them for their shortcomings and champion them for their successes. Collectivity was a myth, a liberal fantasy. Fueled by Alice Coleman’s Utopia on Trial (1985), a politically motivated retread of Newman’s idea that explicitly blamed architects for the living conditions of the poorest estates, Thatcher would attempt a complete restructuring of many of the most deprived estates in England, imposing a top down reorganization designed to manipulate people out of poverty and misery.
The failings of this perspective is now evident. Both Newman, and in a even more totalizing way, Thatcher, robbed the individual of agency, subsuming them into a set of behaviors dictated by space. Inequality grew, unemployment spiked, and industry declined during Thatcher’s leadership, leading to worse conditions in the so-called “sink” estates she had hoped to renovate. The division of space into private parcels, as well as a drive towards private ownership led to fractured, isolated communities. Newman’s ideas meanwhile, were heavily criticized by academics for their architectural determinism and imprecise methods, yet still proved attractive to city planners. Blaming social problems of architectural utopianism allowed leaders to overlook deeper, more difficult problems in society, and instead turn to technology, innovation, and design as bright modern antidotes to the drudgery of poverty.
Thatcher, and the experiences of that generation hang over Wheatley’s High-Rise like a dark shadow: As is true of Ballard’s book, the residents of the tower are not deprived or working class, they are instead Thatcher’s ideal citizens, the new “professional” class. The tower’s architect Royal, speaks of the the building as a “crucible for change,” and Wheatley, in what is perhaps too much of a straight shot, even includes a quote from the iron lady herself. Its an adaptation that brings the political and class commentary contained within Ballard’s book to the fore, and using the stratified structure of a tower block as a metaphor for the trickle-down structure of British society as it was isn’t quite as blunt as it sounds. Wheatley, in his choice of period setting and political motifs seems eager to look back at what was a formative time for British society and how the previous generation’s struggles have impacted in his own (Wheatley was born in 1972, the same year Defensible Space was published). His transformation of the book’s rooftop sculpture park into a Tudor garden doubles down on the importance of Royal’s signpost of a name, and from the occasional aerial shot, we suddenly realize that from the top-down this monstrous construction becomes subterranean: 40 stories of violence, oppression, and isolation all covered up beneath a delicately arranged lawn. If that isn’t an image of British history, I don’t know what is.
Ballard might have approved of such an image, but it’s difficult to know if he would have also approved of Wheatley’s more obvious politicking. Ballard was paradoxically both emblematic of and estranged from his context, and flicking back through old interviews it’s not hard to detect the glee with which he refused to adhere to party political dogma. For Ballard, political figures were always emblems, symbols and diagrams, not leaders, which is perhaps why there is a certain timelessness to his work, focused as it is on the darkness of the human condition. This darkness is still very much present in this adaptation: High-Rise, even with Wheatley’s clearer socialist leanings, still can’t be mistaken for a “message” film—it retains the kaleidoscopic violence, humor, and intense psychological focus of Ballard’s best work.
In some moments, then, High-Rise is the best Ballard adaptation we’ve seen. Wheatley’s ebbing and flowing structure remains irreducible, tracing geometric patterns of suffering and violence. His Dr. Laing, the idealized English intellectual, is Tom Hiddleston in a moment of perfect casting. It’s possible to imagine him as any one of Ballard’s precise protagonists, the distant Kerans of Drowned World (1962), the spiralling James Ballard of Crash (1973). Here, he makes for an exceptionally lost and heartless heart of the film, pursuing his own melding with the architecture, his shrugging off of his self. He is the super sane one in all this madness, the best prepared individual to survive in this “defensible space.” He is the Barbican’s ideal tenant, and perhaps, Ballard’s attempt at sketching our most direct ancestor. Because if there is one thing that High-Rise makes clear, it’s that we are all living through a future that has already happened.