“Architectures of Control”: Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015)

By Foteini Vlachou |

“The spectacular view always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for this concrete landscape. Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence.”[1]

Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015), adapted from J. G. Ballard’s novel of 1975, is a film about the influence of architecture on human behavior and the possibility of controlling or determining the latter via the former. Although the expression ‘architectures of control’ was used to discuss the design of the internet (and the possibility of regulating it) and cyberspace technology,[2] it could reasonably apply in the context of the film. In a high-rise building of the early 70s, a brutalist block rising ominously amidst vast flat surfaces, the residents slowly and incomprehensibly descend into a chaos of irrational behavior and unjustified violence, that overturns a superficially serene social order.

The film posits itself as a class allegory, heir of films such as Buñuel’s El ángel exterminador (1962), where a group of bourgeois dinner guests find themselves inexplicably unable to leave a party. Allegories of class warfare have recently cropped up in cinema, frequently coupled with the genre of dystopian science fiction, implying that a bleak vision of the future is inextricably linked with the disintegration of ordered society and exacerbated class struggle, only kept at bay in the present by the material abundance enjoyed in the developed world.[3] The best example would be Snowpiercer (2013), by Bong Joon Ho, based on the 1982 French graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette Le Transperceneige.

Constructed as a horizontal class allegory instead of the more obvious vertical one in High-Rise, Snowpiercer shares nevertheless a crucial element with Wheatley’s adaptation: the belief that a single man is ultimately, and mysteriously, responsible for the misfortunes of the multitudes that live in the meticulously designed environments they have provided (the train, the high-rise), a sort of inverted messianic syndrome that projects the responsibility of collective social organization and action onto an individual. In Snowpiercer, it is Ed Harris as Wilford, the designer of the steam engine that maintains the train in constant movement as a shield against the lethal low temperatures that have wiped out human, animal and plant life on the planet. In High-Rise, it is Jeremy Irons as Mr. Royal, the all-knowing, overseeing architect, inspired perhaps by the traditional medieval image of god as the Great Architect of the Universe, a definition also current in freemasonry.[4]  During the bal masqué thrown in the penthouse at the beginning of the film, to which Tom Hiddleston’s character Robert Laing has been invited, perhaps as a “funny little social experiment”, one of the guests remarks to Mrs. Royal, the wife of the architect: “Your husband appears intent on colonizing the sky, Mrs. Royal. And who can blame him, when you look at what’s going on down at street level” – the words “down at street level” uttered with visible contempt. Mr. Royal will later apologize for his wife’s behavior towards Laing, explaining that she grew up in the insulation of a large country house and that she constantly needs to reestablish herself on the top rank. Comments like this run throughout the film, bringing its themes closer to the surface of its extravagantly stylized and polished exterior,[5] leaving little, if any, space for ambiguity.[6]

The apartment building rises as a non-homogeneous, socially stratified, alienating structure that adversely affects the residents’ behavior. The scene plays out almost as an adult version of William Golding’s 1954 The Lord of the Flies as the residents start engaging in aggressive and irrational behavior, initially prompted by the power failures that keep the elevators from running smoothly, and the lower floors without electricity for hours. Violence erupts unexpectedly during parties, where individuals enact social difference as performance: the imitation of eighteenth-century French aristocratic decadence as opposed to the cocaine-sniffing excesses of a socially restless middle class resembling the swinging London of the previous decade.

violence2

As things get progressively out of hand and residents start jumping to their death or beating each other senseless, scarcely eliciting a reaction from their fellow observers, the action of the film turns increasingly surreal. Menacing shots of the high-rise from the ground up, as well as images of progressively decaying fruit displayed in the otherwise impeccably organized super market, indicate that it is the building’s own structure, its very rotting nature, that is responsible for the disruptive behavior displayed, relegating class warfare to a side-effect.

High Rise Exterior
High Rise Exterior

According to a 1984 interview, J. G. Ballard was inspired to write High-Rise while on a holiday vacation in a similar environment in Spain,[7] but he may well have been aware of studies being carried out in the 70s, about high-rise living as a pathogenic factor, especially as pertaining to the specificity of British social and architectural realities.[8] These studies focused on the impact of high-rise housing on the inhabitants’ mental health, with one specialist remarking: “There appear to be widespread feelings in Britain, not to be dismissed because they are difficult to define, that tower blocks are somehow an offence against the natural or traditional order of human habitation”.[9]

 In the end, High-Rise supports the belief that significant social change is impossible while – disturbingly – reveling in the escalation of mindless violence.[10] Embracing a rhetoric similar to the one circulating in Great Britain when the 2011 rioters were branded a “feral underclass” by newspapers and officials alike,[11] and thus erasing the ideological underpinnings of the riots themselves, Wheatley’s film seems to side with the conservative notion of human nature as inherently savage and beastly, fundamentally unchanged by civilization. That is why, instead of “the huge pop-art and abstract-expressionist paintings favored by the residents of the high-rise” or “the tachist explosions in the paintings that filled the top-floor apartments” (Ballard, 1975) that appear in the novel as signifiers of social status, the painting given pride of place in the architect’s apartment is Goya’s large Witches Sabbath,[12] a dark and sinister work that underlines the stupidity, superstition and irrationality of the human race. The recording of Margaret Thatcher at the end, where she talks about state capitalism and the resulting lack of political freedom, sounds strangely disconnected from the rest of a film, where the specificities of economic realities are largely absent and freedom is divorced from politics.

***

[1] J. G. Ballard, High-Rise (London: J. Cape, 1975).

[2] Lawrence Lessig, Code (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 38–60.

[3] A rigid social stratification between the rich and the poor is also the future envisioned in the 2012 dystopian science fiction film Looper (written and directed by Rian Johnson).

[4] What is perhaps the most known depiction of god as the Great Architect (from a thirteenth-century French manuscript, today in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, in Vienna), and the meaning of this iconography in its original context, is discussed in Katherine H. Tachau, “God’s Compass and Vana Curiositas: Scientific Study in the Old French Bible Moralisée,” The Art Bulletin 80, no. 1 (March 1998): 7–33.

[5] For the ultra-meticulous care invested in the stifling and eerie recreation of the film’s 70s atmosphere, see the interview of graphic artists Michael Eaton and Felicity Hickson, who worked closely with production designer Mark Tildesley: “Inside High-Rise,” Creative Review, March 2, 2016 (accessed online: https://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2016/march/inside-high-rise/, May 16, 2016).

[6] At some point, Robert Laing is even called “a social climber”, when he is caught climbing the stairs to return little Toby to his mother on the upper floors, by Simmons, the guy who had previously kicked him out of Royal’s penthouse party.

[7] Interview by Thomas Frick, “J. G. Ballard, The Art of Fiction No. 85,” The Paris Review no. 94 (Winter 1984), accessed on line (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2929/the-art-of-fiction-no-85-j-g-ballard, May 16, 2016): “Before starting High-Rise, I was staying one summer in a beach high-rise at Rosas on the Costa Brava, not far from Dalí’s home at Port Lligat, and I noticed that one of the French ground-floor tenants, driven to a fury by cigarette butts thrown down from the upper floors, began to patrol the beach and photograph the offenders with a zoom lens. He then pinned the photos to a notice board in the foyer of the block. A very curious exhibition, which I took to be another green light to my imagination.”

[8] See for example D. M. Fanning, “Families in Flats,” British Medical Journal 4 (November 1967): 382–386, and A. R. Gillis, “High-Rise Housing and Psychological Strain,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 18, no. 4 (December 1977): 418–431, who took up Fanning’s findings and applied them to Canadian cities.

[9] See the comprehensive chapter (including bibliography of all previous studies on the subject) by Hugh Freeman, “Mental Health and High-Rise Housing,” in Unhealthy Housing. Research, Remedies and Reform, edited by Roger Burridge and David Ormandy (Taylor & Francis e-Library 2005; 1st ed. 1993), 121–136 (here p. 128). Cf. Robert Gifford, “The Consequences of Living in High-Rise Buildings,” Architectural Science Review 50, no. 1 (March 2007): 1–16.

[10] Benjamin Noys considers the “inexplicable acts of explosive violence” in Ballard’s High Rise as a “reaction to the sterility and hyper-conformity of [the] enclaves” of the “emerging enclosed micro-communities of the managerial”. See Benjamin Noys, “La libido réactionnaire? The recent fiction of J. G. Ballard,” Journal of European Studies 37, no. 4 (December 2007): 391–406 (here p. 395).

[11] Articles appearing in The Telegraph (August 8, 2011) and The Guardian (September 5, 2011), among others.

[12] Francisco Goya, Witches Sabbath (or The Great He-Goat), 1821–23, oil on plaster wall, transferred to canvas, 140.5 × 435.7 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

 

Foteini Vlachou lives in Lisbon and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Instituto de História Contemporânea (Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa). Her research revolves around questions of the periphery, temporality and the relationship of politics and art, especially in Portugal and the former empire. Her most recent article, “Why Spatial? Time and the Periphery”, can be consulted online. She founded the ‘art in the periphery’ network in 2013, and provides visual and written commentary on film and art in I Know Where I’m Going. You can contact her at nandia.vlachou[at]gmail.com.

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