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HIGH-RISE

Movies are high-res imagery of elaborate fictions and thus fit naturally into this new media landscape where everything is architecture. It’s not even necessary for a movie to be set in or around a building but, when a movie like High-Rise comes along with a lot of people in a building and one of them’s an architect, it’s like content from heaven. Unfortunately, most of the people in that building behave badly and kill each other and, on the surface, it looks like the fault of the architecture.

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This is a big problem for, in this post-depth world, people only pay attention to the surface of things and people might think a building full of corpses reflects badly upon the magic and mystery of architecture. The challenge then, for today’s architecture media content providers, is to write about a movie in which most of the characters end up dead, but in a way that keeps that magic and mystery of architecture alive. Let’s see how they do.

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The Architecture Foundation‘s sole concern is how architecture is represented to the general public. It has some unnamed writer giving us a string of trivial observations such as the improbability of the off-form concrete and the organisation of the development itself, and basically dismisses the movie as poorly-researched and poorly-styled fluff.

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Questions such as the effect a building or its typology may or may not have on people are simply ignored. OK it’s true there’s no evidence good buildings produce good people or bad ones produce bad people, but faith in architectural determinism one way or the other still remains the basis for much architectural activity. The Architecture Foundation doesn’t care if exposed concrete and ducting cause social degeneracy, embody an architectural one, or symbolise a soon-to-be not-so-latent human one. It objects to it as cliché.  

Colin Martin, writing for ArchitectureAU, under the promising title of The Brutality of Vertical Livinggives us a movie review with two closing paragraphs saying something about Brutalism to link back to the title. Martin’s interest in Brutalism also goes no further than the degree it impinges upon our consciousness as a style. Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock would be proud.

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Martin’s quick to link the nastiness depicted in the film with Brutalism and thus reinforce the painstakingly-fostered and maintained negative associations that Brutalism has come to have with post-war British council housing. Thought: half a century on, why is this continual vilification necessary? After all, people don’t continually remind us to associate Post Modernism with shoddy construction, Deconstructivism with bubble economies and Parametricism with the hollowing-out of architecture. I sense politics is at work. The never-ending demonization of Brutalism serves to validate not only the destruction of social housing, but to ensure that social housing as a concept is dead and stays buried. We’re meant to think social housing was just an aesthetic fad we grew out of.

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Image by Sandra Lousada, 1972 © The Smithson Family Collection

Dezeen quotes the director, Ben Wheatley as rejecting the suggestion the set and the egomaniacal architect character Royal were a direct comment on late Modernism. “The film is not a criticism of post-war architecture,” he said. “It’s more that the building is a metaphor.” 

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This sounds like it could be true but metaphor can be used with critical intent. [I wouldn’t want Wheatley to be my lawyer.] “I think whenever you try to take a god-like view and try to force social stuff [!] on to people and have an overarching idea of how people are going to live, you’re opening yourself up for trouble,” he said. “Not to say you couldn’t get it right, but I wouldn’t be surprised when you got it really, really wrong.” This to me sounds like a criticism of attempts to provide “social stuff” like social housing.

A few reviewers mentioned Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower as a symbol of Brutalism the style but not as the gentrified council housing it is now. The high-rises of Colin Lucas, Brutalist in both apperance and social function, are not remembered.

The Barbican doesn’t get a mention either despite being most definitely Brutalist and of the same vintage but it was housing for the middle classes. It is a recognizable inspiration for the set design and it’s right that it should be. To ignore The Barbican is to miss the point of the book.

In his 2014 introduction to the iBook edition of High-Rise, Ned Beauman writes that the book would not shock if council housing tenants descended into barbarism for this would only confirm what many want to believe anyway. It only works, as Lord of the Flies did, because we believe, also falsely, that the middle-classes are more civilised. He finishes by saying that “any time in human history that two or more households have tried to share the same space, they have lived in the High-Rise.”  In that sense, High-Rise is a very contemporary British novel about the inability to share, especially when times get tough. Societal decay begins in shared spaces such as corridors, elevators and stairwells, and comes to a head in scenes set in the shared amenities of supermarket and swimming pool.

A.O. Scott reviews the film for the New York Times without any mention of Brutalism, Britain, or British housing policy.

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Zach Mortise, writing for Metropolis 2 (May 24), offers a solid synopsis of the film and notes how the balconies refer to those of the The Barbican.

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His closing thoughts emphasise how the architecture of the movie is inspiring but incidental to the thrust of the plot. There’s a lack of Brutalism bashing and attempts to negatively associate it with British council housing.

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Shumi Bose steps up to the plate one month later to rectify this deficiency, and delivers Metropolis Magazine‘s second review of the same film, and which is immediately broadcast by ArchDaily.

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Despite being in Metropolis’ Culture section and not its Architecture section, Bose’s article has much description of buildings already well illustrated. Let’s not forget that these buildings are someone’s imagining of buildings described in a novel. As I think I mentioned, they’re no less real or less architecture [sic.] than what gets presented to us as architecture anyway. Seen worse.

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Instead of hearing about The Barbican, we get given a history lesson on Britain’s post-war housing policy. The word Brutalism occurs only once in the header but Brutalism the style and Brutalism the ambition are conflated and the implication is that Brutalism and social housing are both things of the past.

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I doubt we’ll recognise ourselves. The idea of different socio-economic classes inhabiting the same building is unthinkable now. [ref. Poor Doors]

Julia Ingall, writing for Archinect, unsurprisingly sees the high-rise building as a WYSIWYG allegory and her review is given the racy title Devastation is in the Details. For the first time we learn the interesting fact that the movie was filmed in the real-life Bangor Leisure Center designed by Hugo Simpson in Belfast, Northern Ireland”. Uh-oh. 

Chris Hall, writing for The Guardian noted that Ballard’s most psychologically fulfilled characters look to transcend their physical surroundings, however hostile, by embracing them. … Ballard argued that “people aren’t moving into gated communities simply to avoid muggers and housebreakers – they’re moving in … to get away from other people. Even people like themselves.” In this way, Ballardian environments actively select for psychopathic traits and it’s the egocentric Laing who is best adapted to the high-rise who ultimately survives all the tower can throw at him.” 

Wilder: “Living in a high-rise requires a special type of behaviour .. aquiesent … restrained … absolutely slightly mad. The ones who are the real danger are the self-contained types … impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life … professionally detached … thriving, like an advanced species in a neutral atmosphere.
Laing: I am sorry you think that.
Wilder: No you’re not.
Laing: Perhaps you’re right.

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Laura Mark in Architects Journal wasn’t given much space but she managed a good summary and to also link its message to contemporary society.laura mark

This is a new and refreshing slant. I’m glad she noticed EVERYTHING WAS FINE UNTIL THE LIFTS STARTED TO FAIL. If we buy into the hierarchical allegory and the superior classes being at the top, then failing lifts mean no prospects for social mobility. But without such overthinking, the novel and film could easily be read as a cautionary tale arguing for backup systems and better maintenance regimes for residential buildings. Sadly, this doesn’t make for good novels, movies or architecture media content. It’s a shame, because we have one well-documented precedent for poor maintenance leading to the breakdown of societal norms, and we were taught the wrong lessons from that. 

Pruitt-Igoe was demolished three years before High-Rise was published. Well before 1975, inadequate maintenance was a thing. Had it not been demolished, Pruitt-Igoe would surely have been repaired, refurbished and gentrified by now. The site still lacks replacement buildings of any kind. Anyone who achieves anything on this site that’s been systematically stigmatized for decades deserves more than some miserable Pritzker.   

As it remains with Brutalism even now, what happened because of the absence of backup systems and ongoing maintenance is wrongly thought of today as an aeshetic failure. This over-concern for the aesthetics of social housing projects seems confined to the English-speaking countries. It’s as if their occupants aren’t allowed aesthetics of any kind, let alone decent maintenance. The elevators in The Barbican seem to work fine. Stylistically, some of Brutalism’s architectural ideas such as raw finishes and the absence of ornament weren’t bad ones but it’s the social optimism of Brutalism that really needs keeping going. It’s precisely this that’s under continual attack. 

Patrick Sisson, writing for Curbed, was the only person who wanted to see more of that optimism before the movie revels in its unravelling.

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In the closing scenes of total social and mechanical breakdown within the building, the Wilder character [one of the lower-floor tenants] makes his way to the penthouse where he kills the architect he sees responsible for the dysfunction. His assault on the integrity and authority of the architect is swiftly avenged by those still in thrall to his magic and power. This observation seems to be mine alone but you try saying something less than completely praiseworthy about any renowned architect living or dead, and see what happens.

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• • •

FUN FACT 1: Nearly all reviews mention the architect character living in the penthouse. Some mentioned the architect Erno Goldfinger who famously lived on the top floor of his Balfron Tower – but only for two months, as some troublemaker mischievously repeated.

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FUN FACT 2: Not a single reviewer mentioned the architect Ian Simpson and his fantastical apartment at the top of the 47-storey Beetham Tower he designed in Manchester, 2004. This’ll be it.

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Two-hundred year old olive trees were helicoptered up there one by one, I remember reading at the time.

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• • •

29/09/2016: An article, published on the same day, encouraging us to consider Brutalism as a style devoid of social content or application.
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/sep/28/grey-pride-brutalist-architecture-back-in-style

5 thoughts on “HIGH-RISE

  1. Jonathan

    There is a lot of emotion tied up in the this. However in looking at the unit plans they are not great, and in some ways down right poor, and some the basis behind tenant concern re “liveability” is probably justified.
    Undersize and awkward bedrooms, lack of storage. Even for 1960. The extent of pure, narrow internal circulation. Not sure that the efficiency would pass with the 1920’s Russians.
    As an architectural icon only, I am not sure that the retention is justified, how would you actually use the building? Buildings need to be used and used well, comfortably……….
    The Sirius planning is much more satisfactory and would appear to produce comfortable flats. they well be lacking some of the things that are no main stream, but the sizing of rooms is more generous and is orderly arranged.
    The tenants have been long forced out.

    It does give rise to the question about where the less privileged live and work. The work locations are not really changing, it just that the workers are being pushed further afield.

    There are 38 state housing “affordable” units in:
    https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/wa/a/32760674/lavish-plans-for-quays-most-prominent-site/#page1

    Reply
  2. ggkotsiopoulou

    First – full disclosure – I hadn’t even heard of the film until I read your blog. Now I’ll try to catch it!

    You made me think about lifts in buildings, and the ‘superior classes’ living higher up. True also with office space. Surely it is because, and only because, of lifts that this can prevail? If there were no easy way to reach the top floors, then those would fast become the province of the less privileged, left to the physical labour of climbing stairs and carrying their belongings, while the lower levels would become much more desirable. With, of course, the caveat of being more vulnerable to invasion.

    Hmm. That dichotomy could make a fun film.

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Richard Plunz’s “A History of Housing in New York City” tells me that it was in the 1920s that the upper floors suddenly became more desirable. Elevators had been around since 1870 but only in super luxury developments because the machinery was expensive and because elevator operators were required by law. In the 1920s cheaper AC machinery came into use and “automatic” elevators were now permitted. This is when the class-swap occurred, presumably because it was discovered people would pay more for better light, air and views.

      Reply
  3. Jonathan

    the Foundation review is not worth reading. but thanks for the link and having me read it.
    cannot help pondering the reaction had the buildings been clad with brickwork, stone and/or glass curtain walls?
    it is also a further alienation of the terminology and meaning behind bruté as expressed a century ago, sort of the like the notion behind “the right to bear arms” in a manifesto written during a civil war

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      This Brutalism bashing may be endemic but the arguments against keep morphing. Here’s one that’s better than most because it does focus on how the buildings actually work, even if its eventual conclusion is to (a) rehouse the people on land less expensive (i.e. buy low), (b) rebuild (c) sell high. (The same arguments could be used against The Barbican which is Grade II listed.)

      Architects, I fear, especially the high-profile ones who add their names to lists calling for the retention of Brutalist buildings for their historic importance, continue to get it wrong when calling for the retention of Brutalist architecture [if indeed, they were sincere in the first place, as the article implies]. Calling for the retention of a Brutalist building on the grounds of style is to ignore their original social aspirations which, in my view, are of more value to society than the actual building fabric that only ever represented that aspiration anyway. It’s odd that architecture’s ability to represent a caring society is what seen as the real evil. The same thing is happening in NSW with the Sirius Building which, unfortunately, stands on prime property. The building (commonly referred to as Brutalist because of its unpainted concrete) is full of social tenants and, as I understand it, the government’s plan is to get rid of the tenants, make a killing by selling the land to private developers, and use the profits to build more social housing in some spot less visible. The argument seems to be “you have to lose some social housing to get more social housing”. It’s blackmail, basically. Visible social housing continues to represent social tenants as a part of society and, at the same time, society’s obligations its vulnerable. It’s these things we’re being asked to forget about. Again, there’s a big list signed by many architects who are actually playing into the governments hands of making the argument into one solely about aesthetics.

      Reply

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