How J.G. Ballard predicted 21st-century London

In his cult 1970s novel High-Rise, Ballard anticipated current trends in architecture and urban planning, predicting the London landscape of 2016. 

Stephen Dalton
Updated:

High-Rise (2015)

High-Rise (2015)

Visually stunning and ambitiously weird, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise arrives in cinemas this month on a wave of feverish anticipation. Adapted by his regular screenwriter Amy Jump, Wheatley’s multi-storey disaster movie is impressively faithful to author J.G. Ballard’s cult classic 1975 novel about a gleaming new luxury London skyscraper whose residents slowly turn against each other in a crazed orgy of sex, violence and cannibalism. A sense-swamping riot of period-perfect 70s decor, fashions and hairstyles, High-Rise feels at times like an apocalyptic porn remake of Abigail’s Party.

The film’s starry cast includes Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller and Luke Evans. But the main star is the building itself, a hulking brutalist colossus clad in raw concrete, its upper floor balconies kinked forward over a vertiginous 40-storey drop. In the novel, Ballard described the high-rise as “a small vertical city”, complete with its own supermarket and swimming pool, which towers over a new docklands development in east London. But it is also giant machine designed to free its 2,000 tenants from their normal social inhibitions, jolting them into a state of neo-primitive savagery.

With dry humour and cool detachment, Ballard treats the residents of High-Rise as human rats trapped in a vast laboratory experiment, “a well-educated proletariat of the future boxed up in these expensive apartments with their elegant furniture and intelligent sensibilities, and no possibility of escape”. In the end, the building becomes a lawless combination of high-tech prison camp, slaughterhouse and asylum. A towering infirmary.

High-Rise (2015)

High-Rise (2015)

The poet laureate of the concrete age, Ballard’s books are crowded with modernist urban imagery: multi-level car parks, raised motorway flyovers, drained swimming pools, shopping malls and sinister gated communities. One of his recurring obsessions was how these new artificial environments might alter the human psyche, for better or worse. In his post-Freudian worldview, mankind is largely driven by perverse, irrational and often self-destructive urges. Watching Wheatley’s film 40 years after High-Rise was published, these prophetic elements feel more potent than ever. It looks like 1975, but feels very much like 2016.

High-Rise (2015)

High-Rise (2015)

Following his death in 2009, Ballard’s career-long fascination with the urbanised future was assessed in Architectural Design magazine. “In Ballard, trends (and flaws) in architectural design are pursued to their logical extremes,” wrote Simon Sellars, “then bent backwards or forwards through time to go completely beyond logic.” Nic Clear added: “His understanding of architecture, and architects, and his prophetic visions make Ballard one of the most important figures in the literary articulation of architectural issues.”

At the time Ballard was writing High-Rise, cracks were already becoming visible in the utopian tower-block dream. Widespread postwar slum clearance and a welfare-state push for high-volume social housing had transformed the urban landscape right across the industrialised world in the late 50s and 60s, with pre-stressed concrete and system-built designs fuelling a boom in high-density building projects.

High-Rise (2015)

High-Rise (2015)

Taking their cue from European visionaries like Le Corbusier, who famously came to view human beings as standardised units living inside functional machines, a new generation of uncompromising modernist architects emerged. Flush with public money, they produced landmark “streets in the sky” projects like Robin Hood Gardens and the Heygate Estate in London, Park Hill in Sheffield, Hunslet Grange in Leeds, Cruddas Park in Newcastle, the Gorbals and Red Road flats in Glasgow, and the futuristic Crescents in Hulme, Manchester.

But a dramatic gas explosion at the 22-floor Ronan Point in east London in May 1968, which caused a partial collapse of the tower and left four people dead, marked a turning point in attitudes to multi-storey social housing. By the early 70s, the fashion for high-rise residential blocks was in rapid decline, the architects who created them widely derided as arrogant and short-sighted. Some, including former Newcastle City Council chief T. Dan Smith and Yorkshire building tycoon John Poulson, were even jailed after high-profile corruption trials.

In 1964, local councils across Britain approved construction of 27,000 high-rise dwellings. By 1978, that total had shrunk to a mere 37. In the interim, most of the estates listed above became synonymous with street crime, urban blight and shoddy construction. Almost all have now been evacuated, demolished and replaced with low-rise alternatives.

Similar revolts against the failed utopian ideals of modernism were taking place across the western world. The demolition of the iconic Pruitt-Igoe projects in St Louis, starting in 1972, was widely hailed as a death blow for high-rise social housing. The estate had proved to be a “social catastrophe,” Ballard conceded in a 2006 article, but added a wry twist: “I sometimes think that social catastrophe was what the dirt-poor residents secretly longed for.”

Glasgow’s Red Road flats, as seen in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006)

Glasgow’s Red Road flats, as seen in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006)

But Ballard’s genius with High-Rise was in predicting topsy-turvy reversals in future London lifestyle trends, when urban skyscrapers would stop being vertical sink estates for low-income families and instead become prestige addresses for the metropolitan middle classes. All the residents in the novel’s luxury tower block are moneyed professionals, their neighbourly disputes driven by status anxiety and territorial tribalism. The vanity of small differences.

Perhaps the most obvious real-life model for Ballard’s cluster of prestige skyscrapers is the Barbican in the City of London, which was nearing completion as the novel was published. The estate’s three 42-storey towers – Cromwell, Shakespeare and Lauderdale – became Britain’s tallest residential buildings and are now much-admired brutalist landmarks, Grade II listed since 2001. In Concretopia, his 2013 celebration of postwar British architecture, author John Grindrod lavishly praises this soaring “city within a city” while noting that the dystopian prophecies of High-Rise have so far failed to arise. “As yet the Barbican has escaped a Ballardian social apocalypse,” he quips.

The Barbican is certainly one visual reference for the striking skyscraper design in Wheatley’s film of High-Rise. But there are also strong echoes of the 26-floor Balfron Tower in Poplar and its 30-floor sister building Trellick Tower in North Kensington, stern brutalist megastructures that dominate their surroundings like high-tech military fortresses. Both were reportedly among Ballard’s original inspirations for the novel.

Anthony Royal Architects promo for high-rise living

“It was really important that the building felt real,” Wheatley explained in BFI Filmmakers magazine recently. “We looked at a lot of brutalist buildings but we were also looking at an alternative 1970s. We didn’t want a greatest hits of the 1970s with circular televisions and kipper ties. We wanted to be a time out of time.”

Opened in 1967 and 1972 respectively, Balfron and Trellick were initially social housing blocks, and suffered a familiar slide into neglect and crime. Half a century later, both are now Grade II listed and much coveted by urban hipsters keen to live in a modernist landmark towering over the London skyline. Large numbers of their remaining council tenants have been “decanted” elsewhere while the flats are refurbished and sold off piecemeal to private buyers. Critics brand this controversial process “social cleansing”, a stealth takeover of affordable public housing by middle-class gentrifiers.

Both Balfron and Trellick were designed by the Hungarian émigré architect Ernő Goldfinger, whose notoriously volcanic temper and haughty arrogance earned him the dubious honour of having a James Bond villain named after him (with typical good humour, he responded by threatening to sue Ian Fleming). Goldfinger is the closest model for Anthony Royal, the patrician architect anti-hero in Wheatley’s High-Rise, played with a hint of suave sadism by Jeremy Irons. Writing about Balfron in Concretopia, Grindrod discerns a latent streak of Ballardian menace in its bunker-like battlements: “there was something hypermasculine, almost warlike, about it”.

The real Goldfinger and his wife Ursula spent a few months living in an upper-floor flat in the newly completed Balfron Tower in 1968, testing out the construction and amenities, before heading back to their Hampstead home. In High-Rise, Royal and his wife occupy the skyscraper’s palatial penthouse, complete with lush roof gardens and stables. From this godlike vantage point, he coolly monitors the tenants below as they slide into civil war, dropping sinister hints that he always intended the building to be a “crucible for change”. When the experiment gets out of hand, Royal attempts to flee the building, but he is too late.

High-Rise (2015)

High-Rise (2015)

The character of Royal may be partly based on divisive figures like Le Corbusier and Goldfinger, but High-Rise also predicted a new generation of headline-grabbing “starchitects” who would come to dominate the London skyline in the 21st century with their increasingly swollen erections. This jet-setting VIP boys’ club includes Richard Rogers, designer of the Lloyds headquarters and the Millennium Dome; Norman Foster, architect of “The Gherkin” on St Mary Axe; Cesar Pelli, the skyscraper specialist behind One Canada Square on Canary Wharf; and Shard creator Renzo Piano. In an unconscious echo of Ballard, Piano even calls the 72-storey Shard “a vertical city”.

The Shard, London

The Shard, London

A more contemporary real-life match for Anthony Royal is Ian Simpson, designer of the 47-storey Beetham Tower in Manchester. Like his literary ancestor, Simpson lives in a giant penthouse on the top of his own building, the highest residential space in Britain. A dark, sleek, geometric slab full of luxury apartments and hotel suites, the tower resembles a giant replica of the alien monolith at the start of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It is also notorious locally for the loud droning noise it makes in high wind, like some sinister science-fiction torture device. A very Ballardian touch.

So far, the residents of Beetham Tower have not turned the building into a lawless no-go zone of warring tribes, as in High-Rise. Ballad was writing exaggerated social satire, of course, but he did predict some real examples of prestige residential skyscrapers descending into anarchy. One striking case is the 55-storey Ponte City Apartments in Johannesburg, the tallest residential building in Africa, a stylish cylindrical structure with a hollow core.

High-Rise (2015)

High-Rise (2015)

Opened in 1976, a year after High-Rise was published, Ponte began as luxury flats but later became synonymous with gang violence, drugs and suicide. After the owners abandoned it, the central atrium filled with debris five storeys high. In 2007, a German theatre company staged a version of Ballard’s novel set in near-future Berlin, renaming their architect anti-hero Philip del Ponte in tribute to the troubled South African edifice. Recent attempts to regenerate the building have met with mixed results.

Another thread running through High-Rise is the unsettling notion of buildings as sentient beings in their own right, with their own mutinous agenda against humans. As one thuggish minion tells an increasingly flustered Royal in Wheatley’s film: “I don’t work for you, I work for the building”. It is easy to imagine Ballard finding dark humour in the “Walkie Talkie” at 20 Fenchurch Street, whose concave glass front was found to focus sunlight into a glass-melting “death ray” beam. The same architect, Rafael Viñoly, had already experienced similar problems with his Vdara hotel in Las Vegas. A deliberate cost-cutting measure, this potentially deadly design flaw has since been rectified.

A more controversial case is Bridgewater Place in Leeds, nicknamed “The Dalek”, the tallest building in Yorkshire since it was “topped out” in 2005. Like many high-sided structures, this 32-floor residential tower accelerates wind speeds at street level, causing several accidents, including one fatality. The design has now been tweaked in a bid to prevent further tragedy.

City of London skyline

City of London skyline

Survey the London skyline in 2016 and the city looks ever more Ballardian. Over the last decade, high-rise luxury apartment blocks have mushroomed across the city: lofty millionaire ghettos like the 48-floor Pan Peninsula East on Canary Wharf and the 44-storey Landmark on Marsh Wall. Around 200 new private residential skyscrapers are currently in development, led by prestige projects like One Nine Elms in Vauxhall and One Blackfriars in Southwark. Around 14,000 new high-rise flats are already under construction, with another 70,000 in the pipeline. Writing in the Guardian last year, The Thick of It co-creator Ian Martin described the capital’s new horizon as “an infantile, random collection of improbable sex toys poking gormlessly into the privatised air”.

Some of these new apartment buildings have already been blamed for “social cleansing” in the name of regeneration, notably the 43-storey Strata in Elephant and Castle, aka the “Electric Razor”, which towers over the ruins of the derelict Heygate Estate. Other developments have proved highly contentious for having separate “poor doors” to insulate their wealthy residents from their small number of legally mandated social-housing tenants, and even installing “anti-homeless” spikes in the pavement outside. Very divisive. Very dystopian. Very High-Rise.

Driven by skyrocketing property prices and investor demand for prestige apartments, London’s architectural landscape is undergoing a more subtle kind of class war than the full-scale social breakdown depicted in Wheatley’s retro-futurist disaster movie. But the city edges ever closer to Ballard’s prophetic worldview, where high-rise buildings are no longer utopian streets in the sky, more like weapons of mass construction.

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