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New Film High-Rise Explores The Symbolism and Terror of Tower Living

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The novel begins with a truly surreal opening line—"later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog"—and the story explores a societal breakdown similar to of-the-moment entertainment franchises such as The Walking Dead. But in J.G. Ballard's 1975 High-Rise, the subject of a new film adaptation starting to make the festival rounds this month, the enemy isn't some virus or the undead.

The residents of a new London high-rise slowly regress and devolve into tribal infighting not due to some outside force altering their environment, but because of the environment itself. The tower becomes a character in the story, written as a symbol of the meticulous (and ultimately very fragile) class systems built up by society. Based on the British novelist's observations about human behavior, it's a celebrated piece of science fiction. But it also functions as an examination of the symbolism attached to certain strains of modern architecture, and the buildings we inhabit.

The late British writer Ballard is best known to American audiences for a pair of books that became movies: Empire of the Sun, a story based in part on his own boyhood spent in Shanghai in WWII during Japanese occupation that was adapted by Steven Spielberg; and Crash, a highly controversial novel about car crash fetishism adapted by David Cronenberg. Ballard's literary reputation firmly rests on his visions of dystopian futures (Empire of the Sun certainly speaks to what happens when orderly society breaks down).

High-Rise continues in that vein, using its setting as a critique of modern society, as well as modernist architecture's belief in its own power to reshape and remake that society. British director Ben Wheatley's adaptation of the story, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, hasn't earned strong reviews thus far, but it does bring a story to screen that, despite its extreme premise, does touch on contemporary issues.

High-Rise offers a transgressive look at architecture and planning, exaggerating and extrapolating on the symbolism often applied to large developments and a particular brand of elevated, residential living. The story takes place in a fictional 40-story apartment building, part of a larger development on a mile-square area of docklands and warehouses on the outskirts of London.

The 2,000 or so residents, a "virtually homogenous collection of well-to-do professional people," can find all of the conveniences of modern living within the structure itself, from pools to shopping centers and even a school. Tenants reside on different levels based on social class and status, with the architect, Anthony Royal, residing within a palatial penthouse suite, and varying social strata living below, stacked on top of each other. A "vertical township" according to a resident, the tower is just one of many such buildings, created due to their cost-effectiveness for public housing and high profitability for the private sector.

The timing of the novel's publication is important, since High-Rise came out in 1975 as public disillusionment in the UK about Brutalist council estates had hardened. Like many public housing developments in the United States, various factors led to these structures, built with utopian ideals, to become regarded as dangerous and problematic. The very public structural collapse of Ronan Point, an East London estate, in 1968, only seemed to symbolize what many already felt about the structures. (Ballard set his story within a privately-owned tower, suggesting the issues many may have associated with class weren't confined to any one group).

Very quickly in High-Rise, Ballard uses the setting as a means to examine how technology and new environments warp the human psyche, becoming a means for identification as well as a cause of conflict and stress between the different classes. The narrator, Dr. Robert Laing, a professor who lives on the 25th floor and whose balcony barbecue was the subject of the infamous opening line, notes that tenants are more forgiving of noise coming from those living above them then below them, and very early on, meets another resident filming a documentary about "the physical and psychological pressures of living in a huge condominium such as this one." Modern worries about the social stratification and the disengagement of residents within such living arrangements mirror the early murmurings between the tower residents (the book was initially going to be called Up; Ballard just extrapolates them to an extreme, creating a dark fable of modern living.

Ballard's premise, in part how physical space warped psychology, was based on real world examples. As he said to the Paris Review:

"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."The tenants, fueled by petty bickering and slights, soon begin both battling each other and withdrawing from society, engaging in an "orgy of destruction" as the story finds the veneer of orderly society replaced with tribal warfare. Residents destroy hallways and battle over elevators as trash piles up around the building entrance. Ballard built this concept from careful plotting and planning; he said during an interview that before writing the novel, he created a 25,000-word dossier about the activities of the apartment block's residents, written in the form of a social worker's report on the going-ons within the building. It's a story of extremes and vivid scenes, no doubt, but it could be said to find its beginnings in some not-so-uncommon observations.

· The Life and Death of Britain's Most Beloved Brutalist Building, Robin Hood Gardens [Curbed]