Architecture Isn’t the Villain of “High-Rise”—We Are

Architecture isn’t the villain of "high-rise"—we are
In High-Rise, the titular luxury residential tower is crowned by an elaborate roof garden, complete with a thatch-roofed cottage / © Studio Canal

In Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, the first film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, you get the entire litany of architecture-run-amok as it appears in virtually any cultural product. There’s the architect as mad visionary, capable of bringing astounding visions of the future into the present but unable to dictate their evolution once human imperfection intervenes. There’s the mania of stacking too many people too high into the sky. And there’s the reckless and ignorant call to knock it all down and build again, tabula rasa, when it all falls apart.

All this is packaged in a set of aesthetics typical of architectural dystopias: Pure ’70s heroic Brutalism, a vision of alienation that’s undergoing something of a revival. The world of High-Rise is rife with shag carpet, V-columns thick as engine blocks, corduroy-textured concrete, and looming cantilevers. Part of a complex on London’s outskirts, the 40-story apartment tower is firmly attached to the fondue-party, pre-Thatcher era, but its dystopian leanings seem to place it in the future as well—as if its residents were “living in a future that has already taken place,” narrates our protagonist Robert Laing, played by Tom Hiddleston.

But while Wheatley’s film views this type of an environment as an ideal perch from which to watch the world end, it’s not because (in yet another well-worn architectural trope) Brutalism inherently breeds brutality in a “defensible space” sort of way. Instead, the tower complex designed by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) set its little society toward ruin because it’s a machine for generating stage sets where residents can act out their disturbed fantasies. […]