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

In the film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s book, a few people’s domestic fantasies are enough to tear apart Anthony Royal’s Brutalist monolith.

In High-Rise, the titular luxury residential tower is crowned by an elaborate roof garden, complete with a thatch-roofed cottage.


For a different take on High-Rise, see our review of the film.

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.

Almost immediately, the movie changes the architectural focus from the anticipated building-scale to that of the black-box-theater. Royal’s tower rapidly becomes a neutral container for a series of ghastly plays (each with their own aesthetics) that fell society. When flash points on the road to tribal barbarism occur, they aren’t happening in a Breuer-esque behemoth filled with burnt orange throw pillows and Bertoia furniture. They’re happening in mannered English gardens and cheesy tiki bars, because the residents of Royal’s high-rise are desperate to remake the architect’s spaces to reflect their own cravings.

Early on, Royal tells Laing he envisions the tower as a “crucible for change,” free from hierarchy, but it’s not working. Another resident confides in Laing, “There’s a rigid social hierarchy whether Royal likes it or not.” Laing soon gets a closer look at what this means. He strolls into a cocktail party—these eventually devolve into drug-fueled orgies—where the richest upper-floor residents show up in Georgian-era white wigs and topcoats. The topcoats even match. Laing, dressed like a plebe in a sharp black suit, is belittled for socializing above his station, and thrown out. By turning the clock back to the empire’s waning days of slavery, the top-floor residents hark back to a time when there was no need for even the most perfunctory whiff of egalitarianism.

Protagonist Robert Laing pets the concrete surfaces of his new apartment.


On the rooftop there’s another historicist confection. Beyond Royal’s top-floor penthouse is a wall of red brick and a weathered door. When Laing pushes it open, he’s surprised to see a black sheep with a red ribbon around its neck wandering through a sort of hybrid English garden, with Modernist planting arrangements akin to Dan Kiley. The flowers offer the most color seen in the film. Royal’s drafting studio lies just beyond, in a thatch-roofed Tudor cottage, though the inside is gleamingly white and textureless. “I’m a Modernist by trade,” Royal apologizes, “but as a doctor you understand one prescribes as required. That folly out there is for my wife. Her chief distraction is the careful cultivation of nostalgia.” We see her dressed for the part, gliding through the gardens in a white gown, shepherd’s crook in hand like Little Bo Peep. It’s a peaceful place now, but by the end, it’s home to the film’s violent denouement and Wheatley’s most expressive sequence: a Giallo-esque kaleidoscopic flourish of knife blades and lens flare.

All-out class warfare is ignited when flailing documentary filmmaker Wilder (Luke Evans) brings a group of raucous children to crash upper-floor denizen tiki bar party at the pool; the last stop at paranoid normalcy before doors are barricaded with trash, and men begin to eat dog food and sell their wives. Power and mechanical failures hasten the high-rise’s social decline, as everyone retreats to their floors, walling themselves off from the savagery below or the condescension above. It’s an island of bloody mob rule, presumably a few miles from the nearest Tesco.

Amid the breakdown, a few of the residents build more comforting stage sets, aping a sense domestic tranquility that’s now far away. Laing sets at madly painting his apartment, desperately taking control of his own stage for life’s dramas and disappointments. And after a tryst with Wilder’s pregnant and exhausted wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss), they slow dance together amid stacks of unopened moving boxes, as if they’re a young couple re-enacting their wedding dance in their first apartment together.

It’s one of the film’s rare warm moments, but it’s bracketed by pathetic attempts to wrap a sheen of middle-class respectability around the end times, itself a kind of play acting. Either through comically superfluous culinary pretensions or with strangely selective gentlemanly decorum, everyone wants to keep up appearances. And make no mistake, there are people watching.

The balconies of the high-rise reference those of the Barbican in London. Interestingly, there are few establishing shots of the building in the film, which instead explores the tower apartments and the farcical stage sets residents construct for themselves.


Modernity, not Modernism, is High-Rise’s target.

The prevalence of camera lenses and actors plying their trade turns High-Rise into a literal, meta-textual stage set. With the chaos still rising, Wilder decides to make a documentary about the tower, and begins thrusting his camera into astonishing acts of depravity. And early on we’re introduced to television actress Jane, who’s staying at the tower to research a role as a desperately sad and unstable actress who lives alone in an apartment tower. There’s no reason to doubt the Venn diagram between her research and her life is a perfect circle.

The making and unmaking of these stage sets isn’t just a narrative trope. It’s expressed in the film’s editing and cinematography as well. For a movie ostensibly about immense works of domineering architecture, there are few wide-scale, landscape-oriented shots. The camera instead operates in the medium distance, with alternately sensual and revolting close-ups. Not even once does Wheatley reach for the pro-forma perspective trick of making his protagonist seems small and puny next to the oppressive Brutalist architecture.

A fractured media climate, perhaps even more than social stratification (even the lowest floor residents have middle-class jobs), is fingered as being a potential culprit that inspires this carnival of destructive play-acting. Helen tells Laing their newscaster neighbor Cosgrove is “very good, very convincing.”  If he has an agenda, so does everything else. You can avoid guileless interactions with people from different backgrounds that have different ideas about the world by building barricades of furniture, or by soaking in hyper-specific internet media.

When these stage sets have all burned themselves out, what’s left is a techno-scavenger society organized along pre-industrial (and possibly matriarchal) lines. They’re washing clothes by hand in the pool, communally caring for children, building radio antennas out of scrap metal, and coming out on the other end somehow much happier. At long last, Royal’s classless utopia emerges.

Modernity, not Modernism, is High-Rise’s target. No matter how brutish, inhumane, and inflexible the container is to our aspirations, we rebuild our own surroundings with whatever is at hand. High-Rise isn’t about how a unified set of “wrong” aesthetics and spatial organizations inspire madness. It’s about how a parade of little fantasies can tear their way through even the thickest wall of concrete or social prescription. By placing decisive fractures in these intensely personal stage sets and pageants, Wheatley’s film takes architecture off the mantle. In its place goes people’s propensity to inflict their vision of utopia on others as soon as the lights start to flicker and the elevators stop. The architecture of High-Rise makes for an inspired setting. But we already have all the tools we need to take society apart and put it back together.

Zach Mortice is an architectural journalist living in Chicago. His podcast, A Lot You Got to Holler, is about Chicago architecture and design. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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