Retromania: Inside 'High-Rise', Ballard's Brutalist nightmare

Story highlights

  • A new film brings to life JG Ballard's schizophrenic vision of affluent tower block living in the 1970s
  • "High-Rise" is an exploration of middle class dystopia, showing how buildings can oppress and alienate
  • Director Ben Wheatley reveals how he has morphed into Ballard's fictional architect

(CNN)Welcome to life in the high-rise. The elevators haven't worked for weeks, class warfare abounds and, starving, you're barbecuing the dog. You've never been happier.

There are few more arresting social commentaries than JG Ballard's "High-Rise", a speculative fiction from 1975 on the perils of modern living. There's fewer still that have so keenly combined architecture and sociology.
    Condensed and refined into 40 floors of Brutalist dystopia are fear, hope and curiosity, fixing modernity in its lens and throwing it forward to what the author believes to be its ruinous eventual outcome.
    Ballard's narrative tells the story of Dr Robert Laing, a physiologist who moves into a new apartment block in London, along with a variety of middle-to-upper class professionals and their families. In the modern building the utilities begin to falter, struggling with its inhabitants' demands -- provoking agitation that swiftly slips into chaos.
    Today this is a tale of days of future past, but many of its anxieties hold true: the pervasiveness of consumer culture, our ever-increasing reliance on technology; social stratification and the boundaries imposed on the less well-off. None of these issues have disappeared in the four decades since.
    Its prescience is part of the novel's enduring appeal and so, ripe as the story is, "High-Rise" has been plucked for adaptation by British auteur Ben Wheatley. Its translation to screen has been a long road (it previously miscarried in the hands of Nicholas Roeg in the '70s) but now due to hit cinemas, the film is garnering favorable reviews.
    CNN Style sat down with Wheatley to find out how the director crafted this schizophrenic love letter to concrete.

    The high life

    Rising out of East London's Docklands is Wheatley's tower, all ribbed concrete and squared-off shapes. Sitting in a sea of tarmacked car lot it punches the skyline before altering its course. Like the odds for its wealthiest inhabitants, the high-rise is skewed toward the top.
    Ballard's high-rise, alongside others in construction.
    These computer-generated wide-angle shots are some of the few used in the film says the director, who searched high and low to find a corner of Brutalist Britain to plant his flag.
    "We just couldn't find anywhere," Wheatley laments. The Red Road estate in Glasgow, the Barbican Centre in London and Birmingham's Central Library were influences, but they were all inaccessible in their own ways, destroyed, busy or simply shut. Further afield, the director looked to Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation in Marseille for inspiration.
    "We need to take that journey of the building from being pristine to being destroyed," he explains, "and that just wasn't going to happen in a place that was being used a lot."
    A production design mock-up of one of the high-rise apartments.
    "We ended up in Bangor in Northern Ireland and found this sports center that had been built in '73," he recalls. "We turned up outside and thought 'Well, this won't be of much use.' It was quite a long shot, but we went inside and realized it gave us almost everything that we needed."
    Robert Laing paces the high-rise, as penned by director Ben Wheatley.

    Big story, small budget

    Ballard's fictional architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) would've been proud of the location's utility. Featuring a swimming pool, a squash court, a mass of corridors and a sports hall which doubled as a studio lot, it contained all the amenities required for the high life.
    When the apartment set -- redressed for each character -- was wearing thin, Wheatley decided a bit of camera trickery could shake things up.
    "We shot in reverse, so the art department had to print all the labels backwards, and everybody's hair was combed in the opposite direction, watches put on the other hand," he says. Looking at flipped monitors the set was "unrecognizable...it was kind of a difficult one to direct."
    "The film looks quite expensive, but the budget was quite small, just crawling into the low-budget end of things," Wheatley argues. (Some reports place it in excess of the $5 million mark.)
    Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) inspects his Brutalist apartment.
    "I'd read about the making of 'Trainspotting' and that they'd used a factory, an old brewery," says the director. "It has always appealed to me, taking an industrial space. It gives you a lot of different, interesting spaces within it."
    Working with production designer Mark Tildesley, Wheatley honed the film's aesthetic through mood boards and collages. To bind the locations together Tildesley devised a triangular concrete buttress, which features in nearly every set.
    The director describes the imposing design as one "oppressing everybody", "giving the feeling of weight all the time, that the building is impinging on the people living there."
    That Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is caught caressing one such buttress suitably reflects the unhealthy relationship the inhabitants have with their environment.

    Inside the architect's mind

    Despite its domineering presence, Wheatley argues that the high-rise is a catalyst rather than the instigator of Laing and his neighbours' mania.
    "It's more a social engineering issue than architecture on its own -- although architecture plays a part in it," he suggests.
    Architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), a man who in his own words "designs as prescribed."
    "I think as well, the idea of somebody -- i.e. the architect -- putting everyone into what he calls 'a crucible for change,' he's creating a massive social experiment, thinking that it's for everybody's good. That kind of broad thinking often ends in tears, because he's made too many assumptions of how people are going to react together... If you're a self-appointed god, then things inevitably go wrong."
    Not that the director will condemn Royal, a Brutalist deity living atop his New Jerusalem.
    "I try not to judge him, as I basically am Royal, aren't I?" Wheatley says, laughing. Stepping outside Ballard's narrative, he argues that as director "Royal isn't really in control: I am. This world that I've created -- not my own, obviously -- along with thousands of people, it talks about lots of issues." The parallel between the architect, the director and their respective creations becomes clearer.

    An allegory fit for the 21st century

    So does the director have concerns about modern day living?
    Director Ben Wheatley.
    The story, he suggests, is allegorical, adding that "the split between rich and poor is a worry."
    Property investors are "seeming to kill London, which is a sad state of affairs... the empty apartments and the pricing out of everybody except the extremely rich." It is, he argues, "absolutely at odds with the idea of what a city is," turning it into "an abstract space."
    "It's like when someone buys a painting, a Van Gogh, and then you stick it in a vault somewhere and no one ever looks at it again. It's like a bond or something: it's just money. And the thing that it was, a beautiful piece of art, is gone forever."
    As for whether "High-Rise" could exist today, Wheatley is doubtful. The age of social media means the secret life of the tower's residents would not remain that way for long, since "the reflex to film and share online is almost becoming second nature now," he says.
    The director is happy to cloister his characters in the 1970s high-rise. One would think its agoraphobic residents would approve.