High-Rise: a ’70s novel with present day resonance

In this century saturated with dystopian novels, how often do we find a particularly successful piece of science-fiction work? Believe me when I say that modern novelists often leave me unsatisfied with their recurring themes and issues. However, High-Rise by J. G. Ballard, written in 1975, is a masterpiece of this particular genre. It touches […]

Jade Aruzhan Sagynay
15th October 2019
Image: Instagram via @neilmcgfilm
In this century saturated with dystopian novels, how often do we find a particularly successful piece of science-fiction work? Believe me when I say that modern novelists often leave me unsatisfied with their recurring themes and issues. However, High-Rise by J. G. Ballard, written in 1975, is a masterpiece of this particular genre. It touches upon the topics of social structures and architectural failures, and immediately caught my attention.

Ballard, in his science-fiction novels, often commences with a particular flaw and explores its consequences to the extreme. In the case of High-Rise, he takes inspiration from the real-life challenges of post-war urban regeneration, and focuses in on a modernist tower-block. In reality, housing became a polemic, serious issue after the war bombings. The design of the novel’s setting is not imaginary, but based off the existing ideas of modernism about self-contained housing, which serves the individual and not the community. Ballard sees the future as the criticism of the present situation and writes his novels through this logic.

The main protagonists of the novel are three male characters inhabiting the different sections of the high-rise social structure: Richard-Wilder living on the second floor, Dr Robert Laing hiding in the middle-class of the 25th floor, and Anthony Royal, the architect of the high-rise and the owner of the penthouse. Additionally, there are several female characters to showcase the existing problem of sexism and female degradation. However, the true protagonist, in my opinion, is the tower-block itself. Throughout the novel, the high-rise appears to develop a consciousness of its own. The humans, in the light of the tower-block, appear more as automatons, robotic creatures. By the end of High-Rise, the building very much resembles a disfigured creature paying homage to Frankenstein’s monster.

"The true protagonist, in my opinion, is the tower-block itself"

The inhabitants of the outwardly perfect conditions of the high-rise greatly suffer from the isolation it creates. They are separated from each other, and are in addition blocked away from nature. They live within their own small worlds, without any regard for their neighbours. The characters do not remember the past or look forward to the future, their only concern being the present - they are trapped. This creates a set of problems and a huge dissonance between the residents of the building, resulting in violence and confrontation. The characters forget to realise that their problems all stem from the design of the building, and therefore blame their neighbours, turning on one another.

On the other hand, there is a handful of individuals who become so accustomed to the conditions surrounding them that they are unaffected by its influence. As a reader, it is fascinating to discover the different directions a group of humans can take, though they live through the same reality.

Overall, the novel created conflicting opinions for me. On one hand, it made me feel as though we, as humans, are inevitably responsible for our own prosperity, and that we are the ones destroying our present by forgetting to consider our future. On the other hand, it led me to believe that the environment we inhabit is often the root cause of our actions, as it affects our psyche on a deeper level than we usually comprehend. High-Rise is definitely one of the greatest science-fiction novels I have ever had the chance to read. I would recommend to anyone, but especially to architects and architecture students, as we have a lot to learn from immersing ourselves in Ballard’s fictional world.

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