1. Architecture or Revolution?
In the new beginning that dates from Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture, the machine occupied a central place: its austerity, its economy, its geometric cleanness was claimed almost the sole virtue of the new architecture. Thus the kitchen became a laboratory, and the bathroom took on the characteristics of a surgical operating room; while the other parts of the house, for a decade or so, achieved excellence almost to the degree that they, too, were white, cleanable, empty of human content.
Lewis Mumford, The Case Against “Modern Architecture”, 1962.
The spectacular view always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for this concrete landscape. Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence.
J.G. Ballard, High-Rise, 1975.
The high-rise apartment or office tower is a perennial icon and symbol of the modern world. It embodies the primary characteristics of high modernist architecture: the rejection of ornamentation in favour of cool, minimalist function, and organic complexity in favour of an austere rectilinear geometry; the omnipresence of glass facades and curtain walling, which prompted Lewis Mumford to pithily observe that glass was the only material modern architects were unable to see through. In its clean, uniform character, it evokes the age of the machine and of mass production; in its scale and elevation, the dream of conquering gravity which presided over the twentieth century in a myriad forms. Most of all, the high rise represents the dream of a fully rational, mathematically simple and predictable landscape in which the wilder vagaries of the natural world, and human nature, have been ousted.
A vertical village in which nobody knows anybody else, the high-rise embodies many of the contradictions of urban life: the close physical proximity and emotional distance of its inhabitants, the merging of their public and private space in its tiers of balconies, corridors and stairwells, allows the high-rise to serve as a model for the city's peculiar conjunction of populousness and alienation. As a symbol of modernity and urbanism, the high-rise carries a variety of different meanings and resonances, and provokes antithetical responses of considerable emotional intensity. An ambiguous entity, it embodies both the utopian and dystopian characteristics of modern life. On the one hand, the high-rise tower block makes us think of the disastrous structures that urban councils built to house (and segregate) the urban poor in the 60s and 70s, with all the morass of crime, deprivation, and hopelessness that resulted. On the other, we think of the luxury high-rise blocks favoured by middle and upper middle-class dwellers as the embodiment of a certain kind of sleek urban elegance - a living space somewhere between home and hotel, safely cloistered in the upper air from the clamour of the streets below.
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism.
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism.
Modernist architecture has always been hugely divisive. For some, it has embodied all the failings, aesthetic, intellectual, or spiritual, of modernity itself. A common idea (or ideology) underlying modernity was that it represented a point of total historical novelty in which a new awareness or mode of consciousness was born, wholly unconnected to and unencumbered by the past. This is the essence of modernity conceived as a utopian project: a Manichean conflict between the past, envisioned in a wholly negative light, and the salvation offered by the novelty of the present moment, which contains in utero a future of continual improvement and progress. Modernist architecture was keenly informed by this sense of a radical break with the past, and as such its towers and monuments arose with a brash disregard for their predecessors in time and surroundings in space, serving for some as the harbingers of a new aesthetic order, and others as a crude effacement of the historical continuity of the urban landscape, the city in time which is a living record of its own history.
In the late 1960s and 70s, modernist architecture and urban planning were undergoing a particularly sustained backlash. This perhaps provides a partial explanation for the striking coincidence of two works of art which appeared in 1975: JG Ballard's novel High-Rise and David Cronenberg's feature debut Shivers (They Came from Within.) High-Rise and Shivers are so similar in theme and basic outline that I'd always assumed one must have influenced the other, until I realized that they came out in the same year.
Both are apocalypses of the middle-class in which the denizens of luxury modernist high rise towers cumulatively descend (or perhaps ascend) into total anarchy and violence. In Ballard's version, a series of small, petty acrimonies gradually escalate into sectarian violence, tribalism, and eventually a total reversion to nomadic primitivism. In Cronenberg's more explicitly psychosexual vision of the high-rise apocalypse, our location is Starliner Towers, a self-contained high-modernist Montreal community where “day to day living becomes a luxury cruise.” Starliner's placid middle-class seclusion is shattered by the spread of an invasive parasite, however, which turns its residents into polymorphously perverse zombies.
Ballard's novel concerns class-warfare and the effective collapse of society, while Cronenberg's movie presents the sexual revolution in fast-forward as a claustrophobic George Romero freak-out. Both works hinge on the same basic set of ironic contrasts: between the sterility of the environment and the eventual anarchy of its inhabitants, between the geometry of modern urban architecture and the disorder which both artists present as seething under the surface of its human residents, or, more succinctly, between the utopian aspirations of modernist urban planning, and the apocalypses which Ballard and Cronenberg stage, both with a distinct gusto, within the confines of its iconic signifier, the high-rise. In this essay, I’m going to look at Shivers and High Rise as critiques of Modernist utopianism which both express Freudian ideas regarding the fragility of civilisation in the form of ambiguous, darkly comic middle-class apocalypses.
In a broad historical sense, the word modern denotes the whole panoply of changes which engulfed society, culture and human identity between the 17th and 20th centuries: the rapid development of the physical sciences, industrialisation, mechanisation, increasing urbanisation, the questioning of traditional values and sources of authority, the emergence of state bureaucracies, and so on. In his study of modernity All That is Solid Melts into Air, Marshall Berman quotes (and derives his title from) Karl Marx's poetic evocation of the profound sense of upheaval engendered by modernity:
“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face....the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”
In a climate of such accelerated change and radical uncertainty, new faiths and foundations were required to replace the old, and a faith in the idea of modernity itself would become increasingly powerful by the twentieth century. This was the belief that all human problems were best served, and could indeed potentially be solved, by the application of scientific, rationalistic, and technocratic means. The world was no longer a conflict between good and evil so much as one between the Utopian promise of the modern present and the dank, superstitious follies of the past.
Lewis Mumford argued that a belief in mechanical progress was the central underlying assumption of modern architecture: “Concealed within this notion was the assumption that human improvement would come about more rapidly, indeed almost automatically, through devoting all our energies to the expansion of scientific knowledge and to technological inventions; that traditional knowledge and experience, traditional forms and values, acted as a brake upon such expansion and invention, and that since the order embodied by the machine was the highest type of order, no brakes of any kind were desirable.” In a similar vein, James C. Scott, writing in Seeing Like a State, describes the high-modernist faith as “a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialisation in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its centre was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature) commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws.”
Among the most extreme of the modernist utopians were the Italian Futurists, an avant-garde movement of the early twentieth century whose work expressed an unqualified rejection of the past, and an altogether rhapsodic mania for the powers unleashed by the industrial age: “Comrades, we tell you now that that the triumphant progress of science makes changes in humanity inevitable, changes that are hacking an abyss between those docile slaves of tradition and us free moderns who are confident in the radiant splendour of our future.” (Manifesto of the Futurist Painters, 1910, F.T. Marinetti.) Everybody was excited to some degree or another by the sweeping march of the modern world; the Futurists were stone drunk on it. Their intoxication focussed on images and themes which would become uniquely expressive of the 20th century, and the youth culture which began to flourish after the wars: the automobile, the airplane, the industrial city, youth, speed and violence. (These same signifiers become hugely prominent in J.G. Ballard’s fiction, albeit viewed from a far more ambiguous perspective.)
The first great modernist Utopian in the architectural sphere was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Grist, an extraordinary man of Swiss-French extraction whom the world came to know by the pseudonym le Corbusier. An indefatigable architect, painter, author, urban planner and visionary, the range of le Corbusier’s talents was amply matched by the hubristic scale of his ambitions. Like the Futurists, le Corbusier had been intoxicated by the sense of immense power embodied in the technological world. In L’Urbanisme (The City of Tomorrow, 1924), le Corbusier describes a kind of “conversion” experience to the faith of modernism. The author is taking an evening stroll on the Champs Elysées, and begins his narrative in a mood of stereotypical alienation from the sound and fury of the modern city. Intimidated by the speeding cars, he broods over the loss of the era of the pedestrian, a quieter, idealized world which moved to a statelier tempo.
An abrupt and total change of heart overtakes him, however; he begins to conceive of the modern world as a tidal wave of energy which the individual can participate in, experiencing almost a theophany of technological animism:
“On the 1st of October, 1924, I was assisting in the titanic rebirth of a new phenomenon….traffic. Cars, cars, fast, fast! One is seized, filled with enthusiasm, with joy…the joy of power. The simple and naïve pleasure of being in the midst of power, of strength. One participates in it. One takes part in this society that is just dawning. One has confidence in this new society: it will find a magnificent expression of its power. One believes in it (cited in All That is Solid Melts into Air). ”
Le Corbusier sought to create the architecture of this bold new society, and his project is suffused with all the galvanizing energy, as well as the unsettling autocratic undertones, of the above passage. He becomes the theorist, prophet and practitioner of a new Machine Age design aesthetic, with his hugely influential 1923 manifesto Towards a New Architecture providing the iconic slogan “A House is a Machine for Living In.” His dreams are grandiose in scale, requiring the construction of whole cities from scratch. The Ville Contemoraine, an unrealized project from 1920, encapsulates many of Le Corbusier’s ideas about urbanism, and is a quintessential example of the Utopian mega-city of the future which would become the dystopian backdrop of science fiction like Judge Dredd and Blade Runner. Designed to house three million inhabitants, the focal-point of the Ville was its 24 imposing, glass curtain-walled cruciform apartment/office blocks, “towers in a park” which formed the commercial district, separated by rectangular green-belts from the residential and industrial areas. The plan shows Le Corbusier’s extreme commitment to functionalism in urban design: a network of buses, trains, high-ways, and even roof-top airports makes the intervening spaces almost redundant. The city is divided very strictly into residential and work spaces, with the traditional city’s tendency to produce bricolages of mixed function and purpose eliminated by wide open spaces, traversed by the modern miracle of rapid transportation.
In 1925, Le Corbusier proposed demolishing two square miles of the north bank of the Seine in order to facilitate a smaller version of the ideas embodied in the Ville Contemoraine. His description of the proposed development (Plan Voisin) is typically lyrical and rhapsodic, transforming the office towers into weightless, almost spiritual entities:
“I shall ask my readers to imagine they are walking in this new city, and have begun to acclimatize themselves to its untraditional advantages. You are under the shade of trees, vast lawns spread all round you. The air is clear and pure; there is hardly any noise. What, you cannot see where the buildings are ? Look through the charmingly diapered arabesques of branches out into the sky towards those widely-spaced crystal towers which soar higher than any pinnacle on earth. These translucent prisms that seem to float in the air without anchorage to the ground - flashing in summer sunshine, softly gleaming under grey winter skies, magically glittering at nightfall - are huge blocks of offices.”
Most of Le Corbusier's grander schemes remained unrealized (the closest he got to working on such a vast scale were his contributions to the planned city of Chandigrarh in the north of India.) On more modest terms, however, we find his ideas realized in the Unité d'habitation residential block in Marseille which is often called the Cité radieuse (Radiant City). Built in béton brut (rough-cast concrete) because of post-war steel frame shortages, the Cité radieuse formed the inspiration for the confrontational Brutalist school of architecture which Wheatley and his designers seem to have adopted for Anthony Royal's buildings in the High-Rise movie. Suspended on large piloti containing 237 apartments over 12 floors, it is a fascinating, ugly/beautiful monolith of a building. Also incorporating shops, restaurants, medical and sporting facilities, even a hotel open to the public, the Unité d'habitation provides us the classic model of the self-contained, utopian “city in the sky” which we find satirised in Shivers and High-Rise.
Photos by Paul Koslowski, via FONDATION LE CORBUSIER.
What Le Corbusier and like-mined modernists sought to combat most of all was the normal organic evolution of cities. Traditionally, cities and urban settlements developed in an unplanned fashion, following the changing needs of their citizenry. For the modernists, infused by a passion for idealized mathematical order, this produced only a chaos, a detestable hodgepodge. The city street is noteworthy for its randomness: it leads us to chance encounters, unexpected detours, and the experience of various street theatres of public exhibitionism and desperation, pathos and comedy. This was unacceptable to the modernists; they sought in a very real sense to destroy the street. This was because they had a keen appreciation of what is today called pyschogeography, allied to an ideology of muscle-bound modernism.
The environment in which we live and work is not merely a series of functional or aesthetically pleasing locations that we use and enjoy in the course of our daily activities. Rather, the environment is an intrinsic part of our total experience. Like the food that we eat and the books that we read, it becomes a part of us, and has a profound, though often quite subliminal effect on our mental lives. As a corollary to the general mystery surrounding how the mental and physical interact with one another, place and mind are intertwined in various subtle ways. Le Corbusier and his disciples were not only aware of this, but they believed that urban planning was explicitly a form of social planning and control. Le Corbusier believed that there was a Plan, as unique and precise as the solution to an equation, for the design of urban settlements, which, once instigated, would inevitably yield a perfectly harmonious society. This was the meaning of his polemical slogan/question Architecture or Revolution? Environments are no longer to be determined by the unpredictable behaviour of people and history; rather this situation is reversed, so that a centrally planned and controlled environment begins to determine the behaviour of people and history.
This was why the modernists dreamed of razing vast areas of existing cities, and building new ones from scratch. Like contemporary neoliberal economists, they saw no room to gradually implement change; the world had to be remade in the image of their ideology. It is reductive, however, to view le Corbusier and early modernist architecture exclusively in the light of its dubious political underpinnings, and the ultimate failure of modernist urban planning. To do so, at any rate, overlooks his brilliance as an artist, and the fact that his buildings, viewed in isolation from his troubling manifestos, were often striking, even beautiful creations. Nevertheless, by the late sixties, the modernist ethos of urbanism was increasingly being viewed as a failure. Jane Jacobs' 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was an influential critique, and a powerful argument for the spontaneity and ecological intelligence of the organic street over the mono-functional blocks of the modernist dream. In the waning fortunes of the high-rise in Great Britain, we find probably the most direct influence on Ballard's High-Rise: Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower. Goldfinger was a six-foot tall, taciturn Hungarian-born architect who moved to London in the '30s. He occupies a somewhat comical place in pop culture history: Ian Fleming found his architecture and general character disagreeable enough to christen the quintessential James Bond villain in his honour. When Goldfinger threatened legal action, a farcical clash between the two ensued, with Fleming threatening to change the name to Goldprick before the matter was settled out of court.
Commissioned by the London Council in 1966 for social housing in North Kensington, the 98 metre concrete behemoth of Trellick Tower is today regarded as a fashionable London icon. In its early years, however, it was nick-named the “Tower of Terror,” having acquired a reputation for litter, mechanical failure, and an epidemic of serious crimes and sexual assaults.
Top photograph by Andy Spain. Bottom image found at London From the Rooftops.