High-rises are deeply dystopian structures. There are high-rises going up in my suburb, they loom spectre-like over my neighbourhood. There are high-rises in the skylines of failed futurist dreams. High-rises decaying in any ruined city. Workers jumping from the high-rise, replayed on YouTube forever. The architecture of the high-rise has always been potent, its fall is as compelling as its ascent.
“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building …” begins J G Ballard in his novel High-Rise (1975), which documents an orgy of chaos and ultra violence that exploded in a new, luxury high-rise somewhere on the outskirts of London in the seventies. This is the first of a series of third person reveries through which some male resident, disconnected to the point of sociopathy, observes how the London high-rise, with all its looting and murder, has become “a model of what technology has done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”
Last year’s film adaptation of Ballard’s novel sets the high-rise firmly in a kitschified past, amplifying the ’70s day-glo of it. The furniture, the chromium and mirror flash atomically, the polyester burns like acid flashback. It evokes other famous high-rises too, like the one in Irwin Allen’s 1974 film The Towering Inferno, which epitomised moral panic around skyscrapers, and also fetishised the era’s conspicuous consumption—glamorous women emerging from the furniture and falling from shattered windows. In Allen’s vision of the high-rise though, morally incorruptible men like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman can save humanity from Icarus’s fate. In Ballard, they are as likely to eat your pets.
The seventies was a golden age of the high-rise. The Westin Bonaventure Hotel went up in Los Angeles the same year Ballard imagined his London high-rise. This is the building the literary critic Fredric Jameson insisted epitomised postmodern hyperspace. An architecture that has “finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organise its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world.”
It was supposed to be the future city, but when I visited the Bonaventure in 2013 its great glass skin was smudged and some of its reflectiveness had rubbed off. The swirling, hypnotic carpets were stained and tragic. The elevators and escalators designed to, in Jameson’s mind, replace human movement and agency were mostly out of order.
It is apt that the high-rise is the architectural totem of the seventies; a tower of high hopes gone stagnant. Jameson thought that the “mirror-shade” reflectiveness of the Westin sought to repel the city outside, but perhaps these days it compels us to see it. The cars choked on the overpass. The old men pushing loaded shopping trolleys beneath it. The Westin Bonaventure is a heterotopia—a structure in which all the real structures of the world are represented—and, like all high-rises, it maps class. I ate a cold Whopper at the Burger King and thought about real estate and the future. Could I live in a structure like this? How is its organisation different from the Australian streets I have rented houses on?
At home I try to hang on to neighbourhoods, but it’s not always possible. Last year I was priced out of Collingwood, where I had been living in various small and shoddy terraces for the best part of the decade. I moved north, as is the trend, to the grey pastures of Preston, where I frolic along the Merri Creek Sewer Rehabilitation Project and take long tram rides back to my old suburb with a homing pigeon’s compulsion.
My neighbours haven’t helped with the transition. They are territorial about the sewer and its environs, eager to remind me of their older (though not so old—before the sewer, or its rehabilitation, the Wurundjeri-willam camped here for many summers) claim to the land. One morning, on a brisk walk along the murky shallows, I said a customary greeting to a neighbour and stopped to pet her overweight, anxious chocolate lab. She did not greet me in turn but instead launched into a kind of interrogation.
“You live in Anna’s house,” she said.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “The house I live in is rented, and I pay a real estate agent.”
Her face hardened.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s Anna’s house.”
She launched on with an irrelevant description of Anna, her comings and goings, which were not unlike the comings and goings in the house now.
“I mean, I can’t even tell who lives there now.”
“Well,” I said, my hand unconsciously ruffling the fur of the lab against the grain, “three professional women live there. Two of them have lived there for over a year, and I moved in during November. I hope that satisfies your curiosity.”
I was aware of the self-conscious class-based shorthand I was using—‘professional women’: a weaponised term. An unnecessary arsenal. I fixed my neighbour with a look of powerful violence repressed but her look was better, sharp and true. In Australia, established householders do not like renters, particularly renters that are not families. They also do not like change in their neighbourhoods.
I jogged off towards the sewer remembering the wonderful Kevin Brophy essay in which he details his violent struggle with poorly behaved neighbours—a struggle he ends by buying the house out from under them through a proxy bid. You do not have to live in a high-rise to feel as though your neighbours are too close for comfort. And you do not need an elevator to understand the lay of the land. As I completed my circuit of the Merri, I counted more than a dozen placards planted out front of great sprawling ’60s brick homes with elaborate gardens and decks.
No high-rise on our street, they said.
I probably would not choose to live in a high-rise. I am not one of Ballard’s new breed, “the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.” Or at least I’m not yet.
I am in my early thirties though, and annoyed that I will never be able to afford a home in Preston, much less in a place I feel connected to, where my neighbours are less compelled to compare me to my perfect predecessors: the true and rightful middle-class, middle-aged Annas of the suburbs.
This feeling of being ‘locked out’ is one that many of my peers share and, in some cities, desperate measures are being adopted in order to help my generation get a leg up into housing. Before they become dystopias, high-rises are often utopian plans. How else to deal with rapidly growing populations in the city? Why shouldn’t we live closer to the sky—saving space and energy, and developing functional vertical communities like those you see hanging about the rooftop gardens in advertisements for new developments?
In Hong Kong, the city with the most expensive real estate in the world, a 2014 think tank found that it would take a couple under thirty-five more than fourteen years to save enough for a deposit on a small apartment. The government, the think tank advised, should get out in front of the crisis and build high-rise ‘hostels’ for young people to live in while they save. It was proposed as a solution but it’s an evocative real estate dystopia: rows of young people prostrate in bunks, exhausted, saving every cent of their income for their own tiny box in which to teeter on the edge of one of the most densely populated islands on Earth.
In the seventies, Hong Kong was host to a very Ballardian high-rise. Controlled by the Triads, the Kowloon Walled City was home to more than thirty thousand residents as well as countless opium dens, brothels and gambling rooms. Sanitation, all sources note, was well below the country’s standard. For those inside Kowloon it would have felt, as it did for Ballard’s residents and for Jameson at the Bonaventure, “that the only real events in [their] life were those taking place within the high-rise.”
In Australia, particularly Melbourne and Sydney, grant schemes help people buy their first homes in new apartment developments. Advertisements sell studio apartments the same way Laing’s sister describes Ballard’s high-rise before it fell apart: it is both a place where you can be totally alone and, paradoxically, where you will meet all the right kinds of people.
I remember the first time I realised I was being targeted by these ads. It was a shock. The picture of the young man with the guitar and the floppy hair, his space wholly his, a few posters of obscure local bands, a stack of familiar paperbacks, and a schematic diagram of all the good bars and cafes laid into the walls like wallpaper or the scribblings of a serial killer.
This is where you belong, said the ad—though the place, an impossibly small box in a stack on the side of a main road in a northern suburb, was not these ideas at all.
A few years ago, a study of water usage revealed how many new apartments in Melbourne’s inner city are empty. They are not owned by floppy-haired musicians it turns out, but by investors who would rather wait out the term of appreciation than trouble with renters.
There were dystopian stories in the paper. A good one recounted, in first person, life in one of these towers. A man had lived in the high-rise in Melbourne city for a year and had only ever seen one neighbour.
“Ghost Tower Warning” ran the headline.
It is not only the young who are being invited into the high-rise. I recently interviewed an academic whose research is on development responses to the ageing population. The key, it seems, is to make a retirement complex that appears like a luxury resort high-rise. Baby boomers, demographic research suggests, hate the idea of ageing but love a good party.
Developers will help retirees to imagine assisted living as recreational and luxurious. Flashes from the film adaptation of High-Rise strobe behind the eyelids, such as the scene in the penthouse where the retired gynaecologists and tax specialists and actors and TV broadcasters join the head architect’s wife for a 1787 Versailles-themed cocktail party.
If you find this high-rise vision vulgar, what then is the solution to the ageing population, to the young middle class who find themselves, shockingly, deprived of their quarter-acre birthright and unsure if middle class means what they were taught it did? If we cannot live vertically what are we to do?
Meanwhile, in my suburb, the placards are getting more numerous.
No high-rise on our street. NO HIGH-RISE ON OUR STREET.
I am beginning to attach a bitter feeling to them.
No high-rise? Why not? The high-rise is a place where we are forced to cut the shit and see the obvious, where my neighbour could quit with her anecdotes about Anna and speak the subtext—you are impermanent, you are intruding; we are horizontal but you are still floors below me. And oh, the freedom in such a move, where everything that is air congeals to solidity.
When the high-rise falls, it becomes a place we can run through, smearing our excrement on the walls of our neighbours. A place where ‘warring parties’ can be actual parties, orgies run on Riesling and dog flank where all pretence to decency, to ideology, has been stripped away. Dystopias are most compelling when they threaten our vision of ourselves.
No high-rise on our street, proclaims my neighbour’s lawn.
I want to get out my black marker and addend the message: bitch, the high-rise is already here, it always was.
Her chocolate lab is urinating on a rose bush. I lick my lips.
This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #32. Get your copy here.
Briohny Doyle's debut novel The Island Will Sink is also the first book published by The Lifted Brow. It's available online from the Brow and at all good bookstores in Australia.