An introduction to High Rise

An introduction to High-Rise

Roger Luckhurst introduces High-Rise, J G Ballard's novel about the disintegrating social fabric inside a luxury high-rise apartment block.

The fiction writer J G Ballard (1930–2009) produced an extraordinary body of fiction over a 50-year career. For a long time he was dismissed as a lowly science fiction writer, and of a pessimistic dystopian kind that was far distant from the shiny futurism and expansive space operas of Flash Gordon or Star Wars. In the 1960s Ballard was associated with the British avant garde ‘New Wave’ grouping that rejected outer space for the investigation of ‘inner space’. He evoked landscapes in the aftermath of global disasters as the subjective dream-worlds of the haunted central characters. He outraged some with the extremity of his experiments in form and content in the calculated provocation of his book, The Atrocity Exhibition (1966–70), which probed the obsession with death of an emerging new media world, using real figures and events, such as the assassination of John F Kennedy. In the 1970s, Ballard obsessively returned to the psychopathology created by modern urban spaces in his ‘concrete’ phase, before surprising everyone with his powerful autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun (1984), based on his childhood in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai during the Second World War. After this mainstream success, his work became valued as a significant record of successive post-war transformations and their traumatic effect on the Western psyche. His fiction has had a huge impact on other writers (as Martin Amis, Will Self, William Gibson and Hari Kunzru have testified), and his commentary on modern life was given ample space in newspapers. By the time of his death, Ballard was like an avuncular modern-day Jonathan Swift. His provocations were almost fondly embraced, and you could hear his polite tones on TV and radio calling for ever more sex, violence and mayhem to saturate our culture.

Steven Spielberg turned Empire of the Sun into a fairly conventional Hollywood epic. Ballard highly approved of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of his notorious exploration of perverse sexuality, Crash. He was delighted that conservative critics called the film ‘depraved’. In 2015, the highly regarded English film director Ben Wheatley chose to direct a version of Ballard’s High-Rise, set in the year in which Ballard first published the novel, 1975. The release of the film is a good occasion to re-assess the novel 40 years on.

Typescript summary notes for High-Rise by J G Ballard, with a draft of the novel

Typescript summary notes for High Rise by J G Ballard, with a draft of the novel

‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…’: Opening page of J G Ballard’s High Rise from a typescript draft, c. 1974.

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Usage terms Typescript draft of High-Rise, by J. G. Ballard © J. G. Ballard. Reproduced by permission of the J. G. Ballard Estate. All rights reserved. You may not use this work for commercial purposes and the copyright holder must be credited.

Social climbing and bodies falling

High-Rise has a brilliant opening sentence, which is quintessentially Ballardian: ‘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 during the previous three months’ (ch. 1). The savagery is displaced to a subordinate clause, yet because it precedes the subject of the sentence it disturbs everything in the bland details that follow. High-Rise is about a slick, ultra-modern 40-storey tower of a thousand living units designed for a middle-class technocracy of surgeons, TV producers and ad executives. It is the modernist dream of the house as ‘a machine for living in’.[1] It is presided over by the enigmatic architect, Anthony Royal, in the penthouse at the top of the building.

Almost as soon as the building reaches capacity, however, the social fabric of the high rise begins to disintegrate. Communal areas become flashpoints as clans from different floors begin to emerge and fight over territory. Social stratification strictly matches floor level. The metaphor of social climbing is rendered literal. The novel is focalised through three main characters, each an emblem of these emerging ‘clans’. Threats and intimidation escalate into violence, theft and raids on rival territories by warring parties. When a body falls from the roof, no one reports the incident, because the residents have now fully entered into a kind of tribal ‘primitivism’, where a murderous logic must be pursued to its end. Residents stop going to work or leaving the building, regressing into hunter-gatherer behaviours, living on the last tins of dog food and water scooped from toilet pans. The book ends once the main narrator, Robert Laing, has pursued his embrace of this perverse trajectory to its illogical conclusion. He comes to rest, ready to return to the outside world, as if his journey up the high rise has finally released all of his neurotic, middle-class repressions. The last paragraph shows the first signs of the same violence beginning to overtake the adjacent tower. The cycle is starting again.

Typescript summary notes for High-Rise by J G Ballard, with a draft of the novel

Typescript summary notes for High Rise by J G Ballard, with a draft of the novel

‘Exclusion of outsiders by unconscious agreement / Total division / Formalising new groups and power centres. New social order’: J G Ballard’s summary notes for the plot progression, and social disintegration, of High Rise, c. 1974.

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Usage terms Typescript draft of High-Rise, by J. G. Ballard © J. G. Ballard. Reproduced by permission of the J. G. Ballard Estate. All rights reserved. You may not use this work for commercial purposes and the copyright holder must be credited.

Demolishing modernist dreams

Ballard’s satire is delivered deadpan in the neutral and technical language of a psychological report. The inversion of accepted norms is a simple but effective device. The novel plays out Ballard’s enduring theme, which he rehearsed in different narratives over and over again. This is that the pristine, shiny worlds of rational order and design, envisaged by modernists, in fact induces its own forms of perverse psychopathology, a violent revolt of the unconscious at the environments intent on erasing it. Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, written in the 1920s, dreamt of ‘The City of Towers’ which would ‘shelter the worker’ and bring ‘efficiency and economy of time and effort and as a natural result the peace of mind which is so necessary’. Above the 14th floor, Le Corbusier promised ‘absolute calm and the purest air’.[2] Ballard’s work is a surrealist subversion of the programme of these hopes for rational design and the manufacture of modern being.

Aircraft by Le Corbusier

Aircraft by Le Corbusier

‘Clearness of function. The world’s miseries are due to the fact that functions are nowhere defined or respected’: the French modernist architect, Le Corbusier, advocates that design, architecture and city planning should learn from the rational order of flight and the aeroplane.

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High-Rise is sometimes called prescient because it (rather vaguely) locates this new experiment in living in the area of the London docks, two miles east beyond the City of London. By 1975, the docks had rapidly become industrial ruins after the earlier shift to deep-water facilities further down the river. The Canary Wharf enclave, dominated by Cesar Pelli’s One Canada Square tower, completed in 1990, was a long way off, and for a long time even then stood above a terrain of abandoned warehouses. That it has grown to be an enclave of international finance, surrounded by residential towers for a banking elite, seems to fulfil certain cultural visions of feral capitalism, fed by Ballard’s vision. This is certainly why the London writer Iain Sinclair regards Ballard as an essential visionary about the future of the city.

In fact, High-Rise was very much a product of its time, and Ballard was unusual in being so closely associated with a group of artists, designers and architects central to these debates in the 1960s. This meant that he was very attuned to the shifting status of high-rise living by the mid-1970s.

It is often stated that the post-war utopian dream of mass social housing was literally blown up on 16 March 1972. This was the date when the first three buildings of the massive Pruitt-Igoe estate in Saint-Louis were demolished, supposedly announcing the failure of the high-rise, high-density solution to the housing crisis. Pruitt-Igoe was designed by the architect Minoru Yamasaki (who also built New York’s World Trade Center towers). He was said to have been shocked by the violence and vandalism inflicted upon the 33 towers in the complex: ‘I never thought people were that destructive’, he said.[3] The rest of the estate was demolished between 1973 and 1976. The architectural theorist Charles Jencks famously declared that the demolition marked the end of modernism and the beginning of post-modernism.[4]

In England, similar disputes were focused on so-called ‘New Brutalist’ architectural design. Large-scale town planning was tarred as socialist or even Stalinist. Ballard knew Alison and Peter Smithson, pioneering New Brutalists who designed the gigantic slab block of the controversial Robin Hood Gardens (in roughly the area of London identified in High-Rise). Ernő Goldfinger’s stark Balfron Tower (also in east London) was completed in 1968 – and Goldfinger famously moved in to the Tower and threw champagne parties there for the residents. By 1972, when Goldfinger completed the mirror Trellick Tower in west London, the appeal of high-rise living had became associated with vulnerability and violence. Attacks were also made on the Aylesbury Estate in south London, built between 1963 and 1977, which was considered a site of urban decay even before it was completed. The design of these spaces was attacked by Oscar Newman, in his book Defensible Space (1972), who noted the ‘disastrous effects on their occupants’ produced by certain housing types.[5]

Photograph of Ernö and Ursula Goldfinger on their balcony in Balfron Tower

Photograph of Ernö and Ursula Goldfinger on their balcony in the Balfron Tower

The Balfron Tower, Poplar, designed by Ernö Goldfinger and long-associated with the tower block in J G Ballard’s High Rise.

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Photograph of Trellick Tower, designed by Ernö Goldfinger

Photograph of the Trellick Tower, designed by Ernö Goldfinger

Trellick Tower, completed in 1972, was influenced by Ernö Goldfinger’s experience of living in Balfron Tower for two months in 1968.

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Middle-class primitives

Ballard’s satire takes aim at some of the assumptions in this discourse, which is often about demonising the poor and racial others whilst hiding behind supposedly neutral complaints about environmental design. The joke of High-Rise is to reduce middle-class technocrats to the urban primitives they themselves most fear. The incubator for the perversity of High-Rise could almost be a response to the closing page of Newman’s book, in which he worries that after publishing his study ‘it might be possible to apply our findings in reverse. That is, for a malignant authority to intentionally set about developing environments which isolate people and elicit their antagonisms, fears, and paranoia’.[6] This exactly describes the laboratory of Ballard’s fiction.

Typescript draft of High-Rise by J G Ballard, revised by hand

Typescript draft of 'High Rise' by J G Ballard, revised by hand

Middle class women from the upper floors of the apartment block descend into drunkenness and violence, from Chapter Two of a typescript draft of High Rise, c. 1974.

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Usage terms Typescript summary notes for High-Rise, with a draft of the novel, by J. G. Ballard © J. G. Ballard. Reproduced by permission of the J. G. Ballard Estate. All rights reserved. You may not use this work for commercial purposes and the copyright holder must be credited.

Ballard’s manuscripts

After Ballard’s death in 2009, his surviving papers came to the British Library where they are now fully catalogued. We are lucky to be able to follow in detail the genesis of High-Rise. Ballard typically began by writing ‘reports’, which sketched out the plot of his fictions, but without the trappings of detailed dialogues and descriptions. Instead, they rehearsed arguments and followed through perverse logics. A detailed 45-page report for High-Rise survives, as does a heavily revised and annotated typed draft of the novel. For a long time, the main narrator is Dr James Baring, sometimes Robert Graham or Melville, and only latterly Robert Laing. The last name was chosen presumably to evoke the popular anti-psychiatrist of the time, R D Laing, the man who declared madness a social construct and considered bourgeois family ‘norms’ to be dangerously destructive.

Ballard also leaves notes to himself about developing the character of Anthony Royal, the architect. He seems interested in progressively cutting back Royal’s agency and control. In the outline, Royal carries master keys and experimentally shuts off various electrical systems, conducting experiments on those who live below him. Typically, however, Ballard ends up with a very passive figure, a man unable to grasp his own motivations, abandoning himself to his own unconscious. Royal is like Goldfinger or Le Corbusier, overtaken by the heights of their own ambition. Just once, Ballard tantalisingly adds in the margin ‘Put in my high-rise research material’[7] – but it remains unclear what this might have been. For a writer who was highly attuned to signs of the future that were crawling out of cracks in the present, it was surely his condensation of these architectural debates of the early 1970s, twisted by Ballard’s insistence on always embracing the most destructive element.


[1] Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1986), p. 4.

[2] Ibid., p. 58.

[3] Minoru Yamasaki, quoted in James Patterson, Grand Expectations: America 1945-74 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 336.

[4] Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1977). Yamasaki’s career is also discussed in Deyan Sudjic The Edifice Complex: The Architecture of Power (London: Penguin, 2011).

[5] Oscar Newman, Defensible Space: People and Design in the Violent City (London: Architectural Press, 1972), p. xiii.

[6] Newman, Defensible Space, p. 207.

[7] See British Library shelfmark Add MS 88938/3/10 (The Papers of James Graham Ballard: High-Rise: A synopsis and two draft typescripts, both heavily revised by hand, estimated 1973–74).


Banner illustration by Matthew Richardson

  • Roger Luckhurst
  • Roger Luckhurst is Professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a specialist in Late Victorian literature, Gothic and Science fiction literature and film, and the history of the supernatural. He is the author of Science Fiction (2005), The Mummy’s Curse (2012) and editor of the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, and H P Lovecraft. His book on the film Alien appeared in 2014 from the BFI and one called Zombies was out with Reaktion Press in 2015.

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