The Apartment Complex: Welcome to the High Life!
What is the connection between violent dystopian movies and Modernist housing estates?
Were you to look towards the Barbican; post-war apartment complex, performing arts centre and site of the hanging gardens of the new world, one would probably say none. Its desirable flats make designers, architects and all sorts of creative types drool.
Still, the combination of Modernism and savagery is a well-worn cinematographic and literary cliché. From the recently released High-Rise, film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel taking place in a barbicanesque estate in East London’s Docklands; back to 1971 cult movie A Clockwork Orange, filmed in the Thamesmead Estate in South London and, even before that, in 1966, Truffaut’s dullest sci-fi film Fahrenheit 451, set in the infamous Alton Estate in Roehampton, dark speculative fictions have often taken advantage of post-WWII apartment gloominess. Modernist complexes were conceived in the 60s in an attempt to deal with the lack of space for a booming population. In these movies the huge concrete towers are both the symbol and the setting of social failure. With their peculiar anti-aesthetic grandiosity and underlying political agenda, Modernist housing schemes embody a lost battle in fostering social renewal though high-rise designs.
The unfortunate story of Pruitt-Igoe stands as a warning against the utopian fantasies of the high-rise. Pruitt-Igoe was a large urban housing project realised in the 1950’s to solve the overpopulation crisis in St. Louise, Missouri. Short-sighted developers failed to predict the move middle-class families made out of the city to suburbia, leaving only the most impoverished to occupy the project. The architecture started to decay and maintenance turned out to be too expensive for the few occupants, so in the span of a decade the area became so derelict and criminal it was deemed necessary to blow up the 33 buildings. The event went down in history, as did Charles Jencks’ bombastic comment on the demolition, it was “the day Modern architecture died” and with it, its ideals. From then on it was clear that estates were not the answer to the thorny problem of housing. Though they could eventually be blamed for exasperating other problems, such as poverty, crime and segregation.
I wonder, in spite of the characteristic utopian intentions that inspired it, why didn’t the Barbican turn into one of these post-apocalyptic scenarios? Why hasn’t the somber aesthetic of its apartment towers instigated its occupants to relinquish their moral etiquette, making them recede in the darkest form of tribalism, as happens in High-Rise?
First of all, the whole Barbican scheme is embedded in the heart of London, which overturns the common Modernist failing of conceiving buildings on outskirts, detached from society. The Barbican doesn’t only contain flats and amenities for those flats, but it hosts a multidisciplinary art centre that attracts visitors from outside, preventing from the paranoia of the enclave effect.
High-density also means proximity between families belonging to different social backgrounds, which often results in increasing hostility between social groups. The class issue is a typical dystopian motif: it is present in the tension between the gang of ‘droogs’ belonging to the lower ranks, and the wealthy ‘sophistos’ in A Clockwork Orange, and in the hatred of police squads for the literate minority in Fahrenheit 451. It is also the main theme of High-Rise: the socioeconomic position of the tenants is reflected depending on which floor they occupy in the building; the lower you live, the poorer you are. The rich by contrast occupy the penthouse positions. This mechanism ends up degenerating in extreme violence among the inhabitants of high, medium and lower levels.
Still, there is no class battle in the Barbican: the 2000+ flats were designed for middle class City tenants who aspired to a cosmopolitan and pleasant lifestyle. As the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon described their targeted occupants: “Young professionals, likely to have a taste for Mediterranean holidays, French food and Scandinavian design.” In a sentence, like themselves. There is no sense of authorities controlling the Barbican’s project and its residents against their will: it is a housing solution designed by bourgeois for bourgeois, a lovely middle class breeding ground.
For these and many other reasons the Barbican is preserved in good shape, and we cannot enjoy a footage of its demolition. Or participate in orgies and riots amid its theatres and cinemas. Still, we can appreciate a program of civilised entertainment, including the screening of High-Rise.