Simon King: ‘Poplar Modernism’

20160313_133504Outside the Balfron Tower we pause to talk about the grade 2-listed tower block’s significance. Amongst other points of interest, we are drawn to the story of Goldfinger’s brief sojourn on the 25th floor and that JG Ballard had him in mind in the character of the architect-resident Anthony Royal in the novel High-Rise. Ahead of the opening of the film adaptation, Simon King reads from Ned Bauman’s introduction from the 2014 edition of the novel:

I want to propose two readings of High-Rise here: the book is all about architecture; the book is not about architecture at all. And according to the latter, High-Rise is no more a warning about barbarism in tower blocks than 1966’s The Crystal World is a ‘warning about the African jungle freezing into crystal.

Yet it’s true that this novel, more than any other of Ballard’s early career, draws on what was actually going on in England at the time – the concrete tendencies, so to speak, of that country in that decade. In an interview with John Savage, Ballard connected the unnamed high-rise of High-Rise … – to Hulme Crescents in Manchester, the gargantuan housing development that had been ruled unfit for family occupation only two years after its construction. And Ballard’s character, Anthony Royal, the architect of the High Rise, surely has his basis in Ernő Goldfinger, the architect of Balfron Tower in Poplar and Trellick Tower in Kensington. Like Royal, Goldfinger anointed his own building by moving into its penthouse (although he quit Balfron Tower for a terraced house in Hampstead only two months later). And like Royal, Goldfinger was immanent in his creations, the man and the monument almost merging in the public imagination, to the extent that an urban legend developed that Goldfinger had thrown himself from the top of Trellick Tower in despair at its failure.

Royal, Goldfinger and the more anonymous designers of Hulme Crescents are, of course, all intellectual descendants of the French architect Le Corbusier, champion of the ‘Radiant City’ of high-tech modernist ‘habitation units’. Le Corbusier promised a utopia, and in High-Rise Ballard gives us a dystopia. But it would be a mistake to set Ballard and Le Corbusier entirely in opposition, because in fact they agree on a fundamental premise: that a new architecture can transform the moral and sentimental lives of human beings. As Ballard’s character Robert Laing observes, ‘a new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life.’

Ned Bauman, Introduction to High-Rise, JG Ballard, Fourth Estate, London (2014)