Thursday, January 17, 2008

High Rise

Like the Modernist architectural manifestos, Ballard’s High Rise asks us to believe that the organization of space—the social production of space—is what allows (or does not allow) for utopia. High Rise takes the modernist architectural programme to its logical conclusion; in effect, deconstructing each aspiration of the agenda by pushing it to its extreme, and revealing, in the process, a millennial shortsightedness that we as readers now living awash in glass and concrete readily ascertain. The Modernist impulses: universalization, standardization, mechanization, simplification—satisfying the greatest number of needs with the least amount of capital on the largest scale feasible: this is the High Rise. By moving to the structure, the character Laing feels as though he has “traveled forward fifty years in time, away from crowded streets, traffic hold-ups…” into a building that reveals itself to be “ a huge machine" that "provided a never-failing supply of care and attention” (10). While he does balk at all of the concrete, as it is “an architecture designed for war” (10), he still assumes residency without reservation.

The irony is that these futuristic yearnings prove to be, in a spiral model of progress analogous to Hegel’s dialectical narrative of aesthetics, a re-turn to primitivism. This primitive urge is even apparent in the manifestos themselves. El Lissitzky writes in his "Ideological superstructure" that “In our architecture, as in our whole life, we are striving to create a social order, that is to say, to raise the instinctual into consciousness," and Le Corbusier, in “The Charter of Athens,” similarly declares that the destiny of the city is to “satisfy the primordial biological and psychological needs of their inhabitants” (137). As a “Complete Building,” in a sense modified from Gropius’ conception, the high rise fulfills its purpose by providing its residents with all of their basic necessities, including those we would call social: “By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time, it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour” (36). In liberating its residents from the demands of the social, the High Rise calls into existence a subject who ceases to take interest in the exercises of modernity. No religious facilities exist in the High Rise: no airport-style chapels or reflection rooms. In noting what the High Rise does not provide: organized religion, therapy, art (except those pieces hauled up in the freight elevators by the higher floors), an active Home Owners Association or other solid sense of community, we realize that stripped of all the modern enclaves, the residents are left to experience bare life. The simplification desired by the modernists leaves us with these bare essentials: the desire for sex, food, and security.

Does the form of the high rise, the way it bounds space, act as the motor behind this regression? Does the arrangement of space itself call forth these more primitive urges? The high-rise does resemble, albeit on a larger scale, the multistoried cliff dwellings of the Ananzi, whose upper floors were accessible only by ladder, similar to the high speed elevators servicing only the 35th floors and above of the high rise. Quite fittingly, Ballard has the character Laing, in the opening chapter, look out from his abode, his “over-priced cell, slotted almost at random into the cliff face of the apartment building” (7). If, as Karsten Harries attests in "The Dream of the Complete Building," the architect “shape[s] the space and time of everyday experience in such a way that man is recalled from the dispersal into which he is led by the modern world to an order that will reveal to him his vocation,” then the architect has revealed to the inhabitants of the high rise their affinity with a vocationality of more primitive origin (39). The initial stratification of the building relegated Wilder, the documentary filmmaker, to the lower floors/the lower classes, but as the logic of primitivism unfurls, he—by virtue of his physical prowess—assumes the role of hunter-gatherer, becomes chieftain of a clan, reaches the pinnacle of the building, receives the boon (of plunder, death, rape), and then, interestingly, relinquishes himself at the feet of a band of women who have similarly “risen." In the end, the high rise is ruled by a tight matriarchy (note: matrilineal blood lines determined clans in Anasazi tribes as well).

It is not a great leap to grasp modernity as a reincarnation, or at the very least a reconstruction, of the primitive. The triumph of “modern” psychology/Freud’s “id” is the acknowledgement of “primitive” sexual urges. And modern anthropology crystallizes around the study of kinship systems and gift economies. But one character in high rise, astute as we, remarks that the inhabitants are not heading towards “a state of happy primitivism” ruled by the “noble savage,” but are rather moving toward a new age, ruled by “our un-innocent post-Freudian selves…[who] resent never having had a chance to become perverse” (109). It is an age that will go “beyond technology” into a future inhabited by “a well-to-do and well-educated proletariat of the future, boxed up in these expensive apartments with their elegant furniture and intelligent sensibilities, and no possibility of escape” (81). It is the “vertical zoo” (134). And perhaps, if we push Gropius’ “Complete Building” as far as we can, we will arrive at the Total Environment. For Harries, “[a]n environment that is total and complete suggests death” (42). Let us not forget that many inhabitants of the high rise have signed a ninety-nine year lease. Closure—perhaps apprehended as a requisite for unity, for simplicity, is Death. Nothing escapes the system that is the High Rise: garbage, urine, blood, dead bodies. There are few outlets. sexual, mental, physical—Death satisfies all three. If the architect must “wrest a spiritual order from space,” if it must “defend us from the void” (Harries), then what is the void it is defending against?

In the style of Schulze-Fielitz’s “The Space City,” the high rise levitates above ground. Schulze-Fielitz believed that “[t]o regenerate existing cities, structures will stretch above their degenerate sections and cause them to fall into disuse.” The Space City, floating in its ethereal domain, becomes “the structural, systematized, prefabricated, growing or shrinking, adaptable, air-conditioned, multi-purpose space labyrinth that can be fitted together or taken apart at will” (176). We find, again, the primitivism lurking in this dream: the “labyrinth” itself is a mythic figuration that seems to beg the question of whether there is a Minotaur lurking at the heart of the High Rise. But perhaps more importantly, Space City illustrates the aim of modern architecture to get beyond the conception of the building as static. Building was reconceived as “biological process,” a kind of organism, and the Futurists hailed the new architecture’s commitment to an ephemerality that fittingly corresponded to organic life itself. It was no longer a process of erecting monuments and having a monu-mentality, but of generating movable/exchangeable parts. The Space City consists of interchangeable quanta of space that allow for constant reassembling and disassembling. The High Rise, with all of the shuffling of its inhabitants and their cells, presents us with a kind of disassemblage, but we still face the inescapability of its logic. How does the logic of the high rise, projected into the future, come to manifest itself in the social production of space? Does it, true to the "Space City" itself, burst its earthly moorings, propelled by gigantic thrusters into the stratosphere? Is the total environment the man-made space station (the human artifice) positioned against the void of infinite space?