Dizzying Inequality

Still from the film ‘High Rise’, by Ben Wheatley (image courtesy CNN)

Ben Wheatley’s film High Rise, a multi-story about decadence and class war in a Brutalist housing estate in London, brought plenty of images to my mind when I saw it. The first was a tower built by Ábalos & Herreros in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands:

abalos herreros
Plaza y Torre Woermann, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, by Ábalos y Herreros (image courtesy Plataforma Arquitectura)

The formal similarity between these towers is striking, especially considering the fact that one is situated in the British Isles, is built out of exposed concrete, and is equipped with generous balconies, while the other is situated off the coast of Africa and is clad entirely in glass and steel. Location, location, location is obviously not the first rule of architecture.

Alright. That only concerns form, and who really cares about form anymore? This month, it’s content that counts!

As regards content, High Rise can be seen as an inversion of the famous 19th century sectional cartoon that depicts life in an ordinary Parisian tenement. Yes, the one that is featured on the cover of Georges Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi.


That cartoon shows us how a typical Parisian stacked tenement houses every social class; from the wealthiest occupants of the first floor above grade, the piano nobile which has the highest ceilings, to the poorest souls living in the attic (note the artist’s studio). In between, appropriately enough, a fledgling ‘middle class’ of merchants and professionals can be seen.

With the invention of the elevator and high-rise living, this social hierarchy becomes architecturally inverted: top floor penthouse apartments are now for the wealthiest while the lowest units are the least exclusive, which is exactly what Wheatley’s High Rise depicts. It is precisely when repeated power failures occur and the elevator breaks down that the social order also breaks down, reminding us that this kind of hierarchy is technology-supported.

Curiously, there’s a scene in Jaques Tati’s Playtime that, like the above sectional cartoon, also offers us glimpses into life inside several apartments, though instead of a sectional drawing we peer at night through large modernist picture windows –all of them the exact same dimensions and proportions– into apartments in which everyone is watching the exact same program on television. Unlike High Rise or a Parisian tenement, the life depicted by Tati behind these windows is middle class, standard and equal.

Seems there was once a brief period in history when ‘equality’ was actually something to look up to.

Still from Jaques Tati’s Playtime (image courtesy sjsu.edu)

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