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Utopias, Dystopias and the architecture of J. G. Ballard (B.Arch Thesis)
(Author: Brenda Ciríaco / Advisor: Ana Rolim

Presented as a full paper in ARCHDESIGN '18 / V. International Architectural Design Conference, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Considering the relevant interrelation between modern architecture and literature, this B.Arch thesis (and subsequent paper) explores the concepts of utopia and dystopia departing from three of J. G. Ballard’s novels: High-Rise (1975), Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974). Historically, literature has been a critical and speculative tool in understanding of urban and social matters. The twentieth-century literary production often related to the post-war periods and their impact on society organization, consequent dystopias, as well as catastrophic outcomes. 


At the same time that modern architecture aimed to create a new social and urban organization as an attempt to materialize what was then a utopian vision, it also led to dystopian scenarios that aroused negative reactions by inhabitants of the spaces designed according to its principles.


Taking in consideration the period’s predisposition towards utopian thinking and the acknowledgement of its dystopian consequences, this study correlates these issues with the support of the scenarios depicted in Ballard’s literary works to then propose an architectural representation of the fictitious skyscraper where his novel High-Rise takes place. The motivation here relies on the argument that the architecture-literature interface could be a useful tool in both academic and professional realms that potentially extrapolates architecture’s pragmatic spectrum while helping to enrich the debate about form and space and to develop new literary sensibilities.

The High-Rise novel and why revisit it.


The novel High-Rise (1975) takes place in the Second Post-War, marked by the demand for social housing, the atmosphere of socialist anti-utopias and the growing influence of capitalism and North American skyscrapers. This period allowed greater architectural speculation, dissolving some rigid concepts that had been defined in the CIAMs (International Congresses of Modern Architecture). Strongly discussed in J.G. Ballard’s novels, particularly in High-Rise, the brutalist approach was quite popular amongst British architects, which materialized in concrete buildings of rigid and striking appearance and, in many cases, in a massive scale. The projects clearly reflected the influence of Le Corbusier and his Ville Radieuse, particularly the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille.


Ballard’s narrative focuses on a 40-story skyscraper (the High-Rise) inhabited by families of different social classes. Throughout the plot, a series of conflicts start to emerge amongst building occupants, initially caused by technical failures in the building and later due to their cultural and financial differences. The skyscraper, which had been planned to function as an independent vertical city, with diverse uses and a perfect (utopian) social organization, in reality, becomes a cloistered environment that stimulates violent reactions or isolation, constituting a dystopian scenario.

A significant part of the violent actions and events in High-Rise later became the reality of many modern social housing projects, especially in examples of brutalist architecture. For many critics, this characterized Ballard's work as a “prophetic” narrative about the consequences of modern utopias and their technological advances. Ballard recognized the 1970s as a reflection of the dystopias produced by modern architecture, producing a powerful criticism of the period. Thus, his work serves as a starting point to further discuss the legacy of modern architecture in contemporary times by presenting a visual representation of the author’s narrative.

Modern utopian social housing buildings from 1950s: gradual failure turned these structures into dystopian scenarios, leading, in many cases, to demolition.

Brutalist social housing complexes in the United Kingdom: mostly were either demolished or imploded.

The historical context in the Twentieth-Century and examples of utopian literature produced.

The literary works by J.G. Ballard focused on this study, particularly the novel High-Rise.

Overall diagram: the contrast between townhouses and the new residential towers, just like Ballard's High-Rise.

Conceptual section of a modern high-rise and its impact on the existing cityscape

Interpreting the idea of the "cliff" façade based on J.G. Ballard's description of the High-Rise.

Two of the recurrent elements in buildings of the period: brise-soleil and the concept of "streets in the sky" created by British architects, Alison and Peter Smithson.

The brutalist appearance and desolate ambiance of the skyscraper suggested by Ballard: a confined planet of glass and concrete.

Floor plans reflect Ballard's high density High-Rise and recurrent in many buildings in the United Kingdom and abroad in 1950s and 1960s.

Building section: 1K inhabitants occupy 37 residential floors plus 3 levels of common spaces.

A duplex apartment: in Ballard's High-Rise, the higher his characters lived, the richer they were and, as a consequence, their apartments were larger.

Building section: voids and protrusions from the cliff façade scheme generate staggered volumes in the interior

According to Ballard, the vertical stacking of terraces looked like bird cages: the building façade reflects the literary narrative

Ballard narrates that the spectacular views of the High-Rise causes ambivalent feelings on the main character, the environment had not been designed for the man, but for his absence.

The incidents in the High-Rise illustrated the profound antagonisms increasingly present in the building: depiction of some these events.

Ballard's High-Rise was a sort of parallel reality expressing the future, and London belonged to a different world, in time and space: the clash between dwellers was expressed in the program, with common spaces and smaller apartments on lower levels.

Common spaces were designed for those who could not afford the larger flats, located on the upper floors.

The High-Rise brutalist balconies are like cages with wild creatures inside, says Ballard: here's detail in a larger flat with an open balcony.

Spatial representation of the penthouse apartment which belonged to the architect that designed the High-Rise, Anthony Royal.

Ballard states that these giant buildings were the first to colonize the sky: façade detail

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