STRATIFIED UTOPIA

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Barbican Centre cross-section, John Maltby for Chamberlin Powell & Bon, 1970

I recently had the chance to wander the Barbican Estate in London for a few hours. Constructed from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, the sprawling brutalist development is a dream, and a maze. Around every corner is a magnificent retrofuturist vista, or a charmingly overgrown plant installation, or a subterranean breezeway leading nowhere, or an entire disused exhibition hall with signage and fake plants frozen the 1980s. You don’t get to know in advance what you’ll find there. You just have to stumble into it.

While there doesn’t seem to be any concrete (heh) evidence that J.G. Ballard was inspired by this imposing brutalist mecca while penning High Rise, it would make sense if he was.  As he was writing he would have witnessed three of the tallest concrete towers in London shoot up on the horizon, and in the way that brutalism often looks shocking before it looks beautiful, I imagine that the towers would have seemed domineering and sinister, like invaders on the skyline. Filmmaker Ben Wheatley certainly alluded to the Barbican Estates heavily in his film adaptation of High Rise, having borrowed the buildings’ scooped balconies and hand-textured concrete for his tower blocks. In his version he’s slanted the top section of flats along an ominous cantilever, making the buildings look as if they’re peering down at the viewer, stooping to examine an ant on the sidewalk.

High Rise is perhaps the most vicious critique of utopian architecture in fiction. In broad strokes, hundreds of professionals move into a tower community that is intended to act as an enclosed city. The building is designed to provide uniform access to food, recreational and educational facilities within the tower itself; in this vision, utopia means never needing to rely on the outside world for anything other than your income. As the residents settle in, it becomes clear that the wealthier community members have access to social and economic privileges within the estate that others do not. The classes within the tower become more and more stratified, eventually leading to an all-out war, but notably it is not a war for resources. There is no concept of organized action in High Rise beyond roving gangs of opportunists. The violence doesn’t have an objective. The residents are driven mad, attacking each other indiscriminately over slights real or imagined. No one entertains the idea of leaving the tower complex, or banding together to overthrow those in power. Instead, the residents seem to desire the conquest of the tower for themselves, as individuals, in a contest of primal supremacy.

The impression I get from the plight of the residents in High Rise is this: if you expect hundreds of different people to live in strict utopian equilibrium, but within a capitalist framework, they will stratify themselves, hoarding resources where they can and creating exclusivity where there wasn’t designed to be any. You can’t expect utopian housing to negate the dystopia is exists in. This appears to be the problem with building utopian housing schemes under capitalism in general. Note that interest in Le Corbusier’s “machines for living in” or Soviet housing blocks is generally limited to Atlas Obscura-fed curiosity these days – we don’t think of them as useful frameworks for public life, only semi-inhabited ruin porn. And when we do become interested in them, we are often most interested in how the residents individualize their spaces. Examples include the endless parade of Le Corbusier loft remodels on architecture websites, and the endless photos of cluttered plattenbau balconies that get traction in dystopian and cyberpunk aesthetic circles.

The Barbican Estates mitigate this phenomenon by allowing people to live according to both their means and their desires. The housing options at the estates are plentiful. There are the high-rise towers, there are lower-slung apartment blocks, there is a row of secluded townhouses with private entries, there are terrace homes aimed at families with a playground at the center, there are waterfront lofts for the single well-to-do – people are allowed to live vastly different lifestyles while maintaining access to the same cultural resources within the estate grounds. And did I mention that there are many cultural resources: there’s a library, a movie theater, a concert hall, a cocktail bar, a massive greenhouse, multiple schools, a launderette, a cafeteria! The fact that no one ever expected the residents to be equals in every way is the saving grace of the estates. In fact, if the Barbican was to function as an enclosed city (though it would need massive expansion of its food services to do so), I imagine it would be the success where High Rise is the failure. Until a truly utopian society can be created, even the most socialist of housing schemes must have a hint of capitalist individualism in to them to succeed.

Unfortunately, the area surrounding the Barbican Estates these days is pushing perhaps the ugliest version of the capitalist aesthetic, which seems intentionally designed to dominate the humble concrete of the estate. The neighborhood is a WeWork Disneyland – green glass everything, worker canteens with novelty neon installations, and immense street closures to break ground on more of the same. It feels like less of a neighborhood and more of a hive, all industry with no grace. While I suspect that the developers of these new buildings would rather the estates fade into obscurity so their workers don’t have to remember that sedate lifestyles under capitalism are possible, the Barbican Estates still seem like an oasis in this swarm of worker bees, and the first glimpse of that distinctive hand-textured concrete through the glass felt something like relief.