Levelling The High-Rise

 Levelling The High-Rise:

Readdressing the Inequalities of Social Housing 

Ciara McLaughlin

The topic of this investigation focuses on the inequalities of social housing and in particular the architectural designs of high-rise builds in inner cities and how this has the potential for contributing to violence and social discord. I will examine what architecture says about social structure, class and wealth inequality in inner city housing and how can this be readdressed to reduce social segregation and isolation. “A new architecture can transform the moral and sentimental lives of human beings” (Beauman 2014). I will explore this premise further with how architecture has the power to change people’s life’s both for the better and for worse. The main area of interest is how urban planners striving for a vision of utopia have inadvertently created a dystopia for residents by disregarding the inhabitant’s health, wellbeing and living requirements resulting in anti-social behaviour. 

The objective was to identify what creates social and economic division in inner city housing and if town planners and architects contribute to this inequality. Examining high rise living, my research explores the architectural intentions and the reality for residents. My proposal to level the high-rise is to redesign JG Ballard’s fictional forty-storey ‘High Rise’ to negate the oppression for the people inside and create a new way of living that connects not only the physical floor levels but also the human diversity of our society. 

Using descriptions from the book I was able to establish an indication of the dimensions and interior of the building; forty floors, a thousand expensive apartments of varying sizes, tiled balconies, observation roof, concourse, leisure and shopping facilities. I initially wanted to capture the oppressive sinister building of High Rise and how the building domineers and pushes down its inhabitants. The social divisions and rivalries between floor levels and access to the amenities is further expanded within the increasing polarization of the building; and discord between the higher and lower floors exasperated by an increase of violence and items being thrown over the balconies.

As the building utilities fell into further disrepair, contributing to the poor mental health of the residents, the divisions and hostility between the three camps increased. The 10th floor where the shopping mall was situated formed the boundary between the lower nine floors. The middle section rose above the 10th to the 35th floor and the swimming pool and restaurant deck. The top five floors were the upper class. Isolated from the wider community and the normal social constraints, the residents’ behaviour descends into anarchy and violence. Physical barriers are erected between floors to discourage residents from rising above their floor and the high-rise becomes the embodiment of class struggle and discord. 

I was interested in identifying the sources of discontent from an architectural perspective and noted that throughout the book, the elevators play a significant role and are highlighted as one of the main reasons for division and discord. The analogy that the building is alive “The elevators pumping up and down the long shafts resembled pistons in the chamber of a heart. The residents moving along the corridors were the cells in a network of arteries, the lights in their apartments the neurones of the brain”. (Ballard 2014) This quote creates a strong visualisation of the building and the residents as one living organism. To experiment with this visualisation of the elevators I explored the positions of them within the building by sketching circulation diagrams to highlight the movment of people.

Using the analogy that the building is alive I have developed the circulation diagrams into functional green spaces open to the public that resemble the cells of the arteries.The High Rise was then redesigned, removing the barriers, both physical and psychological to negate the oppression for the people inside and create a new way of living that connects not only the physical floor levels but also the human diversity of our society. This is established through sketches, sketch book work, experimentation and a portfolio of CAD developments and final design.

By using the original floor plans form the set design of ‘High-Rise’ and examining case studies of similar buildings, I have established similarities and key aspects that contributed to social isolation and the ultimate failure of these designs. The location of the buildings segregated the inhabitants from the city and the local neighbourhoods. This disconnect was a serious mistake as was the failure to provide local amenities and transport links which inhibited opportunity and access to employment. The large unoccupied land surrounding the projects provided opportunity for crime as there was no local natural surveillance by the community who had no reason to utilise this space. Many of the buildings were poorly built and not maintained resulting in them falling into disrepair. Failure to maintain building utilities such as lifts, and rubbish chutes also contributed. However, the main reason for the failure is government policy to forceable remove lower income people from their inner-city communities to enable a land grab to redevelop and gentrify areas that have become prime real estate. 

Applying Jane Jacob’s theories on inclusive inner-city social housing within my final designs demonstrates graphically the rational the same consideration to be applied when designing ‘vertical cities’. It is hoped that this work could be considered when designing contemporary high-rise accommodation so that failed social experiments are not repeated.


The significance of this research was to establish the elements of architectural and interior design in high rise buildings that contribute to and cause social division and crime. This enabled me to level the high-rise and redesign this fictional building to negate the oppression for the people inside and create a new way of living that connects not only the physical floor levels but also the human diversity of our society. My research contributes to the field by mapping the physical structures and layout of an example of post war Brutalist architecture and identify specific areas that contributed to the failure of the design and present how this can be improved and redesigned to ensure that inner city living is inclusively designed to consider the needs of all demographics within communities. 

It would be arrogant to assume that architecture alone can solve the inequalities of inner-city housing as other socioeconomic aspects must be taken into consideration. However, we must acknowledge that architecture can contribute to inequality and given that association we can hypothesise it can play its part in reversing the disparities. The privatisation of London’s council towers and the decantation of the original tenants to make way for people who can afford the inflated price is discriminatory and unfair gentrification. Modified buildings are not the answer to inequality without a national housing strategy that encourages the inclusion of affordable rental accommodation within any development. 

Unless considerations for the whole community are put before the property portfolios of a few our cities will stagnate under the self-interest of capital investment and profit. Architects and Designers have the tools to develop opportunities for communities to live together. It is policy makers and politicians that need to start reading the research and be presented with new concepts to enable them to vision a better way. 

 


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