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Reach for the skyscraper

Will Wiles

Will Wiles wonders why towers are always cast as the villain in the movies

Aliens invade south London. The manager of a defrauded pension fund plots to rob the man responsible. An elite police unit strikes against the headquarters of a violent drugs gang in a teeming modern city; and much the same thing happens again, but in a far-future dystopia. Monster movie; heist comedy; Indonesian martial arts; sci-fi action derived from a comic strip. Attack the Block, Tower Heist, The Raid and Dredd: four different films released within 18 months of each other, sharing a crucial characteristic. All involve assaults on tower blocks.

Multiplex serendipity of this kind is always interesting – witness the Volcano Summer of 1997, or 2013’s films based on terrorists taking over the White House. But those were Hollywood talking to itself, and could perhaps be traced to a common contaminant in water cooler refills. The quadruple tower trouble bill of 2011-2012 involved film industries on three continents. Was something else going on?

At the heart of The Raid and Dredd is an idea now so familiar that it’s practically quaint: the high-rise block as somehow impervious to policing, and therefore almost destined to become an impregnable hive of scum and villainy. This idea arose as the modernist mass-housing dream began to wilt in the 1960s. It was a form of architectural determinism that was the mirror of the modernists’ ideal of man as a perfectible Modulor ready to be elevated by new surroundings. Starting with Jane Jacobs’s defence of the traditional neighbourhood and climaxing with Alice Coleman’s 1985 report Utopia on Trial, the tower block was blamed for crime, almost to the exclusion of social or economic factors. 

The architect, sad to say, mostly appears on the side of the bad guys

In both films, heavily armed drugs gangs have colonised decaying towers – on a megastructural scale in Dredd – rendering them off-limits to the forces of law and order, who can only triumph in the form of ultraviolent one-man armies. But neither block has simply reverted to dog-eat-dog chaos. More subversively they have their own inner organisation, reflective of the outer social order: kingpins in the penthouse, descending layers of henchmen, mooks and grunts beneath. They even have a perverse community spirit as they unite to repel their invaders. But the idea that policemen struggle when they have to go up in the lift affects Park Avenue as well, as seen in Tower Heist. Amoral Wall Street fraudster Alan Alda occupies the penthouse of a security-infested condominium building, apparently untouchable. Building manager Ben Stiller, unable to recover his employees’ looted pensions by legal means, plans an elaborate robbery to make things right. His superior knowledge of the building’s layout and its inner rhythms gives him the advantage over Alda and the FBI. Here may be the clue as to why the tower is so associated with the fortress – it’s to do with the rigours of its internal circulation: the lift shaft is the drawbridge of our time. The heroic protagonists of the tower-assault mini-genre could be taken as staging a violent dérive against the proscribed patterns of the architect, who, sad to say, mostly appears on the side of the bad guys. Hence the preoccupation with shafts and ducts, and occasional explosive remodelling through solid walls. 

Which makes Attack the Block a pleasing exception to the rule: it’s the only one of the four told from the point of view of a tower’s defenders, behoodied south London youths, who find toothy aliens falling from above to menace their streets in the sky. Again, superior knowledge of the terrain carries the day, as they band together with other residents they have hitherto themselves menaced. It’s precisely this kind of unexpected use of the layout that so worried Coleman and her ilk. And Attack the Block has unexpected poignancy, as it was shot in part on the doomed Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle. Regenerators have achieved what the aliens could not. 

Brutal truth

Ballard had his own explanation for how the tower block became the modern analogue of the fortress. Following in the footsteps of French theorist Paul Virilio, he saw the germ of post-war building in defences erected by the Nazis along the Atlantic coast, ‘concrete tombs whose dark ghosts haunted the brutalist architecture so popular in Britain in the 1950s’. He suspected that catastrophe was etched into their form: ‘I sometimes think that social catastrophe was what the dirt-poor residents secretly longed for.’