Death by design
Scottish writer Philip Kerr’s new novel is a futuristic thriller set in a ‘smart’ building which begins systematically to kill its occupants - read it and you’ll never take the lift again. Eddie Gibb talks to the author about his automated office nightmare and (right) looks at the reality of computer controlled buildings.
iven that Philip Kerr says he’s more influenced by movies than contemporary novels. and that the film rights havejust been bought for SI million by production company Working Title with loose change from Four Weddings and a Funeral. it seems reasonable to describe the concept for his new novel Gridiron in Hollywood terms.
The spiel rttns like this: ‘Think The Towering Inferno meets Blade Runner set in a near-future Los Angeles. It’s a disaster movie about a bunch of guys trapped in a hi-tech office block which goes nuts and starts killing them off one by one. Alan Rickman is the autocratic architect who created the Frankenstein’s monster, with Nick Nolte as the tough-guy cop who tries to lead the terrified folks to safety. The budget’s gonna be $40 million and we're going for Ridley Scott to direct.‘
Anyone who has read the Edinburgh-born writer‘s previous books will know that beneath the easy-pitch concepts. Kerr is an author who likes to throw in a few ideas. The last novel A Philosophical Investigation (imagine Sara Paretsky’s private eye V. l. Warshawski in the 21st century) featured a serial killer who spouts Wittgenstein. while the Bernie Gunther trilogy (a Sam Spade character fiat-foots it around pre- war Berlin) explored the casual cruelty of ordinary Germans during the rise of the Third Reich.
While Gridiron can be easily reduced to a film treatment for an action thriller. it would lose much of Kerr‘s accessible musings on a future lived out in computer-controlled environments backed by artificial intelligence that make today’s PCs look like slide rules. Abraham. the omnipotent main-frame that controls every aspect of the skyscraper nicknamed the Gridiron. is a direct descendant of Arthur C. Clarke's talking computer Hal from 200/.
When the computer loses its ‘integrity’ —
programmers‘ jargon for a major corruption of
the operating system — the building becomes a
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‘I started out as someone who was very
hostile to modern architecture - I had a
bit of Prince Charles view - but now I’ve turned into a tan.’
hostile environment for the project management team putting the finishing touches to the interior before handing over to the client. A series of malfunctions at first puzzles. then alarms the people working in the building. When a security guard dies after being tossed around inside a gleaming elevator car like an olive in a giant cocktail shaker. it’s clear there is something far wrong with the building. Kerr says he hopes to do for lift travel what Peter Benchley’s Jaws did for off-shore swimming.
Kerr has become increasingly fascinated with the well-worn sci-ti theme of how man and machine will interact. More unusually. it also questions the role of architects — not often the subject of popular ﬁction — in shaping the way we live our lives. In the novel. the creator of the Gridiron is an international prize-winning architect who has designed some of the world’s most futuristic buildings from New York to Tokyo. The fact that the character has the same initials as Richard Rogers. designer of some of the world’s most futuristic buildings from New York to Tokyo. is. according to the author. ‘completely coincidental’. However Kerr does
__ Rogers and
Norman Foster __ on his thinking
about modern. ‘smart' buildings.
‘l’m interested in the power architects wield when they create buildings.‘ says Kerr. "They have to work with computers more than they used so they become as concerned with what's inside the envelope as outside. They‘ve armed computers with these huge powers so buildings become nothing more than robots. I started out as someone who was very hostile to modern architecture -- I had a bit of Prince (Tharlcs view A- but now I‘ve turned into a fan.‘
(irii/iron is a tecltnology-obsessed book that revels in the details of how things work. though Kerr has no formal science background the studied law but nex er practised). He is tapping into the voguish fascination with science—as- culture which has kept Stephen llawking‘s A Brief/It'siorv of Time on the best-seller list for months and accounts for the success of cyber- magaxine Hired among people who wouldn‘t know a Pentium microprocessor from a Pentel ballpoint. ‘I‘ve felt for a long time that science has got away from at‘tists.‘ says Kerr. "l‘he idea that noVelists can be prophetic is a little far- fetehed. bill they can get a human handle on it. Writers can be reminding scientists of the imaginative possibilities of what they're doing.‘
In part. the inspiration for writing Gridiron catne from Kerr’s wife. a Daily Telegraph journalist who works in that vertical Fleet Street in London’s docklands. the Canary Wharf tower. Kerr has exploited this distrust of a designer-led environment in the novel and combined it with his own fear of having to return to the nine-to— five of office life. The Gridiron building represents this modern dilemma for the late 20th century officer worker: is the security of steady employment in a huge corporation. with all the attendant pensions and promotion prospects. worth the sacrifice of individuality that’s required to sit in front of a flickering computer screen all day?
In Gridiron. the architect‘s team are forced to subjugate their creativity to the tyrannical Rogers‘ grand vision. When project manager Allen Grabel liips under the pressure and does a kind of ‘Logan‘s run’ from the building, it’s a classic sci-ti moment as the maverick tries to beat the system. ‘This comes from my own paranoia about office life thinking, God I’m trapped doing this job 1 hate.’ says Kerr. who quit the London advertising agency he worked in to become a full-time writer in 1989.
Gridiron is about futurist architecture. but it’s undeniably post-modern in style. mixing together popular culture and weird science culled from Carl Sagan books. As Richardson prepares to leap off the edge of the Gridiron attached to a mountaineering rope. he quips: ‘l