2,500-Years Of Vertical Living: A Brief History Of The Urban Highrise

The NY Times and the National Film Board of Canada team-up for immersive series on cities.



Too often chronologies are presented as flat, sequential stories. Timelines tend to exist on just that: a line. But just as we reworked our concept of a flat earth, the series, A Short History of the Highrise, hopes to re-frame our planar conceptualization of history. We come from trees, after all.

As a joint project produced by The New York Times’s Op-Docs and the National Film Board of Canada, the latest part of its ongoing HIGHRISE documentary experiment, the series is an immersive multimedia experience that tours the 2,500-year history of vertical living. Similar to a storybook, it is divided into four films that operate with the elements and feel of chapters. Each short film is optimized for tablet devices as users can swipe and pinch their way through story extras, interactive videos, and micro-games. As NFB senior producer Gerry Flahive puts it, “cinema and interactivity are influencing each other more and more...This collaboration with Op-Docs has given the NFB and The New York Times a chance to further advance online documentary storytelling.” Its accordioned approach to storytelling is also a style that fits a multi-leveled history more appropriately than the static silver screen ever could.

For series director Katerina Cizek, the tablet-first design was a logical extension of her own tactile nature as a documentarian, of wanting “to reach up and put [something] in [her] hand and see where it’s from and investigate it more.” So it was a dream come true when series executive producer and New York Times commissioning editor for Opinion video Jason Spingarn-Koff reached out to the NFB team.

Cizek explains, “about eighteen months ago, Spingarn-Koff...approached my producer, Gerry Flahive, thinking ‘highrise, New York Times, New York City―maybe there’s something there?’ We got to talking and he asked me ‘what are you interested in?,’ and I said, ‘I’ve always been interested in doing something short about the history of the highrise building.’ And so he came up with the idea of sending me down into the morgue.” 

A history of the morgue, the underground bunker where The Times’s stories (and visual archives) are laid to rest, can be found below.


Cizek spent a week in the morgue, combing through 2,000-to-3,000 undigitized photographs. Other than an aim to discover “striking images,” she purposely entered the archives without a clear concept of what the eventual four films would become. She says, “I wanted to let the archival material drive the story. For me, that’s the real definition of a documentary. It’s the material and the people you work with, in this case the photographs, that...shape the story and tell me what it is. I got the inspiration from the archive.”

Though the first three films in the series ("Mud," "Concrete" and "Glass") rely heavily on the archival imagery, the fourth, “Home,” was a public-driven initiative. With the help of The New York Times’s social media team, Cizek put out a call to the paper’s readers for their own personal images of vertical living. 

While residential highrise buildings are certainly the driving theme of the series, and of the larger HIGHRISE experiment, this has always been about the human element. Cizek adds, “ultimately this isn’t a project that’s about buildings, it’s not about architecture, it’s about [the] people who live in and around those buildings.”


Still from “A Short History of the Highrise.” Eddie Hausner/New York Times

So, “it was such a fabulous surprise to go through the 2,000 or so submissions and start seeing patterns...Not only photos but people would write really moving stories to accompany the photographs. Very personal and intimate experiences with vertical living.” It might explain why we also refer to floors as stories.

The human experience can often be ignored in an increasingly urbanized world. Slums and symbiotic apartments aren’t enough to address the inefficiencies of our affinity for gravity-defying structures. “A Short History of the Highrise,” then, is as much about the need to live above the clouds as it is about the issues of social equality rooted in this pursuit. Cizek’s far-reaching hope “is to have people rethink their own citizenship in a city. The story of the highrise is the story of the city and is the story of humanity. The story of how we decide who gets to live where.”

It is a story epic enough for Homer but one that needs a new skin. That is why each film evokes a storybook, with its chapters and rhyming narration, but also why it comes accessorized with intricate animation, interactive elements, and responsive videos—as designed by The Times’s graphics team, under the direction of Cizek and The Times’s Jacqueline Myint.

In this manner, Cizek expects to change how we look at our place in the urban landscape: “We often look at the highrise building and drive by it or ignore it.” If all goes well, perhaps “people [may] look at this unit of the urban form, of the urban fabric, and realize that it is all very illogical. Perhaps they’ll “realize that we all have an important voice in how our cities can be shaped as we become an urban species…[that] we have a choice as citizens to decide whether [they’re] going to be affordable, accessible, sustainable, and healthy places to live. Instead of judging the building from outside, it’s time we understand and learn from the people who live [in] it.”

A trailer for the series is viewable below or at the New York Times website. All four films are also available there. 


Top image: Still from A Short History of the Highrise. Felix Gilbert/due diligence.