'A Short History of the 'Highrise'

Feel like visiting a morgue in the days leading up to Halloween? Well, today I visited one thanks to the interactive multimedia series, “A Short History of the Highrise.” The series takes users inside the New York Times’ photo archive known as “The Morgue.” A Short History of the Highrise” is a collaboration between the New York Times’ Op-Docs (the Times’ editorial department’s forum for short, opinionated documentaries) and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).

A first click on the NYT’s website lets users play in “Mud” as Feist narrates a rhyming interactive video that lets users explore the city like a pop-up book. The history of urban dwelling unfolds in a lively archive of still photographs and animation. Users can then explore different elements of the city by clicking into parenthetical rabbit holes that tell additional stories about the vertical landscape. A click following the iconic Dakotas, for example, whisks one from NYC to the Tower of Babel.

“Highrise” writer/director Katerina Cizek, who also directs the NFB HIGHRISE project of which this is a part, narrates the second chapter, “Concrete”. Chapter 2 is an impressive visual study of the social currents that come with changes to the urban landscape. The motion of the pictures creates a sense of the city as a work of progress—and as a source of anxiety and vertigo, which captures the mix of “idealism and destruction” noted within the playful narration.

Part 3, “Glass,” is narrated by singer Cold Specks. “Glass” explores the aesthetic and ideological character of city living. “Urban jungles are made of glass,” she muses, “but what do they conceal?” The inevitable gentrification of cities continues the relationship of idealism and destruction noted in “Concrete,” as luxury condominiums push citizens of the lower class into tiny spaces. But not all vertical living need be such a headache, the story goes.

Finally, “Home” offers a montage of photographs submitted by users cut together in a musical montage that evokes how urban dwellers from around the globe interact with their environment. “A History of the Highrise” is a thoughtful exploration of a city at your fingertips: for all the flaws of the concrete jungle, the photographs pulled from the Morgue show an environment with far more life and energy than any snapshot of suburban sprawl. It’s a game of New York stories, really, as each pop-up window lets users look into a life of the city they might not have considered before. “Highrise” is a tour worth taking (it takes about twenty minutes) as each interactive sequence reveals the character of urban environments that one might not appreciate or grasp simply by admiring the architecture.


The series is now available on the NYT website and will be available on the NFB website in November.
City folk, click away!