7 Years In The Making, This Documentary Reveals The Untold Stories Of High-Rise Buildings

Filmmaker Katarina Cizek’s experimental project concludes with a chapter on digital lives.

When Katerina Cizek started Highrise—a web-based documentary seven years in the making—she didn’t know exactly what form it would take, only that she wanted to use the coolest technology out there to tell the story. Instead of your standard 180-minute film, Cizek used open-source programs and interactive web features in tandem with traditional photography, video, and narrative storytelling to craft an impressively comprehensive look at the culture and people surrounding one of the most modern building typologies: the residential high-rise.


The chapters in Highrise, which was sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada, include a look at the lives of six residents in one specific Toronto high-rise, a report on high-rise residents spread across globe in 13 cities, an interactive narrative built using the browser-based WebGL 3-D graphics technology, and a feature which originally appeared on the New York Times‘ site. The final installment, The Universe Within, just launched during the first week of June.

Co.Design spoke with Cizek on exploring a new language for documentaries, what the implications of high-rise living are, and the great existential question of how plugged-in our lives should be.

Co.Design: Tell us about the genesis and organization of Highrise.
Katerina Cizek:What’s different about this project than other documentaries is that it wasn’t defined by the form when it started. We didn’t say, “Oh lets make a feature-length documentary” or “Let’s make a film that’s going to show on television.” We knew that there would be many parts, but we didn’t want it to be a series where one piece is just like the last one except different content.


We really wanted to open up and explore different ways of telling stories and because it’s a seven-year project, we didn’t want to define the projects by technologies before the technologies had even come out. The beauty and the freedom of working with the National Film Board of Canada is we had the license to follow technology as it evolved throughout the project. We also followed the content, so these emerging understandings of what our cities are becoming. It was an incredible process for me as a director and a creator to be able to work in that kind of laboratory environment.

How did the storyteling follow emerging technology?
For example, WebGL came on the scene just as we were beginning One Millionth Tower, which is one of the major projects of Highrise. We started a plan for that project but WebGL came along, our creative technologist, Mike Robbins at Helios, came in and said, “I just discovered this really cool thing called WebGL. It allows you to create a 3-D environment directly through your browser through open-source.” We were like, “Wow—let’s change everything and let’s adapt this project using this technology.” We just had that license to do that, which is amazing.

Universe Within, this latest project, had been in the works creatively and editorially for four years, but we didn’t lock into the technology until really late in the game because we wanted to be as flexible and free with whatever was coming out.


How is Universe Within structured?
I wanted to explore the idea of a linear web documentary. How could I create a story that has a beginning, middle, and end? Out My Window, which was the first iteration of Highrise, was this nonlinear almost database of apartments where you could click on any story at any time. I wanted to see how we could guide that a little more. I got really interested in the personalization of experiences online where algorithms are defining and filtering our way through online material. What would those look like as embodied host avatars in a documentary?

When you were creating Highrise, did you have a particular audience in mind? Who do you hope will be impacted by the story?

What we have found over the years with our projects is our first audiences tended to be early adopters of technology. For example, with our WebGL work we had the open-source community come very, very quickly to the project. We saw tweets that said stuff like, “came for the technology, stayed for the story.”


In One Millionth Tower, we wanted to equate the open web with the open city, so there was the idea that we need to be citizens not just of our cities, but also the web. We’re not just consumers of both. I think that really resonated for people, that city building is a lot like web building.

Universe Within is very much about that as well. But I’d say on a global scale, our stories are from around the world, everywhere from Tokyo to Seoul. We have a lot of stories from Africa, which we’re really excited about. Africa is rarely talked about as a vertical place and yet there are booming city-building initiatives going on across Africa. We wanted to equate that city building with web building and our digital lives.

What are the shared characteristics between web building and city building?
There’s a tendency to think that the city is something that happens to you. You walk through the city and it’s the city that you have to conform to, you’re just this little thing that adapts to this big huge structure. There’s a tendency to think about the web that way, too.


The projects are very much about participatory design, participatory building, and participatory inclusion, at least in their most democratic and equalizing and exciting ways. What we’re trying to contribute is this idea that we need to actively participate in maintaining and making sure that these spaces stay equal and democratic.

In the context of the Universe Within and the intersection of the Internet with city building, what were the most touching discoveries?
We were so moved by so many of the stories that we discovered around the globe. At first, our research team said the digital and the vertical sounded pretty dry or difficult to grasp, but in fact they are incredibly emotional stories.

The stakes are high for people. Never have we been so migratory. So many of the people that you meet in the Universe Within have traveled great distances, or even small distances, but are separated from the ones that they love and are using digital technologies in really creative and innovative ways to try and fill that gap. Sometimes it’s satisfying or successful and sometimes it’s not. I think we can all relate to that—that there’s this excitement around how the digital can connect us intimately, socially, and politically yet there is this missing piece. There’s an ennui or a malaise with the realization that now, 20 years into the digital revolution, not all the pieces are here. Something is missing—what are we going to do about it, how can we make sure that we’re not going down the wrong path.


Within the architecture and design community there’s always been an interest in high-rises, whether it’s a solution for mass housing or a way to define a city. Did your perception of high-rises change throughout the course of the documentary?
I appreciate everything we learned from architects about the possibility and the design of the built form, but I’ve also been concerned about the aspirational nature of it—that we project aspirational lifestyles onto these buildings. Then reality sets in on how we live there and who lives there. It becomes another part of the story and that’s what we’ve tried to discuss and talk about in our project.

In terms of my perspective on high-rises, I’m neither pro nor anti high-rise, as people often ask me. They are definitely a necessity of an urbanizing planet. I lived in a newly built modernist high-rise in suburban Paris, France, when I was five years old. I was really afraid then. We were the first family to move in, so it was this totally empty building. I used to have nightmares and I couldn’t stand the sounds in the elevators. It was a really alienating experience for me.

I spent most of my life avoiding high-rises and just trying not to see them. It’s been really humbling to learn from architects, urban planners, and high-rise residents that the edges of our cities—where a lot of these high-rises are and where density is being built around the world—is where the most exciting and the most troubling parts of our cities are. Thats what we need to understand as urban citizens: what’s going on at the edges an in the heights of our high-rises.


What makes it exciting and troubling at the same time?
There’s a lot of exciting culture happening. That’s the one thing that I think is overlooked. There’s a negative stereotype of the suburban high-rise, yet people are living really fulfilling and exciting lives there as well. There’s culture, there’s community, there’s food, there are all sorts of ways that people hack the system and find ways to live meaningful lives.

Here in Toronto when we did our survey of the two buildings on Kipling Avenue, its certainly quite representative I think of most of the 1,189 post-war suburban high-rises that we have in the city. Its residents are mostly people that have not been born in Canada. The statistic was astounding. In our case studies, 97% were not born in Canada, have been here less than five years, have come from all over the world, and have larger families than the Canadian average. You have lots of people living in a small space and people from incredibly educated and resourceful backgrounds. There’s a lot going on and we in Toronto are really missing out on understanding that these neighborhoods have incredible human resources. They’re not connected to the rest of the city through transit or jobs and there’a lot of work to be done to rebuild those connections. I see these communities as huge strengths for our country and our city.

Would you say that when you’re looking at a tower in a city, you’re really looking a global culture within the footprint?
Totally. I find it so fascinating that we can sit in our apartment and connect to the world through a computer. And there’s a wall beside you and there’s somebody else right beside that wall doing the same thing with a totally different constellation of connections. The building is a fantastic kaleidoscope of cultures and experiences and then add on all those networked lives—it’s phenomenally exciting and complicated.


Should we “log off” and get to know those folks around them and create network on the physical place that they’re in right now vs. who they’re able to contact digitally?
Well, that’s the big existential question for all of us, right? How wired are we going to become and how do we negotiate these multiple identities?

There’s a false dichotomy that exists in literature and public discourse of the digital versus the physical. We really we can’t go on talking about it that way. They’re so intrinsically linked now. They’re so mapped out onto each other that we’re constantly negotiating between them. Even when we’re offline, a huge portion of our lives is still online somehow. How do we catch up our thinking around that? They’re very, very difficult questions.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.