Reading the Spectrum of the Global Highrise

by Andrew Wade

The new interactive, web documentary by Canadian filmmaker Katerina Cizek takes the typology of the concrete highrise residential building along the urban periphery, and pursues it in 13 cities around the world.  While the similarities and mirrored monotony of this typology are immediately evident, this is contrasted with the vibrant and delicately personal stories of those that dwell within the buildings, carving out their unique spaces of existence despite their isolation.  Initiated with the idea that "documentary itself can drive or participate in social change rather than just documenting it", the web-based nature of the film works as a collage of perspectives, allowing anyone to become the editor of their own experience in sifting through the project.  In addition to allowing widespread, free access to the film, the web documentary encourages participation in the form of submitted photographs and stories from your own highrise unit, which continuously render new tones of complexity to the project.

As cities continue to expand and urban migration picks up pace, vertical density has become a paramount issue of consideration and critique for architects and planners in the twenty-first century.  With housing shortages pushing the urgent need for highrise residential buildings, they are often designed without sufficient consideration for the nuanced livelihoods and aspirations of their inhabitants.  Katerina Cizek's documentary is a timely reminder that we separate the spatial from the social at our peril. The project wisely ignores a potential division of Global North and Global South, instead sampling stories from residents of diverse cities united by the highrise typology that continues to function as housing for urbanites across the socioeconomic spectrum, encapsulating their individual stories and experiences and offering a chance to take this new blueprint of information as a designer's brief for the next concrete highrise.  As we're lifted from street level to the Nth floor, is it possible that we are less engaged in our cities and becoming mere witnesses of the growing urban spectacle, or does this typology nurture a constructive global kinship of urban living?

Credits: Image of 'Out My Window' from the film's website. Videos of 'Highrise: Out My Window' and 'Highrise' trailers by Katerina Cizek via the National Film Board of Canada.