The High Life

TEXT Javier Zeller

Since 2009, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and director Katherine Cizek have been building a documentary juggernaut with their interactive website Highrise. From a base of the documentaries Out My Window and the Digital Emmy Award-winner One Millionth Tower, the Highrise site has been steadily gathering material and making partnerships in a five-year project to create a wide-ranging chronicle of life in the vertical suburbs. 

Concrete towers, found on the outskirts of cities throughout Canada and the world, are places which have, for the most part, outlived the utopian impulses that brought them into being. They are a kind of universal but unacknowledged vernacular, often the first stepping stone for immigrants to this country. My family lived in this kind of tower development on the edge of the town of Oakville in the first few years after arriving to Canada from Chile. Until Highrise, I hadn’t seen much in the media addressing that kind of experience directly.

The documentaries that comprise Highrise combine histories of the slab-tower building form with personal narratives of people who call them home. At its most effective, Highrise creates a framework for voices, experiences and music of tower dwellers from around the world. The residents’ own stories shine as the core of the project; they are what invite repeated visits.

In one of the site’s key components, the documentary One Millionth Tower, interviews are interspersed with animated sequences that reimagine the future of one such neighbourhood in Toronto. Drawn in a friendly shimmering style like Japanese anime, these clips showcase interventions intended to animate the ground floors and parking lots at the base of the towers. The web interface itself evokes the spatial qualities of the neighbourhood: tower forms are arranged to create a three-dimensional space that the viewer navigates through, setting chapter-like stories into motion. 

Initially, this makes for exciting interaction, but the kinetic effects eventually begin to wear thin. Part of the reason for this shortfall is the design of the digital world itself. The virtual area one inhabits in One Millionth Tower perhaps resembles too closely some of the less lovely qualities of public space in these neighbourhoods. It is not a stretch to call the digital space cool and impersonal–closer in character to J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel Highrise than the site’s creators may have intended. 

The focus on vertical living captured in the NFB’s web project reflects an evolving understanding of the invisible metropolis contained in these concrete towers. Toronto architect Graeme Stewart, whose work features prominently in Highrise, has long made a persuasive case that the suburban metropolis emerged fully formed a generation ago, and it remained invisible only as a consequence of our unwillingness to acknowledge it. Highrise presents us with a metropolitan nation, not just an urban one. It confronts us with how we live and have lived for decades, no longer hewers of wood and drawers of water so much as riders of elevators and users of shared laundry rooms. With Highrise, the NFB makes visible the residents of this uniquely contemporary city–with commonalities that cross countries and continents.

Highrise is poised to leap into a broader cultural conversation later in 2013, when the site launches three new documentaries in partnership with The New York Times, which recently nabbed a Pulitzer and a Peabody for its interactive online feature story Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. It’s not hard to see why the Times and the NFB are natural partners. Highrise, with its multi-year timeframe and non-linear structure, provides a compelling and unconventional narrative. The integration of content from an array of source materials creates a breadth and depth that would be resource-intensive to assemble using more traditional documentary techniques. As the site continues to unfold with evermore content and contributors, it has the potential to dissolve the structure of the documentary and come to resemble a community room for sharing the stories of vertical suburbs across the world. CA

Javier Zeller is an architect working in Toronto with Diamond Schmitt Architects. The Highrise website can be accessed at