Most people around the world know what is a highrise building. They stand incredibly tall, almost majestic as they rise above trees and other buildings around them. Usually they are found in clusters within any given neighborhood. As a result, these highrises dominate the urbanscape. You can see them from far distances, and likewise, you can see afar from these highrises. New York is not New York without it’s famous skyline. Those who can’t afford to live in the heart of New York City, covet locations and pay a premium to have views looking toward the Manhattan skyline.

Living in highrises isn’t always glamorous, and the designs of these building types aren’t always as slick. I recently viewed a wonderful and touching documentary called “Out My Window” which is part of a larger project called Highrise, “…a many-year, many-media collaborative documentary experiment at the National Film Board of Canada, directed by Katerina Cizek.”.

Out My Window is one of the world’s first interactive 360º documentaries. Delivered entirely on the web, it explores the state of our urban planet told by people who look out on the world from highrise windows.

It’s a journey around the globe through the most commonly built form of the last century: the concrete-slab residential tower. Meet remarkable highrise residents who harness the human spirit — and the power of community — to resurrect meaning amid the ruins of modernism.
With more than 90 minutes of material to explore, Out My Window features 49 stories from 13 cities, told in 13 languages, accompanied by a leading-edge music playlist.

The documentary is beautifully executed, and the interactive aspect is flawless. When you launch a story, you will be presented an interior view of the resident’s home in a collage patchwork of photos. You drag one way or the other to view the apartment in 360 degrees and click on some of the elements to reveal a personal detail of their life in the highrise. There is a total of 13 lives that you will learn about. The stories are touching and at times it may be culturally shocking. 

One of the stories that was collected for this documentary really touched me. It was the one located in Chicago, Donna’s story, an African American family living in the “projects”. When you click on their story, the first image you are presented with is their living room decorated for Christmas. The next thing I noticed are the walls, which are CMU and painted white. The lines of the stacked concrete module units are clearly defined despite the whitewash. Her story tells of a dangerous upbringing surrounded by gang fights and random shootings and deaths. The buildings in these projects are supposed to be demolished and replaced with new and better housing for residents that remain in the projects. Sadly, the demolition is moving at a quicker pace than the construction. As a result, the remaining families like the one featured in this documentary gets shuffled around. Another detail that I found absolutely touching is how the family decided to decorate their white CMU walled apartment with red paint. The bedroom was covered with sponged hearts.

Not all highrises are meant for the living. There is a story from an elderly lady, Xuluo, in Tainan, Taiwan who explains where she will live when she passes away, #32 in “the tower”. Her son explains the development of the columbaria, which is due to the changing times and the fact that many grave sites take up a lot of space. He adds that everyone needs a place to live when they die. As a result, building columbaria in place of expanding grave sites makes sense as space will not run out. He also makes a comparison to the architectural trends of the columbaria from older ones, which are in the style of the pagoda to more modern ones, which look like monolithic structures topped off with a pagoda roof.

Many of the buildings featured in the documentary were designed and built by professionals or subsidized by the government. However, there was one story where the highrises started out as squatters having occupyied government land in Istanbul, Turkey as explained by one of the residents, Durdane. She explained that as more and more squatters moved into the area, they built homes one on top of each other. The government eventually brought in services to the residents in ad hoc highrises. Unfortunately, the highrises are not built to hold against an earthquake strike.

As a practitioner of architecture, I was fascinated by how living in highrise buildings impacted the lives of the residents. Despite obvious cultural differences, they shared a common idea of community. They believed that an improvement in their community would in turn improve their lives. I encourage all architects to view at least one of the 13 stories that were documented, and tell me your thoughts of what you viewed.

You can view the interactive documentary here.


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