“A Short History of the Highrise” is an interactive documentary that explores the 2,500-year global history of vertical living and issues of social equality in an increasingly urbanized world. The project’s original storytelling technique artfully mixes documentary film, interactive elements, crowd-sourced contributions and historical images from The New York Times photo archive – uniquely redefining our views on how we live together, and even more crucially, why.
After it was released in October 2013, “Highrise” quickly became one of The New York Times’s most discussed and most critically acclaimed interactive projects, visited by more than 500,000 viewers from around the world. The project’s accolades include a Peabody Award, first prize in the World Press Photo Multimedia Contest for Interactive Documentary, the Sheffield Doc/Fest Innovation Award and a premiere at the New York Film Festival.
The style of this interactive documentary evokes a storybook, with rhyming narration (voices include the Grammy winner Feist) and images that come to life with intricate animation. The package comprises four interactive short films and a photo gallery. The first three films, “Mud,” “Concrete” and “Glass,” trace the evolution of vertical living from antiquity through the 20th-century backlash and embrace of the highrise, to the contemporary commodification of urban vertical living. All draw on The Times’s extraordinary visual archives, known as “the morgue,” a repository of between eight and nine million photographs dating back to the mid-19th century, of which only 1 percent have been digitized.
Capitalizing on The Times’s vast global audience, the fourth chapter (“Home”) is entirely made up of images of vertical living submitted by the public. While watching the film, users can click on some photos to read metadata that captured the date, location and backstory of the image. Additionally, there is an ongoing interactive “story wall” that has received thousands of contributions from more than 80 countries so far. Through it, viewers can explore an engrossing gallery offering more than 300 personal stories of urban living.
The supplementary interactive experience woven throughout allows viewers to dig deeper into the project’s themes with archival materials, text and games.