Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
More than a billion people live highrises, but many are now falling into disrepair. A new interactive film project looks at how residents can work together to improve them
The world population hit seven billion last week. To mark the milestone, the United Nations symbolically chose a baby born in the Philippines to draw attention to the pressures that the growing population will exert on the planet. One of these pressures, housing, is the subject of director Katerina Cizek’s innovative new documentary, One Millionth Tower. In it, she focuses on the specific and ubiquitous reality of the highrise: more than one billion of us live in "vertical homes," as she calls them, and many of them are falling into disrepair.
Over the course of two years, residents of a Toronto highrise worked with Cizek and her team to re-imagine the space around their development. First they walked around the property, talking about the hallmark problems of their highrise; afterward, they brainstormed new ideas for the space with the help of architects and animators. What if there was a playground here, instead of an abandoned tennis court? What if we had a garden, or a shared space that connected the residential buildings? Finally, a web developer turned the documentary into a 3-D virtual space online—making it one of the world's first interactive HTML5 documentaries, allowing viewers to scroll around, explore on their own, and control the narrative themselves. This choose-your-own-adventure navigation, Cizek says, is part of the storytelling experience.
One Millionth Tower uses Mozilla’s open-source technology, which, Cizek explains, is a good metaphor for the story itself. “When I first started doing research, I thought of the city as something that happened to me—I’m just an ant that crawls around,” Cizek says. “But as I started talking to more city-dwellers, architects, and people who think about urban studies, I realized that the city is something we all build together. No one owns it, and we all own it.”
One of the key ideas in Cizek’s work has to do with how much the hyper-local says about the hyper-global. So many of the problems facing this one Toronto highrise—dilapidated buildings, little or no community space for children or adults, physical and cultural separation from the downtown core, poor access to social services and shops, poor public transit—are challenges that are faced by highrise communities around the world. “We have a lot of place-less places,” Cizek says. “But people live here. How do we make them more humane, both inside and outside?”
One Millionth Tower is the latest chapter of a larger multi-year documentary project called HIGHRISE. Previous installments include Out My Window, which took audiences on a tour with 13 different apartment dwellers in cities around the world, from Chicago to Beirut to Bangalore, and created a single virtual highrise of their apartments. Viewers can click around and enter 360-degree re-creations of the highrise environments and listen to residents talk about their community, culture, and politics.
The ongoing collaborative aspects, through the amazing interfaces Cizek and her team have created, are surprising and enlightening. The unleashing of imagination through the documentary process can inspire physical change; recently, residents of the Toronto tower won a grant to build a new playground for their community. It’s an illustration of how a good understanding of space and very simple interventions can make a big difference.
“Vertical living keeps you inside your house,” one resident says in the documentary. “This brought us out and got us to interact.”
The One Millionth Tower production officially launches on November 5. See it at http://highrise.nfb.ca/