Interact with The New York Times Four-Part Documentary, “A Short History of the Highrise”

A Short His­to­ry of the High­rise,” a four-part inter­ac­tive New York Times “Op-Doc” reminds me of a pop-up book. The very first lever I pulled (actu­al­ly it was a wood­en buck­et) added a cou­ple of sto­ries to a medieval tow­er! I even snagged a cou­ple of com­pli­men­ta­ry fac­toids about the Tow­er of Babel! Bonus!

The kids are gonna love it!

There are doors to push, scenic post­cards to flip, a lit­tle Roman guy to drag to the right… what a cre­ative use of the Times’ mas­sive pho­to morgue. Direc­tor Kate­ri­na Cizek skit­ters through­out his­to­ry and all over the globe, swing­ing by ancient Rome, Mon­tezu­ma’s Cas­tle cliff dwelling, Chi­na’s Fujian province, 18th cen­tu­ry Europe, and Jacob Riis’ New York. Appar­ent­ly, ver­ti­cal hous­ing is noth­ing new.

( I did find myself won­der­ing what direc­tor Cizek might be angling for at the Dako­ta. The sto­ried apart­ment build­ing was long ago dwarfed by taller addi­tions to New York City’s urban land­scape, but its mul­ti­ple appear­ances in the series indi­cate that it’s still its most desir­able. Mer­ci­ful­ly, none of the inter­ac­tive fea­tures involve John Lennon.)

Would that a sim­i­lar restraint had been exer­cised with regard to nar­ra­tion. I would have glad­ly lis­tened to Pro­fes­sor Miles Glendin­ning, the mass hous­ing schol­ar who lends his exper­tise to the pro­jec­t’s sub­ter­ranean lev­el. Alas, the non-inter­ac­tive por­tion is marred by a bizarre rhyme scheme meant to “evoke a sto­ry­book.” If so, it’s the sort of sto­ry­book no adult (with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of the singer Feist, who was hope­ful­ly paid for her par­tic­i­pa­tion) wants to read aloud. A sam­ple:

Pub­licly spon­sored hous­ing isn’t every­where the diet

Beyond Europe, North Amer­i­ca and the Sovi­et Union, high rise devel­op­ment is ram­pant­ly pri­vate.


Giv­en the lev­el of dis­course, I see no rea­son we were deprived of a rhyme for “phal­lic sym­bol.” Those ani­mat­ed build­ings do reach for the sky.

If it all gets a bit much you can head straight for “Home.” The final install­ment jet­ti­sons the cutesy-boot­sy rhymes in favor of a love­ly tune by Patrick Wat­son, which makes a pleas­ant sound­track to read­er-sup­plied pho­tos of their bal­conies. The images have been arranged the­mat­i­cal­ly — pets, storms, night — and the cumu­la­tive effect is charm­ing. Click “More read­ers’ sto­ries of life in high-ris­es” to read the first-hand accounts that go with these views. If your perch is high enough, you can sub­mit one of your own.

You can watch a video trail­er for “A Short His­to­ry of the High­rise” up top and Part 1 of Cizek’s film below that. But to get the full inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ence you’ll want to head over to the New York Times web site.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Ten Build­ings That Changed Amer­i­ca: Watch the Debut Episode from the New PBS Series

The ABC of Archi­tects: An Ani­mat­ed Flip­book of Famous Archi­tects and Their Best-Known Build­ings

The His­to­ry of West­ern Archi­tec­ture: From Ancient Greece to Roco­co (A Free Online Course)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day has tem­porar­i­ly relo­cat­ed to the ground floor, but she still can bust a rhyme. Fol­low her@AyunHalliday

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