Vertical Living: A Short History of the Highrise

Vertical Living: A Short History of the Highrise

Jennifer Hunter
Oct 10, 2013

In cramped urban centers, expanding housing vertically has always been a strategy for accommodating a growing population, but not all high-rises are the luxury, glass-walled condos currently in vogue with sophisticated urbanites. Now, film maker Katerina Cizek focuses on the high-rise and its very long history in a fascinating, interactive Op-Doc, A Short History of the Highrise, for the New York Times.

Don't be fooled by the rhyming narration; this little film packs a lot of information. Narrated by Feist, Katerina herself and Cold Specks, the film also includes interactive features. Clicking below the screen at any time will reveal more photos and facts — powered by the archives of the New York Times.

Each of the three sections of the short film explores different eras in the life of the concept of vertical living, from the dangerous multi-story mud apartments built for Roman plebeians to the first elevator that King Louis XV commissioned to visit his mistress on a separate floor of Versailles, to the mid-century push toward middle-class public housing, and finally our current system of privatized, capitalistic real estate speculation.

In the 20th century, governments began to see that providing safe and affordable housing to growing city populations was one of their responsibilities. New Deal money funded the first concrete high-rises — social housing experiments aimed at the middle class — and this type of housing continued successfully through the mid-century. But as the pre-fab apartments grew shoddier and families retreated to the suburbs due to inner-city crime, the "high-rise honeymoon" came to an end. Urban sprawl neighborhoods became the new middle class stomping grounds, and high-rise buildings fell into disrepair.

Soon, what was supposed to be a tool of social equality became a financial commodity, as the old concrete and steel buildings were replaced by another kind of high-rise: the condominium. Now, the wealthy moved back downtown to reside in new glass towers, built with luxury in mind. But this gentrification also began another trend towards smaller and smaller micro-lofts. These mini-condos, aimed at city-dwellers who couldn't afford the skyrocketing rents, recall the early days of the first vertical tenements for the poor, where dense city populations were squeezed tighter and tighter until the living conditions were unbearable. Are social patterns simply repeating themselves? Are we headed in the same direction?

The film shows us how the high-rise has changed in both function and fashion — beginning as a cheap way to house poor immigrants and transforming into the concept of luxury apartments with lots of stops along the way. It's a captivating retrospective of something we often take for granted.

Watch the film at The New York Times

(Image: Submitted by Briana Bunt to Your Stories of Life in High Rises, New York Times)

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