A History of the High Rise, For Today’s Readers

10.22.2013 | How do you take a complex, complicated notion like “the history of the high-rise and vertical living” and encapsulate it for a modern mass audience? Like this.

Along with providing a comprehensive, informative overview, this New York Times documentary is just plain cool (although I would have preferred prose to the cutesy rhyming scheme). It tells the story of the building form from ancient times to ours, touching on cultural imperatives and technological advances. It’s accompanied by occasionally animated photo images (click to “flip” them for captions) along with periodic opportunities to jump from the main story to “sidebars” exploring specific themes in greater detail.

The piece includes nice touches like noting Robert Moses’ intrusion into New York City’s public housing as a Soviet soldier looks at the ruins of a Berlin building, and obliquely linking Le Corbusier’s “Plain Voisin” with what unfortunately became our built reality.

(Don’t get me started on Le Corbusier. That’s another post; one that would be riddled with non-academic language. Suffice it for now to say that I’m in complete agreement with James Howard Kunstler’s assessment: “Luckily for Paris, the city officials laughed at him every time he came back with the scheme over the next forty years—and Corb was nothing if not a relentless self-promoter. Ironically and tragically, though, the Plan Voisin model was later adopted gleefully by post World War Two American planners, and resulted in such urban monstrosities as the infamous Cabrini Green housing projects of Chicago and scores of things like it around the country.” [Link added.])

Like any human endeavor, high-rises and vertical living are both opportunity and peril.

Among the positives: They are an economically viable and much greener alternative to horizontal sprawl, creating carbon efficiencies that acres of single-family houses cannot. They can create vertical neighborhoods and offer another option for people to “age in place.” They are integral to the entire concept of “transit-oriented development,” which aims to reduce driving by combining higher-density residential with retail uses near transit and train stations.

Among the negatives: They can create vertical ghettos which, as we’ve seen in our recent history, are just as bad as the worst tenement or favela. When combined into “superblocks” they overwhelm and destroy the pedestrian scale, and when mass-produced, they create the visual, soul-crushing sameness found in our subdivisions and strip malls.

While the history of high-rises and vertical living is fascinating in and of itself—well worth exploring—I think the takeaway here is its format: the interactive story. As Mashable noted back in August, the presentation was designed for tablets (and posted at the NYT’s own site this month), which suggests the program is targeted at the people who inhabit the higher end high-rises and, perhaps, designed to make them think about where they live and why.

Another, older example of this approach is this National Geographic site explaining New Urbanism, including links to suggested lesson plans for students from Kindergarten through senior year of high school, should any teacher arrive at this site and decide to begin teaching about his or her region’s built environment (Oh, from my keyboard to God’s inbox!).

Videos like these are great ways to take a complex, complicated subject and make it understandable to a broader audience—one broad enough that, if the notion to change things sinks in, can actually achieve the critical mass required to affect that change.

So. Who out there is ready to start creating the equivalent interactive video for resilience? Or do they already exist? If you know of examples, please let me know; I’ll be quite happy to give them their 2 cents’ worth, too.


Photo / Shaun Wrightson

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