The towers in the world, the worlds in the towers

Thursday, May 29, 2021

Samara Bissonnette

HIGHRISE. An incredibly modern, collaborative, inspiring digital project connecting voices from high rise buildings all over the world. These big concrete mammoths of architecture are "containers of human experience", and this interactive web documentary allows users to discover "the towers in the world, and the worlds in the towers".

The National Film Board, with an extensive team of researchers, creators, academics, digital artists, volunteers and high rise residents, has made the idea of one Katerina Cizek come to life in a project called Highrise that has successfully challenged and reinvented the language of storytelling.

In this exploration of technology and storytelling, Katerina and her colleagues Deborah Cowen and Kristine Collins spoke to an audience in the Sean O' Sullivan theatre at Brock University about the creative process involved in their project, sharing tantalizing clips of their finished product. While I have seen interactive online websites before, this was something new and exciting that I know I will be sharing with friends and family in the years to come. This unique user-based experience allows teachers, students, and any interested individual to log into the website and explore over ninety minutes of material, including 13 cities and languages, and over 50 stories through in a non-linear manner.

One branch of the project is a piece called "Out My Window", which Katerina took the audience on a little tour of at the beginning of the session. The users drag and scroll through a myriad of pictures and sounds, clicking on stories that they want to listen to and branching off into different stories in different parts of the world. This is a very exciting prospect for teachers, and it has been merited great success in educational settings since it launched, as students enjoy the freedom to explore at their own pace and in whatever order they choose. The stories that are included are all beautiful, inspiring stories, with incredible characters from various cultural, religious, and financial backgrounds.

"The story is not about the architecture or the buildings", Katerina said, "it is about the people and their stories". In this interactive format, we can no longer consider ourselves consumers of the city or the web, but instead we become participants of both. What the team found throughout their research of these high rise buildings, was that all of these people who live in such close proximity to each other, have never spoken to each other and instead exist in an extremely isolated world. This project was conducted to discover who people do connect with when they are not connecting with their neighbours, and they discovered that they connect with technology and religion and family members on the other side of the world. In the end, what Katerina said about the process of finding these stories was that instead of being in a journalism mindset, where if you don't ask the right question you won't get the story, you instead only have to listen. "If you just listen to people, the story will come to you". And the stories indeed, came pouring in for Katerina and her team, providing them with the "worlds in the towers". 

HIGHRISE is a free, open access project where students, teachers, and any interested individual can discover and take their time exploring through the different array of stories.

Visit to discover more! 

The night's presenters and HIGHRISE creators: 

  • Katerina Cizek - HIGHRISE director, National Film Board Partner, twitter: @katciz
  • Deborah Cowen - Department of Geography at University of Toronto, twitter: @debcowen
  • Kristine Collins - director of Education and Institutional Markets at National Film Board, twitter: @longlegscollins