‘History of the Highrise’ takes viewers through time, around the world

“A Short History of the Highrise” from the New York Times utilizes a combination of different elements to orient viewers with the story. The project’s use of these techniques broadens the audience’s scope of understanding.

This story can be dark. At times, it’s harrowing. We see how, throughout history, people of lesser financial means have been treated.

By using four distinct, but linear, chapters, the reporters use a traditional book style. This breaks the history into thoughtful, digestible pieces. By breaking the story up into chapters, the reporters allow each piece to tell a unique part of the greater whole.

The quality of light changes in the videos to convey time’s passage throughout the series. This helps convey to the audience that this piece is temporal. Viewers realize they are also located in a specific time and place, which they can compare to what they are seeing on the screen. In a particularly powerful scene, we’re inside a house and the narrator talks about the adoption of electricity. The room, via graphic inserts, goes from being dimly lit to brightly spotlighted.

The graphics used keep the lack of native photos from threatening this project’s success. Through the graphics, the audience watches buildings spring up. These serve as a marker for time and make clear its passage. You are struck. You see a city with relatively few buildings and then watch as modern New York City rises up.

A singular aspect of this piece, throughout the first three chapters, is the incorporation of archival photographs. The story is told in part through these photos, which further highlight our passage through time. It’s an incredibly resourceful way to tell a story without actual video footage.


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The New York Times uses archival photos to tell the story and highlight the passage of time.
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Viewers watch as modern New York City springs up.

I truly appreciate the sense of time and place. As we watch the buildings spring up, the narrator talks about a “montage of modern conveniences.” Both the narration and the imagery take the reader on a journey: the development of a city.

Aged photographs and sketches take the audience on a linear journey through the years. We start with a biblical graphic and have text to frame viewers’ minds 2,000 years ago. It’s a successful element that demarcates.

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Historical sketches are used throughout the piece. 
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The photographs help orient the reader to a specific time and place.


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The first three chapters are essentially a video timeline. This is an incredible effective way to tell a story of development. 

The historical components may run parallel to the story of the highrise, setting the ground work that facilitated these modern housing developments. We learn that in 1743 Louis the 15th commissioned an early elevator – to easily visit his mistress, nonetheless. But it’s made clear that the king’s dalliance is important in the larger scheme. Just 200 years ago, the elevator propelled the industrial revolution. These time components are coupled with photographs of immigrants, taking us right to the tenements.

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The highrise comes to prominence about 100 years ago. This is where the historical context, photos, additional graphics and timeline intertwine to really ground the viewer in the story with a sense of time and place.

The year 1884 shows just how crucial the historical images are to the timeline. They take us back. Similarly, when we travel to 1989, we see the Berlin wall. The videos at this point serve as maps of sort – especially at the Wall.

While New York City is the focal point of the piece, the series takes us around the world to really anchor the viewer in historical context. Highrises and these housing developments were going up simultaneously throughout the world. There’s a broader picture that doesn’t start or end with New York City.

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The New York Times takes viewers around the world to put New York City in historical perspective. This still frame shows a clip of the Berlin Wall.

The timeline and world history often work together. For instance, we learn that 700 years ago public housing projects sprang up in Arizona – and a Chinese province. Then, 500 years ago, people in Yemen start living near each other.

It also helps people understand how New York City – and the United States – fit into the grander fullness of the world. We learn about how public housing in the United States compared to – and aligned with – projects in Great Britain, Russia, Vienna and Mexico City. We can understand these housing developments – and the treatment of the poor – were not specific to New York City. In fact, the treatment of immigrants and financially insecure people in New York City mirrored similar movements around the world.

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These still frames show us New York City and similar situations around the world. They help the reader compare and contrast what is happening in the United States with other activities in other countries. 

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9 - horrific living conditions

We learn that in 1968, a highrise in Britain collapsed, killing five. We learn about mass housing in New York City – and see the similarly problematic early legacy throughout the world.


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This video series takes viewers around the world.

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Measuring tools round out the highrise history with more context. As mass housing projects were destroyed, replaced with taller condos to accommodate wealthier buyers, we can see the heights of these living quarters changing. This helps the viewer understand how the former occupants were disenfranchised. We literally watch as their units were razed and then rebuilt outside of their price ranges. Out of the ashes came properties for people who could spend more to live.

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Viewers watch, through a graphic, as the buildings grow taller. 

We then watch a narrative element that features graphics of floor plans shrinking.

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In order to fit more people in a given space, developers turn toward small units. The New York Times uses shrinking floor plan graphics to convey this. 

The final element surprised me. The project comes full circle with reader photos of their homes. We see how important a sense of home is to people. The timeline shows us how different periods affected the spaces people called home. The maps shows us these are common sentiments the world over. A Patrick Watson song titled “Lighthouse” plays throughout the end sequence, again a somewhat jolting – but not bad – feeling. A lighthouse guides sailors home, and this project is meant to guide you to a greater understanding of your home.

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