It’s the HIGHRISE summer of transformation –  in virtual as well as in physical space. This month, as the HIGHRISE team toils away on computers building our new HTML5 documentary set in a virtual landscape, on the physical HIGHRISE site, there’s also some “real” building going on: new outdoor play-spaces for families and children.

Our HTML5 documentary, One Millionth Tower (formerly known as the 2000th Tower), re-imagines a dilapidated HIGHRISE neighbourhood in a Toronto suburb. But the story and space could be almost anywhere, as global modernist highrise buildings, the most commonly built form of the last century, are aging and falling into disrepair, all over the planet. it’s a hyper-local story with global relevance. (maybe its hyper-glocal?)

In our story, HIGHRISE residents join forces with architects to envision a more human-friendly environment around their vertical homes. Then the magic of animation and cutting edge open-source technology, brings their drawings to life in a virtual 3D space on the web.

Meanwhile, on the ground, at the site of the real HIGHRISE, on which our 3d virtual space is modeled, lots is in the works physically too. It’s all fueled by the momentum of our two current projects there (One Millionth Tower and the recent Digital Citizenship Survey) but mostly by the force of incredibly committed residents, E.R.A. architects, the United Way, the City of Toronto (both Tower Renewal and Children’s Services) as well as the property manager.

Last weekend, all parties got together to construct 6 picnic tables for the site. it’s a small, low-cost but important first step towards transforming the outdoor space around the buildings.

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Architects from ERA join forces with residents to build picnic tables.

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Recently moved in resident Salam Younan, 47, was coming home from a night shift at a local furniture factory, when he saw all the picnic table commotion. He pitched in and stayed most of the day to contribute his carpentry skills. Trained as plumber back home in Iraq, Salam has been living in the building only 2 months, but said “I will do anything to help all the people who live here.” A growing community of Iraqi Christians is moving into the buildings, many are U.N. sponsored refugees.

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Faith, long-time resident and One Millionth Tower collaborator, face-paints during picnic table event.

The mood was jubilant for another reason. The residents have just been granted a brand new playground from the American non-profit, KaBoom. The new playground will be built in a day (August 18th) by hundreds of volunteers from across the city, as well as a team of residents.

KaBoom’s mission, according to their website, is to address “The Play Deficit. Our children are playing less than any previous generation, and this lack of play is causing them profound physical, intellectual, social, and emotional harm. The Play Deficit is an important problem, and it is imperative that we solve it to ensure our children have long, healthy, and happy lives.”

“It’s a gift that’s fallen from the sky,”said Eleanor, a long time resident and social animator at the United Way’s ANC community engagement office, located in the building.

But the residents have been working hard towards this moment. In the last months, they’ve  been mobilizing around the need for a playground. The old playground equipment, nearly 40 years old, was rusting and dangerous.


One of two old playground sites at the highrise.

Two months ago, in an historic meeting between residents and the property manager, everyone agreed to take down the old equipment, and to move towards realizing some of the ideas presented in One Millionth Tower, starting with play-space.

Around that time, we were also conducting the HIGHRISE Digital Citizenship Survey, which revealed astounding statistics about the demographics of the 2 buildings. We discovered that over 50% of the people at the two highrises are under the age of 20. And that 25% are under 10 years of age.

The numbers were telling us what all the residents already knew: hundreds and hundreds of kids with nowhere to play.

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Kids shelter from the heatwave, under a makeshift clubhouse, above the highrise parking lot.

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If all goes well, virtual and physical interventions, all powered by imagination, will change the space in the coming months and years, and perhaps inspire other cities to do the same with their highrises, the most commonly built architectural form in the last century.

One Millionth Tower, an HTML5 documentary set in a virtual landscape, will be launched in the Fall.


image credits:
illustration from One Millionth Tower, by Lillian Chan, Howie Shia and Kelly

picnic table build photo, courtesy United Way

Salam builds a table, by Kat Cizek

Faith facepaints, by Kat Cizek
Old Playground, by Jamie Hogge
Makeshift Clubhouse, by Kat Cizek


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We will soon be launching OUT MY WINDOW: interactive views from the global highrise, our 360-degree documentary.

The interactive work, over a year in the making, will take web-audiences inside 13 highrise apartments, to give an insiders view onto the world through highrise windows. It features stunning photography from 13 apartments, in 13 cities around the world, over 90 minutes of documentary stories, and 3 music videos shot with 360 degree video technology. The work celebrates highrise residents who harness the power of community, art and search for meaning while living in concrete slabs.

Meanwhile, we have gone into development and production of a physical iteration of the work, which would take the form of a large scale projection in gallery spaces. It’s an experiment to see how digital stories (about space) can be translated back into physical space. The spacialization of story. We are working with CFC Media Lab Director Ana Serrano and New Media artists Priam Givord and David Bouchard. In the Fall, we hope to bring on additional New Media Fellows to complete the work.

Last night our team saw a first glimpse of a quarter scale model. Not hard, now, to imagine it life-size, at 10 meters wide and almost 3 meters tall. v. exciting.

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HIGHRISE  has had one last meet-up with YELLOWBIRD 360 Vid Cam – this time in Cuba – for the final music vid shoot of OUT MY WINDOW, our web-doc in production about highrise living.

This time, an even more elaborate choreography and blocking, a custom-built version of a song about the highrise neighborhood, 6 musicians and 3 children as backup singers. Explosive.

The song itself is about a neighbourhood east of Havana, called Alamar, the world’s largest public housing project, with over 100,000 residents in over 1,00 buildings in an area of 15 square km.

The neighbourhood is also the cradle of cubano hiphop.

The performers are a poetry – hiphop – art collective called Omni.

The song progresses from a children’s rhyme, to a Manu Chao-esque folk song, into slam poetry into punked out hiphop. With a new musician appearing every 30 seconds or so. This time, we not only shot for the user, we put the user right in the middle of the action, into the centre of the circle, with great action happening all around in all directions.

We’ve learned tons from each shoot and put it into the crafting of the next: from Amsterdam, to Toronto to Havana. We’ve also learned enormously from our collaborators: the great people at Yellowbird Marc and Fabian, Caspar at IDFA whose been a great advisor along the way, and our partners on the Cuba production, Liz Miller (professor at Concordia U in Montreal) as well as Caridad Cumana, our Film Guru and friend in Havana.

We are now exploring new ways to share the material beyond the web – stay tuned for developments!


The Yellowbird/HIGHRISE 360 video camera team strikes again.

This time, a music video shoot on the 15th floor of a highrise in Toronto, with Amchok Gompo, an incredible Tibetan musician. This is part 2 of our collaboration with Yellowbird on our first web-doc, called Out my Window: Views from the Global Highrise, in which we profile interesting residents living in interesting highrise neighborhoods in several locations around the world.

In Toronto, we did a double shoot, following the YB crew with a “flat video” team. Made for a long day, especially for Amchok. For the YB shoot, it was helpful to have an extra DOP’s advice on lighting, and to have a sound recordist’s expertise to get the right balance of voice, instrument and drums.

The shoot took a long time to set up, because of the strong sun bursting in through the misty window. We compensated with the DOP’s lights in the hallway, to even out the shadows. We also covered the window, and brought the iris down on the camera.

After the sparse 360 shoot Amsterdam (only 2 musicians), I was interested in filling out the room with more searchable activity for the user – and that meant more choreography, especially with children. It took three takes to slow them down from running around like wildfire.

We started out with only two musicians, Amchok, and his friend Victor on an african drum. But about an hour into set-up, I remembered that our sound recordist, Mike, is actually an accomplished Brazilian drummer. We asked him, Amchok and Victor if it would be okay to bring in another drum. Everyone agreed, so Mike dashed home and back for his tambourine (Mike’s home was actually visible from Amchok’s window view!).

The shoot required a lot of art direction – where should Amchok look while singing (into the camera or not? – it seems really unnatural to look into a yellow box). And the choreography of  9 people in a smaller room was complex too. Should everyone move in the same direction? That might seem boring for a user. It was tough to direct, during filming, as I was hiding in the kitchen with 4 other crew, not seeing anything at all during the takes. Then, playback is low-rez, slo-mo, unstitched with no sound on a laptop!

After the YB shoot, one of the flatvideo crew almost lamented: “With this new 360 degree video technology, you don’t need a Director of Photography anymore…”

But to use the technology creatively and well, it actually requires a lot of thought and art direction and coordination, understanding how the user will actually experience the material on-line.

So the takeaway from shoot 2 is definitely: in flat video direction, you shoot for the editor; in 360 you shoot for the user.


A screen grab of our test shoot with dutch new tech company Yellowbird yesterday in suburban Amsterdam. We were testing their 360 camera. It’s like google streetview but video. Its a camera with 5 lenses. With special software, the 5 images are stitched together into a sphere. In the special video player, you can use your mouse click around 360 degrees within the image. check out their demo here)

We filmed with upcoming hiphop artist Zanillya, in the Bijlmermeer apartment she was raised in by her father, the lead singer of Boney M.

The shoot is for our project in production, Out My Window, a web-doc that will feature interesting highrise residents from around the world. Residents will show and tell us what they see out their windows and invite us into their homes. We’ll see views from the global highrise. The site will be built out of photography, audio, text and in a few select places, video. We are testing to see if we can integrate yellowbird’s 360 approach into the project.

Its the first documentary material ever recorded on a 360 camera, as far as we know.

Big shout-outs to Caspar Sonnen of IDFA DocLab for setting us up with YellowBird, Graeme and Brendan of  ERA Architects in Toronto and Gordon Zo Cultuur in Holland for getting us connected in the amazing Bijlmermeer.