Short history of Highrise

Katerina Cizek made an interactive video on the historical development of highrise buildings, using the photographic archives of the New York Times.

At a time when Manhattan luxury condos can cost tens of millions of dollars, residential high-rise buildings made of glass have become symbols of gargantuan excess and privilege. But the history of vertical living goes far back in time and extends around the globe — from the biblical Tower of Babel, to Arizona cliff dwellings to the Soviet Khrushchyovka towers.

Katerina Cizek, New York Times


Click the image to go to interactive video

Technopolis (Gazi), Athens

In 2013, the old Gasworks of Athens were reopened as industrial museum. Besides the heritage and educational programs, the complex also functions as a cultural hub and event space: Technopolis. This spring, for example, the Technopolis jazz festival was held here on an open air stage. Today, the area is one of the main nightlife hotspots in Athens.

The gasworks operated from 1862 until 1984. At the time it was the first energy plant in Greece and it had an immense structuring effect on the city’s expansion along the Pireos street and social life around it. Street lighting on coal gas illuminated an increasing part of the city. Gazi, the neighbourhood directly around the factory, became an ethnic and cultural melting pot, fueled by migration of the industrial workers. The unique selling point as an industrial museum is that the whole process of coal gas production can still be seen, from the coal retorts and chimneys to the condensers, purifiers, washer-scrubbers, meters and control rooms.

Beijing 798 art district

China as factory of the world, and the West as hotspot of creativity and consumption. This and many other stereotypes of the 20th century are dissolving rapidly. The 798 Art District in Beijing may be one of the first witnesses of the new China.


After World War 2, Beijing and later also other Chinese cities embarked on massive industrial growth. This brought about interesting collaborations with fellow socialist countries, such as the DDR. German engineers came to the 798 industrial district to build the first electronics factories, using super-light concrete shed structures (involving bamboo!) that form now a unique heritage. From the 1980’s, industries started to move away from (central) Beijing, because of rising labour costs and taxes. The factories of 798 remained vacant until the end of the 1990’s, when Chinese and foreign artist movements started to occupy the industrial spaces, culminating in the 2005 Art Biennale.

From that time, the district has functioned as a magnet for creative companies, art galleries, artists, shops, bars and restaurants, consumers and tourists. The economic succes of 798 is so high, that the first creative companies have already moved out again, in search for cheaper rents and new sites. In other words, incubator sites and gentrification have definitely become part of Chinese urban development in this century. Another example of a creative incubator site is the commercial complex San Li Tun. Both 798 Art District and San Li Tun were analyzed and drawn up in 3 dimensions – using a spectacular parallel projection – by Xu Lei, Li Han and their team.

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Demolishing Morro do Castelo

Rio de Janeiro is well known for its spectacular landscape of beaches and highrise mixed with steep green hills, suchs as Corcovado, Gávea and Pão de Açucar. Today, it is hard to imagine that one of those large hills was radically removed from the skyline about a hundred years ago. In the area of Avenida Rio Branco and Cinelândia, presently the financial and cultural heart of the city, there used to be an enormous hill: Morro do Castelo.

Cinelândia, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: José Maria de Sá

In the early 1920’s the city decided to remove the entire hill and the Jesuit monestary from the 16th century as well as the settlement on top of the hill, in favour of ambitious urban plans. At this time, suitable building space near Rio’s waterfront was already scarce, a problem that persists until today. In less than a decade the hill was literally washed down into the Guanabara bay using sprinklers. The sediment was used to provide new landfills near the waterfront, such as Santos Dumont airport. The humble communities that used to lived on Morro do Castelo spread to occupy other hills in central Rio. This movement can be seen as a precursor of the current favelas.morrodocastelo04

Laundry near the Jesuit monestary, Morro do Castelo (1922)

Sprinklers washing down Morro do Castelo (1927)

New constructions on the site (1930’s)


Devil’s hill, Berlin

January 2014, German chancellor Angela Merkel is publicly not-amused by the news that her cell phone is being monitored by the NSA. The United States and the European countries are in a crisis of confidence. I am in Berlin, about to visit a notorious Cold War relic: the NSA “Abhörgelände” (spying station) on top of the Teufelsberg.tberg1

From S-bahn stop Grunewald it’s a 20 minute walk through the forest. The area, distant from Berlin’s core, was already pointed out as a good site for a meteorological faculty by the nazis. Things developed differently though. In the early 1960’s, the part of Berlin occupied by the allied forces became a walled island within the DDR. Millions of tons of rubble from the war period still had to be carried out of the city. As West-Berlin was a very limited territory, the rubble was piled up in the parks. The Teufelsberg (Devil’s hill) is the highest of Berlin’s rubble hills, 120 meters high. In the 1950’s the intention was to shape the hills into a ski slope (part of the area actually has this function). The Cold War, however, made the area into a tactical outpost for the Americans to spy on the Russians and the countries of the Warsaw Pact.


Few years after the unification of Germany, in the early 1990’s, the complex was sold to a project developer, who wants to build a luxury residential and leisure resort. Until today, the plans have been unsuccesfull because the investments are quite high and the housing units would under the current circumstances be too expensive. In the meantime, squatters have broken in to the complex several times and have destroyed some of the buildings and facade materials. At this moment, an independent association leases the area in order to organize guided tours and grafitti festivals, while protecting the structures from further depredation. I joined one of the two-hour historic storytelling tours. In my group one guy appeared with his drone, to actually film the old NSA spying towers from above – is this the world turned upside-down or what?


Besides the technical and historical information, juicy details were also supplied by the tour guide. For example, that about 7 years ago film director David Lynch tried to buy the premises to turn it into a University for Floating (a meditation technique developed by the Indian guru Yogi in the 1950’s). The plans didn’t go ahead.

Photo by Merten Nefs

Art work inside the main dome of the spying station.

Despite the clear importance to maintain the complex as a Cold War relic for future generations, the strategy of the organization doesn’t totally convince yet. They disapprove of any type of private use and investment, all use should be public (art galleries and studios for example) and all investments should hence come from the tax payers. Just straightforward Berliner activism perhaps, something we’re not used to anymore in the all too pragmatic lowlands. So for the time being things remain temporary and mysterious, also very much in the spirit of Berlin.

Photo by Merten Nefs

View towards Berlin through the tower facade of the spying station, ripped open by squatters.