‘Jižák’ featured in novel high-rise web documentary

Czech-Canadian artist’s online documentary offers insight into the lives of high-rise apartment dwellers in 13 cities, including Prague

The initial screen can be rotated, and different elements selcted to bring the viewer to sets of pictures with narrative texts | na serveru Lidovky.cz | aktuální zprávy The initial screen can be rotated, and different elements selcted to bring the viewer to sets of pictures with narrative texts | foto: Česká pozice
The initial screen can be rotated, and different elements selcted to bring the viewer to sets of pictures with narrative texts

While high-rise housing developments now appear all across the world, each has its own unique characteristics. Czech-Canadian artist and filmmaker Katerina Cizek has created an interactive website that lets viewers explore 13 of them. The Prague section includes a quite detailed collection of still pictures tracing the changes in life there since the Velvet Revolution.

A longtime resident of Prague’s Jižní Město neighborhood, Jan Krhovský has been photographing the daily life of the country’s largest prefabricated high-rise project since 2003. What ended up as a massive visual analysis of life at Jižák, as locals call it, began by chance when Krhovský, a geologist at the Ministry of the Environment, was out snapping closeups of wildlife and decided to bring the background —the paneláks— to the fore. 

Tens of thousands photographs later, Krhovský and his daughter Sylva Francová — a freelance photographer, illustrator and graphic designer who also lives at Jižní Město with her two daughters — began searching for themes to connect the pictures and create a detailed portrait of the often neglected middle-class life in vertical suburbia.

“I felt like I was photographing something that’s looked upon with contempt — prefab high-rises, settlement units,” he said. “It’s almost as if it devalues the person taking the picture.”

‘I felt like I was photographing something that’s looked upon with contempt.’

Hoping to challenge the stereotype of the panelák as a cold and heartless concrete tower, Krhovský approached Jižní Město’s minutiae with the eye of a local, not avoiding but not spotlighting the peeling walls and dingy overpasses, revealing a rich world behind the gray façades. Francová works with a similar contrast between the outer monotomy and inner uniqueness even more explicitly in her In Panel project, comprising a series of photographs of inhabitants’ living rooms that juxtapose the individuality of furnishing and the universal cube of a room.

Francová and her father’s story as high-rise residents whose experiences embody the overlooked social layer is told in Cizek’s interactive documentary “Highrise: Out My Window,” which tells 49 stories of what happens in high-rise building across the globe.

The web documentary, which recently garnered an International Digital Emmy nomination, is part of a larger four-year-long project called Highrise, inspired by the National Film Board of Canada’s Challenge for Change program. The program uses film and video production to illuminate social concerns — in this case, a fusion of geographic, political, domestic, personal, emotional and intellectual concerns of the suburban vertical city.

“The perception of high-rises as these humanless, gray, uniform buildings that create uniform, humanless, gray lives behind them is a fallacy that we need to change our perception of as our world urbanizes and our cities become more dense,” said Cizek, who grew up in a 12-story building on the outskirts of Paris, paying regular visits to her relatives in Prague’s Jižní Město during the 1990s.

Picking stories to explore

Combining social innovation and documentary, Cizek uses video collages that can be rotated 360-degrees on computer screen. This allows the web visitor to roam around the different rooms and explore the window views, from Beirut to Sao Paulo to Prague. Some elements outsdie the windows can be clicked on for further exploration. The overlaps and doublings of the hand-built collages of individual high-rise flats leave space for the unspoken, prompting users to make their own interpretations and connections.

“As users navigate through the material in different ways, in their own pace, [with] their own curiosity, I hope that other kinds of things begin to emerge based on the order in which people see the material,” Cizek said. “There are very strong subthemes that start emerging when you start comparing the different experiences — globalization, migration, the search for humanity, art and artistic expression, and how writers and graphic designers, like in Prague, live and spend their entire lives in communities that aren’t considered artistic.”

Clicking on elements of the collage will launch different series of images that have English text appearing to give some details of the life experience of the person who lives in that particular high rise.

By having details trigger stories, Cizek is re-examining an old form of storytelling that is nonlinear. The fragmented, smaller capsules, besides mimicking people’s everyday communication, allow to explore the daily life and the smaller stories that might be overlooked by bigger, heavier narrative structures, she said. Cizek worked with local crews while conducting all of her interviews over Skype, Facebook and e-mail.

The global sprawl

The documentary flows from a year-long research on communities living in high-rise developments, drawing heavily from a collaboration with researchers at Toronto’s City Institute at York University who  have teamed up with colleagues from 12 countries  to investigate the challenges suburbanization poses in a globalizing world.

Roger Keil, the director of City Institute, who heads the seven-year research, said that suburbia needs to be studied in a broader, more inclusive, global way than is so far has been, and not only in relation to the city center, noting that there’s probably more convergence across the entire spread of the urban region.

“We now find some former suburbs are now denser than the inner city; we often find inner city problems such as poverty concentrated in the suburbs, we experience the suburbanization of downtown as gentrification leads to a cleansing of formerly mixed urban uses and creates urban monocultures for an upwardly mobile middle class while the poor are being pushed into other areas in the urban region,” he said.

Compared to some of the social housing projects featured in “Highrise: Out My Window,” the panelák settlements that emerged in the Czech Republic between 1960 and 1990 are not marked by radical, large-scale segregation, said Michal Illner, a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology (SÚ) of the Academy of Sciences of Czech Republic (AV ČR). Although no recent data is available on the changes in composition of the sídliště (high-rise development) communities that account for one-third of the population, Illner said that the trend has been for more affluent people to leave.

Unlike under communism, when flats in prefab high-rises had been the only option for a majority of the population, today, with residential housing projects mushrooming on city outskirts, the panelák lacks prestige for many. The population, Illner said, nevertheless remains diverse, especially with a variety of generations replacing the initially predominant young families.

Krhovský recalls not hesitating when offered a 5+1 panelák flat decades ago, when Jižní Město was only beginning to take shape. Although the sídliště was a muddy construction site at the time, Krhovský and his family felt like they struck a good deal. In fact, a 2001 survey by Prague’s City Development Authority showed 80 percent panelák residents as content with their living situation.

While high-rise communities might lack the ample social variety of the communist-era when they acted as social levelers, social deterioration is unlikely if buildings are regularly tended to and reconstructed, Illner said.

“There is a popular faulty assumption that the social composition of the people living there is deteriorating, but this has not been happening on a large scale, only in singular cases,” Illner said, mentioning working-class-saturated high-rise settlements in West Bohemia and Prague’s Libuš where an influx of the Vietnamese minority has sparked racial tensions.   

Krhovský and his daughter aren’t worried much about the possible decline of Jižní Město, which has been undergoing regeneration since 1997, or bothered by the continuing stigma of the panelák, and would find it hard to move to the constricted spaces of the city center or remote satellite villages. “We’re exotics who live in a place of not much value, and, on top, are boasting about it,” Krhovský said laughing.

Martina Čermáková is a Prague-based freelance writer