Cities

Rooftops Are Having a Moment

Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

How COVID-19 Is Elevating the Profile of Roofs as Urban Space

During New York City’s pandemic lockdown, freelance Brooklyn photographer Jeremy Cohen, 28, observed an increase in what he came to call “rooftop culture.” People were appearing on the roofs of nearby lower buildings to do things like play cello, jump rope, shadowbox, fly a kite, paint a picture, and Facetime. Fascinated by the cameos—neighbors seeking a few minutes of non-vigilant normalcy, in settings marked by silver-coated asphalt rooftops and colorful graffiti—he began shooting clips on his iPhone. Assembling them into a short video scored by a Mac Miller song, Cohen posted it to his social media channels.

Millions of people watched it. Thousands more saw a photo Cohen took of the rooftop double bass player—a guy bundled up on a chilly day, knit cap on his head—when New York magazine used the image for its “Surviving Quarantine” issue cover

Rooftop cricket in Bangladesh. Karate lessons on a Gaza rooftop. A DJ in Manchester spinning tunes from on high as neighbors danced on their own roofs. These were other lockdown moments captured in videos. Such quarantine improvising, and scenes of Italians belting arias from their balconies, inspired a lyric in a song U2’s Bono wrote during Dublin-area lockdown. It formed a refrain: “You can’t touch, but you can sing across rooftops.”

A Long History for an Architectural Feature

Rooftops—open, elevated outdoor spaces­—have appealed to city residents since the start of urban life. Architects in Knossos, Crete, added terraces to rooftops nearly 4,700 years ago. Greenery topped a public building in Roman-era Caesaria, north of today’s Tel Aviv. An 11th-century Persian poet described a grand garden crowning a multistory building in Fustat, Egypt.

And now, in our present pandemic, level, accessible urban roof space has acquired a new kind of appeal. Might COVID-19 catalyze greater architectural focus on rooftops?

“Architects are definitely thinking about how to maximize outdoor space right now,” says design critic Kyle Chayka, who wrote of pandemic influence on architecture for the New Yorker in June. Author of The Longing for Less, a book exploring minimalism in the arts, Chayka adds, “While balconies and backyards are limited, rooftops seem like an underexplored resource, especially in smaller buildings. The rooftop is well-adapted to quarantine, particularly given that groups can only gather outside. It seems particularly good for communal space.”

Pandemic-spurred attention to rooftop environments would only add to an already vibrant rooftop movement. In late 2018, industry chronicler ArchDaily went so far as to declare the “renaissance of rooftop spaces.” The article cites the 9-acre wooded garden topping the Frank Gehry-designed Facebook building in Menlo Park, the 5.4-acre Salesforce Park atop a San Francisco building, and the Pier 17 rooftop concert grounds in harborfront Manhattan.

ROEF—a four-year-old Amsterdam rooftop-advocacy organization—just hosted its annual festival highlighting rooftop possibilities. It partnered with Dutch urban transformation agency Pop-Up City, which last year, in sync with the festival, published a 54-page PDF titled Rooftop Futures. It outlines rooftop potential in areas like urban housing, farming, water collection, energy use, biodiversity, parkland, and reducing the “heat island” effect in cities.

A building should give back the space it takes up on the ground by replacing it with a garden in the sky.

Le Corbusier, architect

A Rooftop Renaissance?

We are seeing high-density cities across the planet explore rooftop uses. Singapore, which imports nearly all its food, is expanding rooftop farming. Paris and Barcelona are looking to the rooftops of public buildings—schools, libraries, museums, metro stations—as development sites for public housing. Toronto, Copenhagen, San Francisco, and New York City have all passed green-roof laws or regulations for new buildings.

Irish architect John O’Reilly, who spent eight years in Manhattan and Tokyo working with award-winning Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, says while it’s true “rooftops have come more to the forefront” thanks to green-roof trends, attention to roof space is “not really a new thing.”

He points out that Swiss-French modern architecture pioneer Le Corbusier included roof gardens as the fifth principle in his five-point architectural manifesto published in 1927—and manifested this green principle in his iconic Villa Savoye house outside Paris.

“Use of roof space was integral to his architecture, including in his public housing. It wasn’t an add-on,” O’Reilly says, before noting: “Good ideas keep coming back.”

Taking Community & Culture to New Heights

One form of flat, easy-access roof space receiving attention these days is the terrain atop urban parking garages. With developments such as driverless vehicles and efforts to encourage “15-minute cities,” where car use is reduced, top firms such as Gensler, UltraBarrio, and The Principle Group in Boston are transforming existing garages and designing more flexible new structures where space can be converted and where multifunctionality is built in.

Principle’s Russell Preston, a prominent urban designer, says now is the time for cities to look at the rooftops of underutilized parking structures as potential outdoor community spaces.

Preston adds: “Our discussion since late March has very much focused on how we, as designers and developers, can help create more high-quality outdoor spaces throughout our work.”

This emphasis follows ten years of experience including roof decks in every multi-family city building his firm has designed. Preston calls these decks “semi-private outdoor space” and believes the connections they foster between residents create a “stronger community at a property.” The ongoing pandemic is only deepening this outdoor-space focus.

And then there are the rooftop improvisations.

When Hamilton, Ontario’s enormous music and arts festival Supercrawl was canceled, festival founder and director Tim Potocic didn’t want to completely throw in the towel for 2020.

His thoughts turned to a little-used sixth-floor rooftop capping a large downtown parking structure. The idea received backing from the mayor and city council. And so, in late September, though it won’t be 250,000 people filling Hamilton streets like last year, there will be a Supercrawl concert series, with multiple shows spanning four days and nights.

For each elevated concert, 100 lucky mask-wearing music lovers, occupying reserved seats two meters apart, on a concrete roof with temporary fencing cordoning what Potocic estimates represents a fifth or sixth of the total space, will get to enjoy live performances again.

Hamilton’s 2013 citizen of the year, Potocic says garage ramps are too low for his production trucks, so there will be a “lot of trips” up and down stairs, in the elevator, and in cars, during setup. He’s excited to “get some culture back in Hamilton”—the roof will also include a visual environment created by an arts collective—and pleased to be able to “put money in the hands of our production people and artists who aren’t working right now.”

“The rooftop gave us an opportunity,” Potocic says. “I didn’t want to squander it.”

Contributor Phil Hanrahan Outdoors

Author of the book Life After Favre, Phil Hanrahan is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor working on a book sharing the story of a pioneering art college in rural Ireland.